After You Believe

N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. New York: HarperOne, 2010. 307 pgs.

I am a big fan of N.T. Wright. I don't think there is anyone I ever agree with completely (being in school for so long has taught me that if I ever found such a person, or read such a book, I would either have been insufficiently critical during my reading process, or else I am reading something I myself wrote :) but, that said, I have found very few scholars who can match Wright's coherence in presenting an overall biblical picture, or who are as compelling as he is in the details of their biblical analysis.

Those, of course, are general comments. What about this book? After You Believe is, apparently, the third book in an unannounced, but now completed, trilogy written by Wright. It began with Simply Christian, continued in Suprised by Hope, and is completed in this volume. In itself, this book is an argument for, and outline of, the idea of Christian character and virtue, as well as why and how we should strive for them. Wright begins by asking the question, which has vexed many believers, "What do I do after I believe?" or, in other words, "What am I here for?" His answer is that we are here to become what God has created us to be, Priests and Rulers in God's kingdom. As we do this we reflect more and more of God's glory, which is also part of our purpose on earth. Having laid out his answer, Wright takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of biblical support for his ideas and then, in chapters 5-8 outlines how we get there, while continuing to fill in his initial picture.

According to Wright, on page 29, Character is transformed by 3 things: Aiming at the right goal, figuring out the steps to get there, and making those steps into habits. This is the general path which Wright goes on to fill with Christian specifics. As he does so, Wright, I think, feels forced to continually defend against the accusation that he has done away with Grace and created a new kind of "work's righteousness." I don't think I can blame him for this; he's probably right in that people will, and have, accused him of just these things. What I found much more helpful was his contrasting of the path of virtue/character with the paths of romanticism, existentialism, and emotivism. These three movements, Wright correctly points out, have a lot to do with the more common ways of thinking these days. The first, romanticism, stresses the importance of inner feelings and spontaneity, freedom as opposed to imposed systems and constraints. The second stresses the notion of authenticity, and being true to one's self. The third is all about the reduction of morality to emotions; 'murder is wrong' becomes 'I don't like murder.' And all of them are fatally flawed.

As opposed to these, the path of virtue/character stresses becoming who Christ has called us to be. Growing in the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the fruit of the Spirit through renewing our minds (in this case, thinking through our aims and how to get there, though not limited to this), and building the right habits into our persons. Also, Wright lays out how it is that the church and its practices and structures are already in place to help us through this process.

Overall, I think that this book is right on the mark in terms of its ideas and point. Wright is, as usual, a lucid and compelling writer. To some, his explorations of biblical texts may seem long, but I found them rich and interesting. My only criticism, and I suppose it is an inevitable fact in books such as this, is that most of what Wright has to say has been written before. Personally, I am thinking specifically of the work of Dallas Willard, whose books The Divine Conspiracy and, even more, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, not only make some of the same points as Wright, but use some of the same analogies. With Wright we have a more clearly presented case than with Willard, updated examples taken from modern day life (since it is a newer book), and some unique interpretations of specific biblical texts. As well, Wright frames the entire project within the future image of being rulers and Priests with Christ in the kingdom of God. That last part, however, makes a big difference. Thanks to that addition, what Wright is urging his readers to do in following this path fits very neatly into his entire picture of Christianity, the Bible, Christian life, and the Christian future (hence the trilogy this book completes).

I recommend the book though, and think any thoughtful Christian reader would enjoy it and get a lot out of it.


Thomas said...

Have you read the first two books in this trilogy? If so, are they as good?

Andrew said...

I have read the first two, and found them both very good. However, this one was more powerful for me personally because I think it deals with questions that I have often thought about. Simply Christian is an excellent outline of the basics of Christianity and how they fit together, in themselves and in the world. Surprised by Hope is all about eschatology, and, in my mind, Wright envisions a very compelling picture of heaven. He also explains ideas of resurrection, as opposed to disembodied spirit existence, which is often assumed by Christians in the west.

So, they are bot good, and if the topics are of particular interest, then they are as good. For me, the third one was definitely the best.