After I got back from the Hayward Lectures in 2006, I took a deep dive into N.T. Wright’s writings. Over the next year I read about a half-dozen of his books, and over the next few years I read pretty much all of his major writing. He writes for both the academy and for the church, but he’s a clear and engaging writer so almost all of it is accessible to anyone who would give it the time. Still, there are books and ideas that stand out. I’ll name a few:
Book: Simply Christian
Simply Christian is a book that I’ve found myself recommending over and over through the years. It’s sort of a three-in-one book: the first section is an invitation to listen to the Christian account of the world, the second a summary of the whole story the Bible tells, and the third an introduction to various practices of the Christian life—prayer, Bible reading, worship. The first section is a good alternative to C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity: while Lewis seeks to argue and prove that the gospel is true, Wright takes an approach that is less confident about proof but more appealing as an invitation to see how this story makes sense of the world we know and the experiences we have. The second section is a quite stunning summary of the Bible; I don’t know anything like it that goes so far in making clear the unity of the Old and New Testaments, God’s dealings with Israel and his coming in Jesus. The third section is a little less brilliant but still a crucial reminder that Christian faith is not something that goes on in our minds. It is to be lived with our bodies and hearts and communities.
Idea: “The Marriage of Heaven and Earth”
One of the most important ideas or images I’ve learned from Wright’s writings and speaking is what he calls “the marriage of heaven and earth.” This really grows out of his understanding of the resurrection of Jesus. The point, again, is that God doesn’t plan to take us away from earth or rescue us from bodily realities. Bodily life is not our problem. Our problem is being separated from God. Sin has come between us, and therefore we exist under the sway of death. Things on earth are clouded by this sin-death reality. The solution isn’t to take us away from this earth or from our bodies but rather for God to join together things that never should have been separated. We are made for God, and in Jesus God has taken our life fully unto himself. The reunion (or marriage) happens on a small and partial scale every time someone turns to Jesus and is given the gift of the Spirit of God. But one day this marriage of heaven and earth will be complete. This is what Paul means when he writes in Ephesians 1 that God has “made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ…to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:9-10).
Resource: the For Everyone series
In the early 2000s, N.T. Wright (here publishing as Tom Wright rather than with the initials) put his vast knowledge and understanding of the New Testament literature into a very helpful form in a series of commentaries on the whole New Testament. The series is called For Everyone, and each book is appropriately named: Matthew For Everyone, Mark For Everyone, etc. These books stand somewhere between a devotional and a Bible commentary. They are structured like commentaries, and mostly aim to explain what the text means, but they are divided into sections of three or four pages that are well-suited to daily Bible reading, and they contain little anecdotes and illustrations that make them pretty good reading. Wright’s bigger books are in many ways better, but these little paperbacks may be just as helpful to most people, because they work through Bible stories and passages that we know but sometimes struggle to understand, and offer surprising insights that we might have missed before.
My personal favourites of Wright’s books include:
What Saint Paul Really Said (a 1997 book which was his first published explanation of the thought of the apostle Paul; because it came first it probably made more of an immediate impact on my understanding than his later, much fuller books on Paul like Paul and the Faithfulness of God)
Surprised By Hope (2008) – a sort of follow-up to Simply Christian, this one is really helpful on questions about resurrection, heaven and hell, and other eschatological (last things) concerns
The New Testament and the People of God (1992) — The first in his multi-volume series Christian Origins and the People of God, this one has really helpful sections on the various figures and practices in Judaism and the Roman Empire at the time of the coming of Jesus, but for me the most important part is Wright’s “Five Act” scheme for reading the Bible as a story.
Jesus and the Victory of God (1996) — This is a rich discussion of Jesus’ life and ministry up to and including the crucifixion (The Resurrection of the Son of God picks the story up on Easter Sunday). The sections on the parables are really illuminating. A gigantic book, though!
That’s already a lot of books, but there are many excellent others (Simply Jesus, Evil and the Justice of God, and How God Became King all come to mind). Thanks to God for the gift of teachers and writers like Wright!
This is the fifth in a series of posts that could be titled, “Helpful Stuff I’ve Learned.” Most of these bits of learning were connected with reading books or sitting under certain teachers, so I’m usually going to share them as little pieces of autobiography: how I came across them, why they mattered to me at a certain time, or how they continue to matter. These posts will deal mostly with ideas, but these ideas have also supplied me with memorable images or phrases that have helped me over the years in trying to discern what it means to follow Jesus.