N. T. Wright’s After You Believe: Introduction

I got this book for free in exchange for agreeing to review it. But I didn’t promise a favorable review. Just a review. And I was thrilled to get this book for free, because otherwise I’d have bought it — because I buy nearly all of what N. T. Wright writes. He’s a brilliant writer and thinker, and will certainly be cited, quoted, and discussed 100 years from now.

Wright writes at a prodigious pace, putting out books at, the best I can tell, four levels of scholarship. He put out some very basic commentaries as “Tom Wright.” He’s written some massive books rethinking huge portions of Pauline theology at a very scholarly level. These books are marvels but not for the faint of heart.

Then there are some less scholarly but still very sophisticated works, such as the best-sellers What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (both required reading for those with a scholarly inclination, especially the first).

Finally, there’s a series of books written for the ordinary Christian or even the beginning Christian. The first two volumes are Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense and Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. These are both excellent and have influenced my thinking. Surprised by Hope is about the true nature of heaven, and I did a series on it last year, which I expanded a bit this year. Both are great reads, and neither is simplistic. They are calculated to be read by the ordinary church member — and yet they both offer serious theology. Great books.

After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters is the third book of the series, and it deals with Christian ethics, that is, how to live now that we’ve been saved. And it’s a vital book for many, including those of us with Church of Christ backgrounds.

But I’m a little disappointed. You see, Surprised by Hope forced me to totally rethink how I understood heaven. Simply Christian didn’t have as dramatic of an impact, because it’s mainly written for the new Christian or even a potential convert. And I was already familiar with many of the arguments and theories offered — but I’ve been a Christian for a long time, so that’s no surprise. However, it did present some understandings that were entirely fresh and very insightful. I need to read it again, actually.

But so far, After You Believe has said some really good things, but as good as it is, it’s not (what’s the word?) rich. The book could’ve been edited down by half and would have been much better. Sorry to say that, but even geniuses for the ages need editors.

Nonetheless, the lessons it teaches are important ones.

First, as to the logic, Paul’s commands clearly belong within the [Grecian philosophers'] discourse of virtue, albeit in Christian mode. They cannot be reduced either to a Christian deontology (that is, the quest for a new or revised set of “rules” or “duties”) or to a Christian utilitarianism (seeking and perhaps calculating, the likely resultant happiness to the majority), still less a Christian romanticism or existentialism. …

No: what counts is the formation, in the present time, of a character that properly anticipates the promised future state [the new heavens and new earth]. … [T]he styles of life Paul is commending point toward, and actually anticipate aspects of, the eventual renewal of humanity. …

What then is Paul saying in Colossians that Christians must do? Answer: he is telling them to develop, in the present, the character which will truly anticipate the life of the coming age. …

The main thing is to notice that none of these things “comes naturally.” Even for the Christian this is not going to be so, certainly to begin with.

(pp. 141-143).

Now, Wright perceptively emphasizes virtues as central to Christian character — rather than rules or laws. You see, when we read Colossians or Romans or 1 Corinthians coming from a Church of Christ background, we unconsciously form a mental checklist of rules and “marks.” “Yes, that’s how to do the Lord’s Supper.” “Yes, that says what day to meet on.” “There, that says there are elders.” And as we look for rules, we overlook the obviously preeminent teaching of virtues and character. We think, “Yes, of course, we should love and be patient, but what point is there in love and patience if we take communion on the wrong day?”

Jesus would say, “Why bother to take communion if you aren’t all about love and patience? How can you remember me if you don’t remember my character by emulating my character?” And there’s a big difference.

This book won’t convince a confirmed legalist by itself. However, for a Christian struggling to overcome legalism, After You Believe would be an excellent resource to help reconstruct his understanding of how Christianity was always meant to work.

Quibbles

I really wish he’d said more about the work of the Spirit. It’s there, but it’s not an emphasis. Of course, I come from a tradition that denies the contemporary work of the Spirit, so maybe I’m over-reacting. But I think the Spirit is a much bigger part of Christian virtue than Wright seems to conclude. Indeed, when he’s summarizing how we attain to Christian virtue in the final chapter, the Spirit receives only incidental mention.

On the other hand, Wright is very correct to point out that these virtues require hard work and commitment from the Christian. The Spirit doesn’t magically insert these into our hearts. The Spirit works with us, and does (I think) the largest part of the work by far, but we cannot be purely passive.

I really wish he’d read Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology before writing this. Gorman’s work would have helped unify and simplify what Wright is saying — which really would have helped. And Gorman’s writing is not at all written for a popular audience. Wright is a better writer, and so the combination of the two — with some tough-love editing — would have made for an amazing book.

Bottom line

So here’s the bottom line. For ministers, elders, and teachers, this is a must buy. Buy and read the book. You may find yourself skimming parts, and don’t feel guilty. You still need to read it because it offers a fresh understanding of how spiritual formation works — and a better one than many. It’s not complicated, and it’s profoundly biblical. Wright is careful to insist that Christian character be formed in community, not in a closet. We are saved in the body for reason.

And we should be sure to incorporate these lessons into classes on marriage, parenting, and spiritual formation. The Christian virtues don’t magically show up in our hearts. They require discipline and work — powerfully helped by the Spirit. We especially need for our parents and youth ministers to learn how virtues are gained so they can discipline and teach these well.

And we need to talk about these things — a lot. Especially in the Churches of Christ, we tend to ignore these passages because they don’t define us in contrast to other denominations. However, they do define us in contrast to non-Christians, and so ignoring them is a colossal mistake. We just have to retrain ourselves to see character and virtue as of the essence.

Finally, Wright makes a strong case against denominationalism. Obviously, the 20th Century Churches of Christ utterly failed to make any progress against the multiplication of denominations and the isolation of denominations from each other — but it was a laudable and very necessary goal. And the ecumenical movement hasn’t done much to change things either. We need to talk about how to actually realize Jesus’ prayer for a single, united church.

Next

For discussion, I’ll post brief quotations from the book over the next several days, with just a brief explanation. I think it’ll be very thought provoking.

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4 Responses to N. T. Wright’s After You Believe: Introduction

  1. nick gill says:

    James Bryan Smith has put together The Apprentice Series following up on the work of Foster and Willard in the areas of spiritual formation and virtue.

    I think you'd especially appreciate them because they're specifically designed for communal spiritual formation.

    The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows

    The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting On the Character of Christ

    The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love (due September 2010)

    He began writing them at the urging of Dallas Willard. If you remember, there's a passage in The Divine Conspiracy which Willard entitled, "A Curriculum for Christlikeness." He says he never got around to truly fleshing out that idea because he wanted JBS to do it, and that's where this series came from.

    If you look at them, decide that you like them, and want to give them the OneInJesus book treatment, PLEASE let me know! :) I'd love to participate in such a discussion.

  2. Mick Porter says:

    Jay,

    I think this is a fair review, although I also think that the book is more important in certain circles and there are reasons for Wright to spend so long on certain issues. It's all about who the perceived audience is, and how much effort will be involved in shifting that audience's perception.

    Consider what your blog would look like to someone who had never experienced "20th century COC theology". Such a person would want to know why you couldn't have written just one blog post about it and moved on – to most Christian worldviews this all seems like a non-issue; of course the NT doesn't provide a pattern for acceptable worship, 'nuff said.

    Wright, apart from his Everyone commentaries, is always trying to argue with someone. In this case, it seems to be a massive stream of evangelicalism that is all about "faith, not works" and essentially uninterested in virtue.

    That said, I agree with you on both main points – it should have been shorter, and it should have worked out of a stronger emphasis on Spirit.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Nick,

    They've been added to my Amazon wishlist. And I do have a birthday coming up …

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Mick,

    I agree, and as I've reflected on the book, I think it's central argument is not only valid, but essential. I don't think we do nearly an adequate job of teaching virtues to ourselves or our kids — nor do we live them all that well. Our teaching certainly doesn't reflect the NT emphasis.

    But I think it's better to teach the virtues through the Gorman lens of crucifixion rather than the usual lens of: here are bunch of disconnected virtues and disciplines we need to learn.

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