While N.T. Wright has been one of my favorite authors, having read many of his books I was often left with the question, “So what does this mean for daily living, the stuff discipleship is made of?” In his book, After You Believe, Wright attempts a long-awaited answer to that question. However, if easy answers are what you are looking for, N.T. Wright is not the author to read.
After You Believe starts with this basic premise:
Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed. The better we understand that goal, the better we shall understand the path toward it.
Wright has been passionately and convincingly refocusing believers of that goal: God’s kingdom here on earth, rather than the long-held belief of abandoning earth to spend eternity in heaven. Quite simply, if heaven is the goal, then how we live on earth correlates little to that goal. But if God’s kingdom is the goal, then how we live this life is only a precursor to life in the kingdom of God. And this is where Wright reclaims the idea of Christian virtue. What follows are some of my thoughts.
I have personally done a lot of reading on transformation. Christians use that word a lot, but few seem quite sure of what it is. Does it take place at salvation? To a certain extent. Does it continue to take place through the work of the Holy Spirit? Again, that is definitely an aspect of transformation. Will it only occur upon death/new life? Some believe so, but I think it is more available to us now that we realize. Now comes the controversial one: Can we be engaged in activities to bring about transformation? Many get uncomfortable answering “Yes”, but I believe “Yes” is the correct answer. Dallas Willard has written, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.” The Holy Spirit works in conjunction with our efforts, not our attempts to justify ourselves. And while the ultimate outcome may be out of our control, we are never-the-less called to put in effort toward transformation. I appreciate that Wright is not afraid to suggest this. Transformation does not just happen to us while we lie around on the couch. We go to the gym – to use his language – and develop our moral muscle.
This leads to another observation, a broader topic mined from the entire book. It is the idea that virtue prepares us for this “kingdom-in-advance life” – we don’t have to wait for heaven to experience kingdom life. Now I have to say that this sounds great, but it can be difficult to live out, given the lack of immediate payoff and the time it takes to build up moral muscle. I also say it can be difficult because, let’s face it, we are largely judged by this world’s view of success. And God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to that view of success. I am concerned that many churches today are primarily promoting the idea that following God will lead to that same view of success promoted by the world around us. The more I read Wright, the more I grow uneasy with that idea. Am I willing to develop virtue for a kingdom life that may or may not ever lead to success and fulfillment in this lifetime?
Another quote from the book jumped out at me: “Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think.” I couldn’t agree more with Wright on this point. Christians should be some of the most thinking people around and yet are still largely perceived of as simpletons or naive. Where did we get so off track? His chapter “Transformed by the Renewal of the mind” was really good on just what that chapter title suggests. Ironically, many Christians assume that the renewing of their minds is a very unthinking process – it is something that will eventually just happen to them.
In After You Believe, Wright calls for a transformation to take place through the reclamation of virtue. But this transformation is different than what is encountered among many nowadays. It is proactive, it is at least partly driven by our own efforts, it is mind-engaging, and it has a different goal: God’s kingdom on earth. True to his other writings, I am left with more questions than answers, but I have been offered a different path to those answers as well.