Book Review: N. T. Wright: Simply Good News

by Glenn on May 31, 2015

I am an N. T. Wright fan. He is impossibly prolific and has forgotten more than I will ever know of the Bible and theology. I have found his books helpful and encouraging, specifically, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, The Lord and His Prayer, and a couple of his New Testament commentaries.

For someone who wants to discover N. T. Wright for the first time, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes It Good is a great place to start. It reads a bit like a survey of themes from his many books, so if you start with this one you can find out which theme to pursue in depth in one of his others.

Be prepared to be overwhelmed by his erudition but encouraged by his warmth. He doesn’t want to be divisive even as he puts a stake in the ground for some key ideas he would like to see spread. The gospel is for all people at all times and in all places and I appreciate that Wright places our time in an historical context but writes to be accessible by anyone in this time. In other words, I don’t know what it would be like to be from a non-Western/non-North American culture and read this book, but as I read I don’t find myself thinking, “Well, this is great for a 21st Century American, but I wonder what a Christian living in sub-Saharan Africa or China will think?”

One of the things Wright is trying to do is provide an apologetic for our time. He is an incredible scholar and I appreciate that he takes his specialized academic learning and attempts to communicate to a wider audience. He addresses a number of questions important to Christians or those examing the Christian faith (though answering none to any great depth). For example, “Can We Trust The Gospels?” and the answer is a resounding yes. “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” Absolutely. Wright maintains that without the resurrection of Jesus “it is straightforwardly impossible to explain the rise of early Christianity at all.”

For those returning to N. T. Wright after reading his other books, what feels like a lack of new material could be a little disappointing. It made me wonder about the provenance of this book. Simply Good News is dedicated to two couples who are mentioned in the acknowledgments as beginning new ministries. Because I tend to read into things more than is there, I wondered if perhaps this book was written for the purpose of supporting these new ministries. So that rather than Wright realizing he had something new to say and so he wrote a book, he needed to write a new book and turned to his previous writings as he looked for something to say.

C.S. Lewis begins Book Four of Mere Christianity with this indictment:

“If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance.”

It’s a great quote. I’ve heard preachers echo it: “The gospel is good news, not good advice.”

T. Wright picks up this language and repeats it over and over and over and over. This is the one thing I really did not like about Simply Good News.

1. “In many churches the good news has subtly changed into good advice …” [p. 4]

2. “This is advice, not news.
The whole point of advice is to make you do something to get a desired result. Now there’s nothing wrong with good advice. We all need it. But it isn’t the same thing as news.” [p. 4]

3. “In other words, while some Christian teachers have exchanged good news for good advice, others have preserved the gospel as news, but they are telling a different story from what the New Testament authors meant by good news.” [p. 5]

4. “My main point, then, is that the Christian message is about good news, not good advice.” [p. 5]

5. “… that message often comes across not in terms of news (an announcement of something that has happened) but in terms of advice (guidance on what we must do.) The good advice sounds like this …” [p. 6]

6. “[M]any people today assume that Christianity is one or more of these things—a religion, a moral system, a philosophy. In other words, they assume that Christianity is about advice.” [p. 16]

7. “The good news that Jesus announced, like the good news that his first followers announced about him, was not a piece of advice, however good.” [p. 17]

8. “If you mention the Christian good news, most people today imagine that you’re talking about an option you might like to take up if you feel so inclined. A piece of advice.” [p. 19]

9. “Jesus … was not about an option you might wish to take up. It wasn’t a piece of advice about something you might or might not wish to do. It was news.” [p. 20]

10. “That was why Paul was not simply offering people advice about a new religion. He was offering good news …” [p. 22]

11. “Most of these figures are evaluated in terms of the quality of advice they gave. Should we listen to this advice or not? … But the idea of good news poses a different sort of challenge.” [p. 35]

12. “These alternatives are also well known in our day. Jesus set his face against both of them. They constitute advice, not news.” [p. 39]

13. “Something more like advice than news.” [p. 43]

14. “Without Easter, in fact, the movement that came into existence around Jesus would not have been about good news. At most, it would have been about good advice.” [p. 47]

15. “The church needs to recover its nerve and talk about the good news once more as good news, not good advice …” [p. 125]

16. “When the good news collapses into good advice …” [p. 126]

17. “The problem was precisely that such teachers were translating the unique announcement of Jesus—the good news—into a fine-sounding ideal, that is, into good advice yet again.” [p. 168]

On the sixth use of this idea, I wrote in the margin, “I guess we’re going to hammer this home.” I had no idea how much hammering would follow. I like the idea of framing an issue, to say, “I’m going to be talking about this but not that,” but there is so much foundation laying that I was eager to see a building go up.

I’ve found the books I’ve read by N. T. Wright to be enormously insightful. This one was odd for me. I guess I felt like it should either be much longer or much shorter. It feels like a great sermon (or lecture series) that got stretched to make a book, but not sufficiently reinforced to make a great one. A number of doors are opened over the course of 170 pages, but they are quickly closed. But had Wright expanded some of those ideas, he would have been recapitulating other works.

The best part of Simply Good News is that it gets better. The last chapter (“Praying the Good News”), especially, I think is phenomenal. It’s great when a book finishes on such a high note.

Wright takes on two difficult challenges in this book:

The first challenge is to set the Christian world straight about answering the question, “What happens when we die?” He has noticed that in the Church world we say something that, from his perspective, isn’t quite true, or at least isn’t the whole truth. We see this best in the way we answer the question, “What happens when a believer in Jesus dies?” The normal answer: “They go to heaven.” This is often how the gospel is presented: “Accept Jesus so that when you die you can go to Heaven.” I heard words very close to those in the East Sunday morning sermon.

Wright wants Christians not to take a “Beam me up, Scotty,” (not Wright’s terminology) approach to this world. God is not abandoning this world and we shouldn’t, either. But it’s complicated and I admire Wright’s intellectual humility. Do believers go to Heaven when they die? Well, we know that “Absent from the body is present with the Lord” and that Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” But what next?

The Bible speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. And so Wright refers (especially in Simply Christian, if I recall correctly) to “life after life after death.” He maintains God has plans for this earth. But as he attempts to correct what he perceives is an error in the way church people speak about the afterlife, in doing so he has a big problem—he doesn’t quite know the right answer, he just knows what is a wrong answer.

He is not saying, “You’ve been told the answer is 2, but really it’s 3.” He is saying something more like, “You’ve been told the answer is 2. That may be part of the answer, but it’s not the primary answer. No one knows the complete answer. The answer’s not really 2 and I’m not sure what the answer is.” This seems like a tough sell: “I don’t know what’s right, but I know you’re wrong”—but, as I said, I do like his intellectual humility about things that we just don’t know.

The second challenge Wright takes on is to explain the atonement: Why did Jesus have to die?

For Wright, the death of Jesus was not about God punishing Jesus. Early in the book, he quotes Paul in Romans 8:3, “God sent his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin-offering; and right there in the flesh he condemned sin,” (emphasis added by Wright) and then notes “though Paul very clearly sees Jesus’s death here as both penal (this was a judicial sentence) and substitutionary (Jesus dies, therefore we do not die), he does not say that God punished Jesus.”

Later, Wright returns to this idea, and offers this observation:

“[T]he church has latched onto a way of speaking about the gospel that goes like this: you are a sinner, derserving death; Jesus died in your place; therefore believe in him, and you’ll go to heaven after all. This can be shortened even further to something like, Jesus took my punishment. This assumes, first, that I desrved it, and second, that because Jesus took my punishment I therefore go free. There are many churches in which preaching the gospel means little more than repeating, explaining, and illustrating this statement.”

My eyebrows went up when I read that sentence which begins, “This assumes, first, that I deserved it …,” because then Wright follows with, “Just to be clear, this theme (Jesus dying in my place) is indeed prominent in the Bible.” At this point, things get a little fuzzy for me. I wish Wright would have said something like, “Jesus had to die because …” (It’s possible he did and I missed it.) Instead he offers a critique of how “the church” explains the atonement.

He writes,

“Most people who regard the statement that Jesus died in your place as the center of the gospel place this truth, this beautiful fragment, into a larger story that goes like this. There is a God, and this God is angry with humans because of their sin. This God has the right, the duty, and the desire to punish us all, If we did but know it, we are all heading for an eternal torment in hell. But this angry God has decided to vent his fury on someone else instead—someone who happens to be completely innocent. Indeed, it is his very own so! His wrath is therefore quenched, and we no longer face that terrible destiny. All we have to do is to believe this story and we will be safe.”

It feels like Wright is offering a caricature of how the gospel is presented. But, then, of this view he writes, “It is not completely wrong.” He says, though, “it is deeply misleading” and needs to be placed in the correct context of “the double narrative of creation and covenant” and “a God of love—utter, self-giving, merciful, reconciling, healing, restorative love.”

A couple of thoughts. First, the question of why Jesus had to die is a hard one to answer. On my “to read” shelf of books is one called The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. The fact that there is such a book (and others like it) tells me it’s difficult to explain the atonement. It was interesting to be reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity concurrently with Simply Good News. Lewis is pretty careful on the subject of the atonement to say words, in effect, “Here’s how I explain it, but this is a tough subject and if this explanation is no help, then ignore it.”

Second, the Hebrew Scriptures do, at times, seem to present a God who is angry and deals with sinful people in a terminal sort of way. The story of Noah and his ark, which was the subject of last Sunday’s sermon, comes to mind. Of the covenant, he writes that God is “calling the Israelites to be his people, undertaking to rescue them through trials and troubles all the way through their history to the sending of the Messiah.” Is it possible that Wright glosses over some things? He wants to add nuance to how the church presents the gospel, but his view of Israelite history doesn’t seem to offer much complexity. The rescue of the Israelites from slavery included the death of Egyptians. Faithless Israelites were destroyed in the desert. The Israelite nation eventually was allowed to be overrun

Wright’s explanation of the atonement left me feeling a little confused—sort of like a theological “whack-a-mole,” “It’s not that, well, it is that, but that is not all. It’s true, but not the whole truth.” I think what Wright is hoping is that when we say, “Jesus died for your sins,” (echoing Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins …”) our explanation of what that means will tell a broader story about a loving God and creation which will be remade. That I can get behind, even as I struggle to make sense of the whole Story.

About halfway through Simply Good News, something changes. Wright begins to talk about our modern world and how it affects our understanding of the gospel. And this is where the book gets really good. In the margin on page 78, I wrote, “This would have been a good starting place.”

What we learn is that we live in the legacy of the movements of Rationalism and Romanticism. Rationalism has left us a skeptical people with a “concentration on reasoned-out propositions.” Wright would like us to get away from propositions like “There is a God” or “Jesus died for my sins” or “Jesus truly rose from the dead” and put our focus on “the events to which those propositions refer.” Additionally, Romanticism has made some of us privilege experience and feelings over everything else.

Wright’s main hope is that reason and feeling will be rooted in the good news of Christianity.

We also live with the idea of a split-level universe. God is in heaven (where we go when we die) and we are here on earth. The point of the gospel (and a key line in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples) is that these worlds are to be united: “on earth as in heaven.”

The most compelling thing Wright says is something that perhaps is most relevant to Western Christians. He refers to “chronological snobbery,” which means that we like where our world is going. And so the great event of the world was not Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection. No, it was the Declaration of Independence or the French Revolution or modern scientific progress. We have the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Enlightenment and self-determining democracies and incredible discoveries like penicillin. These have overshadowed the events of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

Wright wouldn’t say it this way, but he wants us to see that progress can be a kind of idol if we’re not careful.

The climax of the book is the final chapter, “Praying the Good News.” Wright says,

“When Jesus went about telling people the good news, he gave them a prayer to pray. The word gospel, meaning “good news,” doesn’t feature explicitly in this prayer, But what the prayer does instead is to give us an important way of getting inside the good news—or perhaps we should say, letting the good news get inside us.”

This final chapter is a gem and the best part of Simply Good News.


One comment

[…] feelings about this book are complicated. I’ll describe in a separate post. But the best quality of this book is that it gets good at the end. I am a fan of N.T. Wright and […]

by 2015 Reading List [a work in progress] « on 31 May 2015 at 7:34 pm. #