The retired Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright is highly regarded in educated conservative Christian circles, lauded by Catholics and Protestants alike (such as Tim Keller, whose work I’ve reviewed previously). Wright’s work as a scholar and popularizer of Christianity evokes the legacy of C. S. Lewis, another Anglican who cast a long shadow on the American evangelical community, in particular. His opinions on sexual ethics in the Church (especially the acceptance of homosexuality) has placed him more than once in the middle of cultural conflicts, and he has defended his conservative views with vigor. His writings for the lay Christian audience have sought to make a convincing argument for his conservative beliefs, without sacrificing the theological weight of their implications.
In his book, “Simply Christian,” Bishop Wright seeks to create an abstract of sorts, which the unsophisticated but earnest Christian may use as a framework for her beliefs until further details are accessible, and which the curious unbeliever may approach for a rough but comprehensible sketch of the religion which has dominated Western thought and culture for the past two millennia. That being said, Wright readily admits that this work can in no way be taken as a comprehensive assessment of the Christian faith; it is no exercise in systematic theology.
What Wright has clearly not anticipated, however, is the wondering gaze of the Christian apostate. One might similarly experience some level of bemusement at reading the realtor’s description of one’s former domicile. “Convenient parking, breathtaking views, and new appliances,” reads the sales notice. Ah, but not mentioned are the faulty plumbing in the guest bathroom, the pervasive weeds in the ill-tended garden, and the HVAC system one or two seasons away from shutdown. There’s a reason the former tenant abandoned the premises, after all, but Wright seems blissfully unaware (or unconcerned) about such readers.
Like C. S. Lewis before him (whose model he clearly emulates), Wright also makes every effort to ecumenize his portrait of Christianity. As he says, “the book isn’t ‘Anglican,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant,’ or ‘Orthodox,’ but simply Christian.” Though attempting anything else would make the book a complicated mess, I worry that Wright with a wave of his hand brushes aside too many of the differences between the various forms of Christianity. The variances between Protestants and Catholics are not trivial, neither in their experiences of the faith nor in the particulars of their respective theologies. Further, the intense and continuous fracturing of the Christian tradition is an important consideration for anyone interested in exploring the religion, believer and unbeliever alike.
Bishop Wright builds his case for Christianity carefully, progressively, and with the practiced technique of someone who has been enthusiastically engaged in the evangelism of his faith for decades. Yet the bricks he uses are mortared with generous assumptions, not wholly inappropriate given his assumed audience, but taken without proof by the author nonetheless. Assumptions like the objective nature of moral claims, the existence of the immaterial supernatural, and the impossibility of beauty and complexity to exist in a purely materialistic world. Many times also, Wright stops himself from making overt assumptions, but merely raises a question and considers the various responses, before moving forward taking for granted that the explanation which best points the way to God and Christianity should be taken as the assumed conclusion.
For example, Wright attempts an entire chapter outlining the Christian conception of the deity, without actually explaining why Christians are Theists in the first place, nor why they have decided that the ancient semitic god Yahweh is their God the Father. Similarly, later in the book he brushes past the most central and integral doctrine about the nature of the Christian god, Trinitarianism:
“The church’s official “doctrine of the Trinity” wasn’t fully formulated until three or four centuries after the time of Paul. Yet when the later theologians eventually worked it all through, it turned out to consist, in effect, of detailed footnotes to Paul, John, Hebrews, and the other New Testament books, with explanations designed to help later generations grasp what was already there in principle in the earliest writings.”
This is, quite simply, promoting theological poverty among Christians. I can’t imagine how Bishop Wright (or his publishers) were able to to pass this off, but he continues:
“Indeed, some have suggested that one way of understanding the Spirit is to see the Spirit as the personal love which the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father.”
Not the Spirit as Person, but the Spirit as “personal love.” I’ll grant that it’s a pretty thought, but the good Bishop travels too close to Binitarianism with this kind of talk. After this, Wright encourages his readers to celebrate the “divine Trinity” doctrine as fact, but one wonders if any reader has any better sense of this core doctrine (or indeed, Wright himself) after completing his book.
Wright’s rationale when it comes to his assumptions about sex and gender are similarly opaque. He seems to have no understanding of the sociological relationship between the two concepts, how fluid they have always been throughout human society, and indeed the mixed messages of the Bible with regard to human relationships. Instead, he appears to insist on precisely the kind of inflexible, undeviating, restrictive view of sex and gender that his generation of Christians grew up with, unaware (or uncaring) that this is precisely the kind of attitude that younger Christians are objecting to, and which has already succeeded in alienating many of this generation, if not outright evacuating them.
“At one end of the scale, some people try to pretend that for all practical purposes their gender is irrelevant, as though they were in fact neuter. At the other end, some people are always sizing others up as potential sexual partners, even if only in imagination. And, again, we know in our bones that both of these are distortions of reality.”
“Today’s parents, however impeccable their idealistic credentials, have discovered that most little boys like playing with guns and cars, and that a remarkable number of little girls like playing with dolls, dressing them up and nursing them.”
“The trouble is that the modern world, like much of the ancient one, has come to regard what is sometimes called an active sex life as not only the norm but something nobody in his or her right mind does without.”
However, for all these missteps, Wright does do justice to his explanation of the Bible and its composition. His conservative conclusions regarding authorship and historicity are fully on display, but his summary of the “Book God Breathed” is a fair account that is likely to surprise with new information the average “pew potato” Christian who only follows along with her pastor during the Sunday sermon. Likewise, his distinction between inerrancy and infallibility is made with a subtle yet careful assuredness that would likely assuage the most conservative and the most liberal readers, alike.
Where Wright succeeds best is in making plain the contrast between three different forms of god-belief, and how they might lead to different interpretations of Christian history. These are Pantheism, the belief in a god which is unified with the Cosmos throughout the fabric of space-time; Deism, the belief in a god which is separated from the Cosmos (though the Creator of it) and does not operate in space-time; and Theism, the belief in a god which intersects with the Cosmos at various points in space-time. Christianity, as a form of Theism, is put forward by Wright as the most satisfying explanation for various phenomena, such as the complex beauty of nature, as well as the particular themes and implications of Biblical stories.
This is a significant success for Wright because the popularity of Theism is on the wane, even among some Christians. The implications of a personal deity, as well as of the theological, behavioral, and cultural implications of Christianity’s truth are dulled significantly if God is not personally present and active in our world. A Pantheistic or Deistic interpretation of Christianity helps avoid some of the most troubling issues with their faith with which many Christians simply don’t want to engage. An absentee god cannot condemn, cannot distinguish between believer and heathen, and thus must provide for some kind of universal salvation or risk moral irrelevancy. An impersonal god cannot intervene to save a baby from being drowned in a flash flood, cannot stand between a young child and a diagnosis of terminal cancer. It is important for Wright to make the case that to be a consistent Christian requires a clear acceptance of Theism, and I believe that he manages this task.
Yet for all his promotion of Christianity, Bishop Wright takes an opportunity to criticize the modern church as someplace that for many “carr[ies] the overtones of large, dark buildings, pompous religious pronouncements, false solemnity, and rank hypocrisy.” And in his description of the best aspects of church, I feel that we can find some agreement:
“It’s a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life. It’s where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup and the elderly stop by for a chat. It’s where one group is working to help drug addicts and another is campaigning for global justice.”
I’ll see you in that church on Sunday, Bishop.