Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense is the latest book by Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. He asks and answers three big questions: Why should we bother to ponder God’s existence? What can we know about God and his ways? And how should we respond to this knowledge? Put another way, the book is about the case for God, the revelation of God, and the worship of God.
Early reviews classified Simply Christian in the genre of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and John Stott’s Basic Christianity. (Curiously, all three are British, as my friend Diana pointed out. Can someone remind me of an American representative of this genre?) But what makes it stand out from that crowd is the updated approach. Wright’s style is thoroughly modern, conversational but elegant—you could put it straight into the hands of an agnostic college student or a woman embittered by her church’s indifference to her abusive home, and immediately have their attention. In contrast to the bombast and fear that characterizes so much public discussion today, Wright communicates a deep respect for all human beings, including followers of the philosophies he writes to dispel. The reader is compelled to respond in kind by considering his point of view. “Faith can’t be forced,” he acknowledges, “but unfaith can be challenged” (114).
In part one, Wright argues that our human longing for justice, quest for spirituality, hunger for relationships, and delight in beauty are “echoes of a voice” that speaks of a reality much larger than ourselves. Why are we outraged by genocide and moved by compassion at the AIDS epidemic in Africa? How do we know that it’s wrong to dump chemical waste in a valley stream? Why is it that we know what we ought to do, but often don’t do it? Why does every culture have some kind of religion? Why do we seek relationships but struggle against them? Wright calls us to think honestly about where these innate principles come from and consider the possibility that the answer is the Christian God.
OK, but just what exactly is this God? In part two, Wright says that to speak of God is something like staring at the sun: we just don’t have the natural equipment to do it fully without damaging something. “[God] is his own category, not part of a larger one. That is why we can’t expect to mount a ladder of arguments from our world and end up in his, any more than we might expect to mount a ladder of moral achievement and end up making ourselves good enough to stand in his presence” (67).
But there is a good bit we can know from the written record he provided, Wright says. Thus he proceeds on a rapid survey of Old and New Testament themes. The experience is something like a 3-hour bus tour of Chicago narrated by a native: you know there is more to the city than the Sears Tower and the Hancock building and Orchestra Hall and the Art Institute and Oak Street Beach and the old water tower and the brownstone where Hemingway was born, but the benefit of the tour is that by the end, you have the lay of the land and a starting point for exploring on foot. Wright describes the Abrahamic covenant, Isaiah’s suffering servant, the hypostatic union, biblical inspiration and canon—but he does it without all that jargon and in a manner that prompts the interested reader to dig deeper for more (and the afterword includes recommended books to help them do that). When it’s all said and done, “Christianity is all about the belief that the living God, in fulfillment of his promises and as the climax of the story of Israel, has accomplished all this—the finding, the saving, the giving of new life—in Jesus. He has done it” (92).
So what? Well, we all want to know who we are and why we exist, Wright says. What does it mean to be human? He defines sin as “missing the mark, failing to hit the target of complete, genuine, glorious humanness” (209). But “because you were made in God’s image, worship makes you more truly human. When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow. You discover more of what it means to be fully alive” (148). This love and gratitude, the only reasonable response to God, is a fully human life, a new life, Wright explains in part three.
New life must include worship, prayer, meditation on Scripture, community with other worshippers. Over several chapters, he lays out the framework of true worship and the sacramental life of the church.
[And there is a message here for Christians warring over worship styles or juice vs. wine or Sunday School curriculum options:
The rest is footnotes, temperament, tradition, and—let’s face it—individual likes and dislikes (which is what I call them when they’re mine) and irrational prejudices (which is what I call them when they’re yours). And at that point the two great commands in the Law (loving God, loving our neighbor) ought to remind us what to do (157).]
Our divinely-appointed task as human beings is to act as agents of God’s world. Christianity should and does generate justice advocacy; a new, non-exploitive way of relating to others; and celebration of our task via creative engagement with the arts. Christianity is the reason for, as well as the means by which we respond to, those “echoes of a voice” acknowledged in the first pages of the book.
And for those who accept God but have a harder time with his followers, Wright admits sadly but honestly to the innumerable failures of Christians throughout history to live up to the one whose name they claim. That is, after all, why Christians continue to pray, as Jesus taught us, that God will “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Grace must be extended and received by all parties. We must see existence through new eyes:
The way to make sense of it all is to look ahead. Look to the coming time when the earth shall be filled with the knowledge and glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea; and then live in the present in the light of that promise, sure that it will come fully true because it was already fulfilled when God did for Jesus at Easter what he is going to do for the whole of creation (236).
Simply Christian is erudite but not academic, simple but not dismissive. And it is thoroughly orthodox, insisting on the humanity and deity of Christ and the resurrection. The primary audience is college-educated, socially-active 20- and 30-somethings, who are either seeking answers to existential questions or recent converts just starting to re-shape their worldview according to Scripture. But “old” Christians will appreciate the fresh reminders of why they believed and what they are supposed to be doing about it. Just as importantly, they will also be introduced to a younger generation’s new forms of old questions, crucial for relevant ministry.