The dangerous thing about working in a library is that you no longer feel a need to control the urge to collect books. Since you constantly have the opportunity to help yourself to as many books as you want, for free and for a short period of time, you forget about the expense and the clutter that result from buying books frequently. I’m used to coming and going with an armload of books. I think that’s a good thing in and of itself, but then late one evening, I found myself in a bookstore. I spent too much money that day, because books are cool and I wanted to take them all home with me. Every single one of them, but a few dozen in particular. Instead, I only got six.
One of the books that caught my eye was Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good by N.T. Wright, a biblical scholar in the Church of England. I used to read a lot of books by biblical scholars written for a popular audience, which is probably why I gravitated towards that particular title on that particular evening. Usually, I don’t actually enjoy such books. For one thing, they generally aren’t theologically solid. In college, I was taught that every Christian denomination besides Roman Catholicism could be lumped into two categories: evangelical or liberal/mainline. That’s an extreme oversimplification, but it does seem to be true of Christian books written for the popular audience. In particular, there are a lot of books that are more concerned with debunking Christianity than affirming it, but still claim to be Christian books. Those are the worst, not only because they are full of half-truths that deliberately undermine people’s faith, but because they tend to be full of absurd straw-man arguments, they often take the approach that the author’s credentials make him more reliable than the Bible itself, and they are written for the purpose of sensationalism rather than truth. Many theological writers for the popular audience will grasp at any excuse to say that the canonical gospels are unreliable, but will then ignore their own logical principles in order to promote non-canonical writings of uncertain origin or authenticity. Those books will claim that they are taking a historical approach to Christianity and viewing all ancient documents without allowing their beliefs to bias them, but that’s just rhetoric. What they are actually doing is trying to come up with new and sensational ideas to write about in order to attract lots of readers and build up their names as theologians so that they can sell even more of the next sensational book they might write. Of what I’ve read, Bart Ehrman is the worst. If I was important enough to have a nemesis, my nemesis would be Bart Ehrman, because he’s especially bad about a lot of those things.
So, for all those reasons, I went into Simply Good News without much confidence that it would be a book of any theological value. I just finished it immediately before giving this blog post a final re-write, and my overall evaluation is that it’s incredibly suspenseful. It has kept me on the edge of my seat (if I’m even sitting down instead of pacing around the room while reading) and I have had a hard time putting in down. For a novel, that would be the sign of success, but for a nonfiction book told in non-narrative prose, suspense doesn’t really seem to be the point.
The reason I find it so suspenseful is that I can never be quite sure where Wright is going. For the first 23 pages, he equivocates on the meaning of the phrase “good news” (and points out that the word “gospel” literally means “good news”, which he introduces as if it’s a little-known fact) without being specific about what the “good news” of Christianity is. I hoped that he would rightly identify the good news as salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but I was more than a little afraid that he was writing this book for the purpose of proposing a new idea of what Christianity is all about. Fortunately, Wright did eventually get around to pointing to the cross and the empty tomb. To my delight, he introduced the “good news” by quoting the Bible: “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible; he was buried; he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Bible…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6, although I’ve cut out part of the quotation.) At that point in the book, Wright seemed to be deliberately avoiding addressing the reality of sin, which meant that the gospel is really watered down despite the fact that that’s what he’s specifically trying not to do. But at least he isn’t redefining Christianity itself, which is something that happens all too often.
So, throughout the first three chapters, I was pretty pleased with Simply Good News. I wouldn’t say that I agreed with every word of it, but it was refreshing to read a book of this type that is not dismissive of the Bible, and is not a self-help/inspirational book disguised as religious literature. In fact, much of what Wright has to say in the early chapters of this book is to lament the fact that popular Christianity in our culture so often takes that route, treating Jesus as a wise man who gave good advice rather than as our savior. That’s very true. To use the over-simplified distinction that I was taught in college, evangelicals tend to see Jesus as a moral leader whose example must be followed, and liberals tend to see Jesus as an advocate for equality and social justice. Neither of those concepts are devoid of truth, but they’re not what Jesus’ mission was about, and they’re not what the “good news” really is.
About eight pages into chapter four was where the suspense started to pick up again. By then, I had basically come to the conclusion that Simply Good News was indeed a good book that sets forth to put the Christ back into Christianity, not just in the sense that it talks about Jesus, but that it recognizes Jesus as the Christ who came to save the world from sin and death, rather than just a cool guy who came to tell us all how to be cool, too. Even the beginning of chapter four, in which Wright asserts that the Bible can be trusted, and in which he dismisses Ehrman’s pretense at scholarly superiority without mentioning Ehrman by name, is really great. But then Wright starts describing three “problems that prevent those in our time from grasping the idea of good news”. The very first of these “problems” is an over-emphasis on the redemption. To quote from page 65, “The church has latched onto a way of speaking about the gospel that goes like this: you are a sinner, deserving 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 deserved 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.”
To which I can only say, “Yeah, you got a problem with that?” Because I belong to a church body that puts the emphasis on the cross and the salvation that comes from it. And that’s a good thing, because what can be more important and more precious than salvation? Of course, no pithy statement about Jesus includes every truth that can be found in the Bible, but pointing to the Law and Gospel message of sin and salvation is the closest you can get to fitting the whole of Christianity into a nutshell.
But, as it turns out, Wright’s objection to this description of the good news is basically that he has heard it in contexts where there are other theological problems happening. In particular, he associates it with the idea that dying and going to heaven is the end, and not understanding that the new creation is more good and more permanent than whatever it is that happens to us between death and the end of this world. (Granted, that is something that is rarely discussed, and may come as a new piece of information to many people who read Wright’s book.)
Wright spends most of the rest of the chapter discussing two other problems that are extremely prevalent and not talked about enough. One is what Wright calls the “split-level world”, that is, the idea that God lives upstairs and the world is down here and that there’s a boundary between the spiritual and the “real”. This perspective is characteristic of Deism, a not-really-Christian belief that God created the world but hasn’t been really involved in it for a while. But a lot of individual Christians take a similar approach in any number of ways. The whole “spiritual not religious” thing is one of those ways, as is the idea that religion is not something that we should discuss in polite conversation outside of specifically religious contexts. According to the heading of the section, Wright essentially sees this problem as a conflict between the philosophies of rationalism and romanticism.
The other problem Wright discusses in this chapter is best summed up in delightful phrase “chronological snobbery” which he uses on page 85. Since the Enlightenment, Western civilization has been obsessed with the idea of progress, and that concept has been fully engrained into the minds of pretty much everyone born in the last couple centuries. We look at history as if things are progressively getting better. Certainly, in many specific areas, that is true. Medicine, technology, scientific knowledge in general, living conditions in most places… but not truth or morality. But yet we use the statement “It’s the twenty-first century!” as an argument for changes in moral or social perceptions, and we take it for granted that “progressive” means “good”. We all know from the events of our personal lives, as well as major news events, that change can be either good or bad, but any changes in societal values are perceived to be a good thing. That isn’t always false, but it isn’t always true, either, and I personally think it’s especially dangerous in the postmodern era, since postmodern thought is, by definition, so anti-universal-truth, and therefore anti-Christian. I could say more about both of these topics, but since I’m writing about Wright’s book, for now I’ll just say that, for those twelve pages, Wright totally gets it right and that I would whole-heartedly recommend that section if it was practical to recommend small sections of books rather than whole books.
The remainder of the book contains a number of valid points and interesting discussions, but it gradually drifts into evangelical-leaning territory. In fact, near the end of the book, Wright contradicts earlier statements of his by restating the “good news” several times, using words like “glory” and “honor” rather than “Christ” or “Jesus’ death and resurrection”. Worse, he spends a lot of pages talking about us as Christians “becoming good-news people”. I think he may have meant that in a third-use-of-the-law kind of way, and I appreciate that he mentioned the idea of vocation a couple times, but still, that phrase implies legalistic ideas, as if our Christianity only “counts” if we behave correctly. Earlier in the book, I had been slightly disturbed that Wright was so determined to describe heaven as a place on Earth, (Ooh baby do you know what that’s worth?) but I had come to the conclusion that he was talking about the new creation. But now, in light of the last chapter of the book, I’m a little skeptical about whether that’s what he meant. It also occurred to me towards the end of the book that Wright never discussed the sacraments, which is a pretty glaring omission that I’m surprised didn’t bother me sooner.
All in all, my takeaway from this book was that I’m really glad I’m Lutheran. Every part of this book that I agreed with and thought was well-articulated were the parts that sounded like they could have been written by a Lutheran, and every one of my quibbles and qualms has to do with the fact that it wasn’t more in line with confessional Lutheran teachings. But what struck me most is that everything that Wright introduced as a surprising and unusual perspective that will enlighten his readers is something that Lutherans already know and preach as the gospel truth. (Minor pun intended) To Wright—and, evidently, to his readers—it actually seems like an unusual perspective to treat Christianity as good news about divine deliverance rather than as advice. But in confessional Lutheranism, Jesus’ death and resurrection is always the central message, and Jesus’ role as savior is always the point. Wright stresses that Jesus was a fulfillment of the Old Testament, which he puts forth as something that most Christians don’t understand, and that therefore detracts from the “good news.” But that’s how I’ve always been taught to see the Old Testament. In fact, the current Sunday morning Bible study where I go to church is looking at how the familiar Old Testament Bible stories point forward to the cross. (Shout out to Pastor Fisk. In case he happens to see this blog post, HI PASTOR FISK!) Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you too may hear this Bible study! Wright seems to think that he’s saying something downright revolutionary by talking about the resurrection of the dead and the new creation, but Lutherans talk about those things sometimes. Wright is dismissive of a redemption-based description of Jesus because it sounds to him like it portrays God as being unloving, and he writes as if he is introducing an unfamiliar idea by pointing out that the very reason that God wanted to save the world was because he loved it so much. But that’s exactly what Lutherans hear in church every Sunday.
In short, I would recommend this book to someone who is interested in a little religious food for thought, but I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who is hoping to have questions answered. It’s a lot better than most of the Christian books for the popular audience, but it definitely has its shortcomings.