23 March 2010

after you believe

N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010).

In what presents itself as a sequel to his previous HarperOne Publications (Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope), The Bishop's newest release challenges theoretical Christianity with the ongoing work of the kingdom, most notably through the oft-debated areas of character and virtue. His own words work best to summarize the book: "Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed" (ix). That is to say, our lives must reflect the faith to which we cling.

But, of course, many Christians are able to live out the goal of their faith; it is a challenge to make certain that our faith is properly aligned and set to the right goal. And that is why this book makes an appropriate trilogy with the previous two, that understanding how Christian faith is about the restoration and rejoining of heaven and earth, and how our lives are meant to reflect that in this present inaugurated eschatology.

This book then is about the transformation and dedication of human character as the right response to resurrection. It is about the restored humanity which is now possible, though not without its stumbling and searching, as part of the dawning of God's new day. The opening chapter gives a few examples of admirable behavior, where those who were able to instinctively react heroically in certain situations did so because they had lived in certain ways for years before. In like manner, Wright asserts that Christian character is learned and built (and trained) on a daily basis. What am I here for? Transformation! Not just in our own lives, but as agents of God's Spirit to transform the world.

Throughout the book Wright continually points to various character traits which are often regarded as worthwhile and challenges the reader to think of them as transformative for the kingdom. "We've had enough of pragmatists and self-seeking risk-takers. We need people of character" (25). Thus, he believes that character is transformed by three things in particular: 1) aiming at the right goal; 2) figuring the steps to reach that goal; 3) allowing those steps to become habitual (29). He spends a good amount in the second chapter interacting with Aristotle, which may be lost on some people but helps establish his foundation nonetheless.

Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters in the book is the third, "Priests and Rulers." It is here that Wright asserts that transformation must include a return to the imago Dei which was set within humanity at Creation. Our proper role in the world is thus "worshipping and reigning" - we are priests and rulers(78-79). He builds this concept on solid biblical footing, and begins to build his perspective on character from here. If this is true, then it is the community of believers which is given over to the twin tasks of holiness and prayer (91).

From here, the book follows with the implications of being that sort of community. We are to be a people prepared and presently working for the kingdom (he brings in the beatitudes at this point). Wright also asserts that Christian character is not about rules. Rather, it is about freedom to become what we are intended to be, with the parameters of Scripture given as guides along the journey. We are to be transformed by priestly worship, living and working as people of the kingdom on a moment-by-moment basis (cf. 149). This transformation comes through the renewal of our minds, as our thoughts direct us to a new way of living.

The latter chapters acknowledge the difficulty of living in such a way, with Wright asserting that this Spirit-enabled life being possible for us to have in this life. ". . . 'Left to myself, doing what comes naturally, I would fail.' But the point of love is that it doesn't" (183). Love, which Paul repeatedly asserts is the greatest virtue, is the ultimate goal of the believer. Not for self, not even for others . . . but for God alone. If all of our character and virtue are directed to him, then true kingdom work and ministry will happen. Wright includes this as well, "Worship must lead to mission" (225).

One could reflect on so much Christian thought at this point. At times Wright's model for character sounds like Brother Lawrence, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, and many Jesus-Creeders throughout the centuries, among others. It is clear that this is a book written from a lifelong reflection on Christian virtue. While there are a few areas of the book that I could present minor quibbles, I now decide not to do so because the present need for Christian character is so high in our culture that I do not want to give any discouragement for approaching this book - and they are quite minor quibbles indeed. My review and summary is brief and wholly inadequate in capturing the overall journey which is presented in this book. I greatly encourage all Christians to work through this trilogy of faith and action . . . worship and reign.

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