Book Review: Simply Christian

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Simply Christian by N.T. Wright

There are no shortage of books that attempt to make sense of Christianity to those who are either unfamiliar with it or perhaps estranged from it.  Simply Christian is a credible entry into this ever-expanding catalog.

Wright is an accomplished and controversial theologian.  Lutherans are rightly wary of him for some of other writings and his revisionist ideas about St. Paul’s intent in his writings.  However there is practically none of that here.  Nor is this an intense apologetic effort to demonstrate the rationality of the Biblical Christian truth claims about the universe.  It is more of a soft apologetic, intended I suspect to not frighten off the casual reader while still leading them to see that the Biblical Christian description of reality answers many of the questions that keep us all awake at night.

Wright goes about this by discussing four broad themes that haunt the human experience with expectations for something other than what we regularly encounter and experience:  “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty.”  Each topic is simple and universal enough to appeal to almost everyone.  Using each of these topics as a springboard, Wright endeavors to demonstrate how the Biblical Christian account of things addresses each of these areas.

Wright is an engaging writer, at times clever and humorous but never in a mean-spirited fashion.  He writes with a respect for the reader that assumes they struggle for answers, and without the tone that anyone outside the Christian faith is a fool.  He is convinced of the validity of the Biblical Christian position, but he writes in a way that this conviction is not overbearing or suffocating.

As such, this is a reasonable book to suggest to friends who may be interested in the Christian faith.  The book is divided into three major sections.  The first fleshes out the four themes quoted above, demonstrating how pantheism/panentheism on the one hand and deism on the other both miss the mark in addressing these issues, and how a third way – a Christian way – is a better fit.  The second section uses broad brush strokes to paint the major aspects of this Christian way as elaborated on in the Bible.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each receive two chapters that describe their roles in the Christian way.  The last section of the book introduces the reader to major aspects of the Christian life – what practices have marked the lives of followers of Christ for the last two thousand years.  Worship, prayer, the Bible, and an interest in this life and world and not simply in the hereafter are touched upon.

While Wright makes strong efforts to not make assumptions about what readers are familiar with, in a book of this size (not quite 250 pages), it’s impossible at times not to.  The areas that I found the most problematic were areas that insinuated social justice as a primary activity of the Church – both politically and socially.  While I agree wholeheartedly that Christians are to care for our world and the people in it, assuming that modern evangelical notions about social justice are the best response to this left me less than enchanted.  He doesn’t hammer on about these things, which is good.

It’s a pleasant read.  He lays his thoughts out well.  I think that his approach is something accessible to people of any age.  Whether it is enough to crack through the thick shell of relativism that surrounds so many young adults is another matter.  In my experience as an educator and apologist,  sustained discussion and debate are often the only ways to pin someone into a corner and force them to acknowledge the contradictory nature of their thinking about the world.  That sounds unloving and I don’t mean it that way.  It’s just that we need to be very clear that the philosophical training that is common throughout American secular educational systems is very effective and rarely challenged.  When a person reaches college age and their 20’s, it may take a rather traumatic experience or loving and persistent discussion bathed in prayer to break through.

This book is likely to fare better with people who are honestly searching and questioning rather than with hardened skeptics or relativists.  It is also not going to satisfy the interests or needs of hard-core theology junkies.  That isn’t Wright’s intention though and it would be unfair to judge him by that criteria.

This book might make a worthwhile selection for a reading club, possibly even for a Bible study.  Sixteen chapters plus an introduction could take you four months or more to work through, although the chapters are usually less than 20 pages long and so you could cut the length in half by doubling up.

If you’re looking for a place to get familiar with Wright, working your way up to his more intimidating theological works, this isn’t a bad start at all.