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Book Review: Simply Good News

By (February 10, 2015) No Comment

Simply Good News:simply good news cover

Why the Gospel is News

and What Makes It Good

by N. T. Wright

HarperOne, 2015

There’s a curiously binary cast to the career of N. T. Wright, although he himself would strongly deny it. He’s a professor of New Testament scholarship and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, but he was also for decades a clergyman in the Anglican Church, finishing up before his retirement as Bishop of Durham; that is, he’s spent significant amounts of time in both the world of exhortation and the world of introspection. And this binary cast is reflected in the body of his published work. On the one hand, he’s the author of  “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” a series of four enormously learned (and simply enormous – each separate volume is the size of what would constitute the crowning life’s work of almost an other scholar) books, the fourth of which, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, is the finest study of the theology of St. Paul ever written in English. But on the other hand, he’s also the author of much shorter and ‘friendlier’ volumes of theological interpretation polished almost down to the level of Sunday homilies. These books, with titles like Surprised by Hope, Simply Christian, and Simply Jesus – or his newest, Simply Good News – stand at the opposite end of the spectrum from huge and heavily-endnoted studies of Pauline rhetoric and philosophy. They’re works of exhortation, not introspection.

Wright would protest that, along with his Scriptural hero, he’s just being all things to all men, and since it’s not possible to question the sincerity of his own faith, he’d certainly be justified making such a claim. But he’d still be mistaken; like so many very intelligent people (including his Scriptural hero), he often reckons without the full depth of the stupidity of the general populace – but his heart hears clearly, and his two kinds of books are pitched to very different audiences. Most of the many millions of faithful who bought and enjoyed Simply Christian would be bored catatonic by Paul and the Faithfulness of God; the outward form of the work would prevent them from seeing its invigorating genius.

And likewise, readers who were thrilled by the “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series will find exercises like Simply Good News very frustrating, an experience akin to buying a ticket to hear Albert Einstein give a lecture on physics only to arrive, take your seat, and have him decide to tell German folktales instead. There’s a lively, approachable preacher at work in these pages, but that’s as much a limitation as it is a strength. Unlike scholars, preachers aren’t interested in nuance; they deal in declaration, not persuasion.

The ethos at the heart of Simply Good News will be familiar to Wright’s legion of faithful readers: a Pauline sense of the urgency of Scriptural revelation mixed with an Erasmian piety of a very workaday kind. For Wright, the essential revelation of the New Testament is immanence; it’s the Kingdom of Heaven, not off in the clouds somewhere but here, in person, in the figure of Jesus Christ:

Instead of suggesting that we could escape the earth to go to heaven, Jesus’s good news was about heaven coming to earth. And there are many people inside and outside the church who have never heard this news. It isn’t only the atheists who have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Wright is stressing this sense of immediacy when he expands on the concept of “good news,” the kind of pressing revelation that makes its recipients want to dash outside and shout their tidings from the streets, the kind of revelation that changes hearts and minds. There’s too much action involved for this process to be completely comfortable – in fact, in this new book as in so many of his earlier ones, Wright strikes a note of impatience with devotional comfort, here drawing a pointed difference beween “good news” and mere “good advice”:

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. News is an announcement that something significant has happened. And good news is what Jesus and his first followers were all about.

“The good news is about the living God overcoming all the powers of the world to establish his rule of justice and peace, on earth as in heaven,” he insists. “Not in heaven, later on.”

It’s a warm and only midly controversial take on New Testament doctrine, the kind of one-point assertion that makes for a particularly invigorating sermon during a full-length Sunday morning service. In order to warrant a book of even modest dimensions, Wright needs to pad it quite a bit, and as in all the other “simply” books, he does that by shifting almost entirely from Scriptural interpretation to inspirational stump-speechifying, with predictably worrying results.

The main problem with these results is a Christian naiveté taken to extremes that would be outright funny in a less impressive figure than Wright. At one point he tells us, “On the cross, God passed the sentence of death on evil itself” – which might be a permissible reading of the resurrection narratives if it stood alone, but he follows it with a passage that acts as a good example of all that’s weakest and most credulous in this book:

This, then, was the victory of the king … What was holding back the kingdom was the dark power, the force of evil itself. On the cross, that force, that power, was defeated. All it can now do is shout and scream and flail about in its death throes. True, that can still be terrible and destructive. We all know this, in our own lives and in the wider world. But the early Christians – who themselves knew only too well that the world had not turned into Utopia overnight and that they still faced suffering, prison, and death – firmly believed that what had happened on the cross was the Messianic victory.

Any but the most delusional readers will laugh a grim little laugh at the idea that all the violence and misery of the last 2000 years, all the atrocities and genocides, were merely the death-throes of evil rather than evil itself, strong and triumphant. If this has been a victory, skeptics will comment with rightful snark, I’d hate to see a defeat. And despite having voluntarily written over a million words on Saint Paul, Tom Wright is obviously not delusional; he knows perfectly well that human history makes his claim look foolish to those skeptics. The fact that he’s not writing for them shouldn’t make him so blithe to the dangers of looking so naive.

But just so, he’s not writing for the skeptics. Books like Simply Good News are for the faithful only; they’re quite literally preaching to the choir. His fervently-believing Christian readers will be nodding their heads when he reminds them that if they believe in the resurrection of Jesus, “we can make sense of God, of the world, of ourselves”:

Or rather, with this in place we discover that God has (so to speak) made sense of us. Sorted us out. Cleared us up, dusted us down, turned us inside out. Made genuine humans of us. That’s what the message of the crucified and risen Jesus has always done. That’s what it still does.

And it’s no use for Wright’s non-Christian readers to object and say they themselves are “genuine humans” even without believing in the risen Christ. Wright, ever the kind-hearted believer in the perfectibility of man, might very well congratulate such readers, but he’s not writing this book for them.