Brief Commentary–After You Believe

After You Believe: Why Christian Character MattersAfter You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright

Bishop Wright provides us with another very strong work, with excellent purposes and a real importance for the Church; nevertheless, the work is somewhat limited in its effectiveness by its execution.

Building off of previous work, Wright again reminds us (correctly, I would assert) that the purpose of Christian life is not just “going to Heaven” (though that is certainly part of it), but doing the work of the Kingdom, of doing the work God calls us to in being a part of His setting Creation to rights. The Church is to be priests and rulers, Wright tells us, and he goes into real detail with both the story of Eden and man-as-caretaker-ruler, and of Israel, and its priestly vocation of exhibiting Divine Truth, and how both of these find manifestation and further explication in Christ and his teachings. To live in this way–to live as Christ, and as what Christ and his Father desire us to be–we must cultivate virtue. Virtue is set against legalism on one side, a blind, unthinking, unreflective insistence on “rules” which limits us by making us unable to live in accordance with our principles and faith in situations which are not covered by “the rules.” On the other side, virtue is set against a desire for a life without limits, in which we, in the name of “authenticity” or “spontaneity” attempt to only do “what comes naturally.” As this is a self centered vision, it cuts us off from others, and thus limits us as well. Virtue, then, is a middle path that allows for full human flourishing.

This sounds like Aristotle, of course, and Wright admits as much, and spends time discussing Aristotelian ethics. Christian virtue, he says, has much in common with pagan virtue–but with radical differences. Pagan, Aristotelian virtue exists to find a means for human happiness, while Christian virtue exists for God’s perfect grace to shine through us, and to work through us. Christians also make virtues of things, like chastity, the pagans found quaint, at best. After discussing Aristotle, Christian virtue’s differences, Wright gives us discussions of the examples of virtue from the gospels and the Pauline letters, in order to create a theory of Christian virtue and sketch out what Christian virtues are. Wright does a fine job of all of this, and he reminds us that Christian virtue is based in Scripture, needs community, and comes through practice and allowing the Holy Spirit to work through us and show us means of practicing and inculcating virtues to make them second nature.

I was deeply challenged and compelled by this book, then, both to find ways to live out virtue, and to return to the Scripture and see the kinds of virtue being promoted, and the ways being encouraged to practice those virtues. Bishop Wright is to be commended for that. However, Wright’s work is limited by two things: one, his focus is very heavy on Paul and Paul’s teachings, and does not focus nearly enough on the ways in which we see virtue being practiced and taught in the gospels. Of course, Christians should not fall into the trap of reading Paul vs. the Gospels, something Wright would certainly agree with. Yet I cannot help but feel this very Christian work of thinking needed, well, more Christ. But perhaps the biggest problem of the book is Wright’s attempt to pen a book that combines both complex concepts that need robust, careful unpacking with stories and bite-sized lessons for the layman. While both are good and strong impulses, and Wright (unsurprisingly) shows real talent at both, they seem to exist messily in this book, and After You Believe reads in a way that is often confused and confusing. This is not to say that Wright’s thinking is confused or his theology is heterodox; to the contrary. But the lay reader looking for a straightforward introduction to Christian virtues will likely find himself bewildered at points.

Nevertheless, Wright gives us a strong, theologically rich work that reminds us both how incredible, and how incredibly demanding, following Christ is. A work to be studied and thought over in churches and small groups, and a message that ministers and Christian educators should take seriously and begin to bring to their congregations.

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