After You Believe by N.T. Wright: A Review

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Some readers of this blog may wonder why a Southern Baptist minister like myself would host interviews with and read books by an Anglican Bishop (who happens to be the main evangelical proponent of a controversial “New Perspective” on Paul). These kinds of thoughts naturally lead to a bigger question: How should we approach a book written by someone like Wright? Here are some considerations:

First, I think it goes without saying that we should seek to read with discernment, no matter what book we hold in our hands (or on our Kindle!). A major part of growing in wisdom and knowledge is properly cultivating the discipline of discernment, and one cannot put the gift of discernment to good use unless he or she occasionally reads books from authors with opposing viewpoints.

Second, authors who may be wrong in some ways may be reliable and even helpful in other areas. We can benefit from their works as long as we read carefully.

Take, for example, another Anglican: C.S. Lewis. Lewis was wrong on many things. He believed Jesus was mistaken about the timing of his Second Coming. His view of the atonement is an odd amalgamation of right ideas with wrong details. He was an inclusivist (remember The Last Battle?). And his Anglo-Catholic sensibilities are credited with bringing countless Protestants back to Rome.

For evangelicals, these are big strikes against Lewis. There are more than three strikes, and yet we still consider him part of the team and love to watch him play ball. Why? Because even if Lewis was wrong in some areas, he was gloriously right in others.

The same is true of someone like G.K. Chesterton, the church fathers, or N.T. Wright. I disagree with Wright in a number of places (his definition of God’s righteousness is reductionistic; he wrongly denies the theological category of “imputation”; he affirms penal substitution but fails to emphasize it as much as Scripture does; he reduces “works of the law” to ethnic exclusivity; and he’s an Anglican while I’m a Baptist, which leads to a long list of ecclesiological differences).

Nevertheless, Wright is on target and extremely helpful in many areas, and his new book  After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters shows him at his best. This is a substantial work on Christian virtue destined to begin all sorts of conversations about Christian morality and behavior. (See my interview with Wright about this book here.)

Wright starts out by setting up two ways of viewing morality: the first group focuses on “rule-keeping” while the second emphasizes “being true to yourself.” Wright shows that the Bible incorporates truths from both these views, and yet transcends them by forming Christian character in light of the gospel and our eschatological future. At the heart of After You Believe, then, is the question of Christian character:

“Character – the transforming, shaping, and marking of a life and its habits – will generate the sort of behavior that rules might have pointed toward but which a ‘rule-keeping’ mentality can never achieve. And it will produce the sort of life which will in fact be true to itself – though the ‘self’ to which it will at last be true is the redeemed self, the transformed self, not the merely ‘discovered’ self of popular thought.” (7)

This book contains a number of memorable illustrations:

  • He tells the story of the Miracle on the Hudson, using Captain Sullenberger as an example of how wise and courageous choices can become “second nature.”
  • He talks about working one’s “moral muscles.”
  • He compares the formation of character to learning a second language, anticipating the day one might live in the place where that language is spoken.
  • He describes character formation in musical terms. Musicians must learn the habits of how to sing until they eventually and “naturally” take their place within the ongoing story of the music.

In an “anything goes” world where everyone is encouraged to “be themselves”, Wright appears on the scene like a chaperon breaking up a teenage party in the basement. “Supposing the ‘self’ to which you are true is the self that wants to cheat everyone you meet, including friends and family, out of as much money as possible,” he writes (51). “Spontaneity, left to itself, can begin by excusing bad behavior and end by congratulating vice.” (56)

He also points out the hypocrisy of those who despise traditional morality:

“Ironically, those who pour scorn on some of the older rules, not least about sexual behavior, are often those who insist most loudly on some of the newer rules, for instance about caring for the planet and its ecology.” (45)

But if Wright is the chap who’s breaking up the basement party, it’s not because he’s a killjoy who wants to enforce arbitrary rules. It’s more like he’s inviting the party-ers up to the roof to catch a glimpse of the glory of a virtuous life, the kind of life they have never imagined.

Joy and gratitude are themes appear again and again in this book – not merely in the subject matter, but also in the way he wrights. Ironically, Wright sounds at times much like John Piper, who also insists that Christian character is not from an externally imposed “duty” but from joy. ”If someone gives you a present merely because he is obeying a rule or doing his duty, the glory of gift-giving has slipped through your fingers.” (47)

The best part of Wright’s proposal is that he does not speak of virtue or character formation in a general sense. He makes the case for distinctively Christian virtue, showing how the New Testament authors go above and beyond Aristotle by promoting a view of virtue that is cross-shaped and hope-driven.

“We urgently need to recapture the New Testament’s vision of a genuinely ‘good’ human life as a life of character formed by God’s promised future, as a life with that future-shaped character lived within the ongoing story of God’s people, and, with that, a freshly worked notion of virtue.” (57)

There are some great one-liners in this book too. Here’s a sampling:

  • “The English word ‘love’ is trying to do so many different jobs at the same time that someone really ought to sit down with it and teach it how to delegate.” (183)
  • “Love is not a ‘duty,’ even our highest duty. It is our destiny.” (188)
  • “To accept appropriate moral constraints is not to curtail true freedom, but to create the conditions for it to flourish.” (234)
  • “The church is often called a killjoy for protesting against sexual license. But the real killing of joy comes with the grabbing of pleasure.” (253)

Wright has often been criticized for emphasizing the corporate dimensions of salvation to the exclusion of individual conversion. That’s not the case in this book. He grounds his proposal in grace that comes to the individual:

“Whatever language or terminology we use to talk about the great gift that the one true God has given to his people in and through Jesus Christ (“salvation,” “eternal life,” and so on), it remains precisely a gift. It is never something we can earn. We can never put God into our debt; we always remain in his.” (60)

Yet in all his talk about individual sanctification, he insists that virtue is God-focused:

“The glory of virtue, in the Christian sense, is that the self is not in the center of that picture. God and God’s kingdom are in the center.” (70)

Midway through the book, Wright delves into exegesis of key passages that shape our understanding of Christian virtue. He helpfully exposes the fallacy of much contemporary thinking about Jesus. Wright argues that even if Christian virtue includes looking to Jesus as an example, this view fails to deal with sin:

“The suggestion that we treat Jesus as a moral example can be, and in some people’s thinking has been, a way of holding at arm’s length the message of God’s kingdom on the one hand and the meaning of is death and resurrection on the other. Making Jesus the supreme example of someone who lived a good life may be quite bracing to contemplate, but it is basically safe… Jesus as ‘moral example’ is a domesticated Jesus, a kind of religious mascot. We look at him approvingly and decide we’ll copy him (up to a point at least, and no doubt he’ll forgive us the rest because he’s a decent sort of chap). As if! If all we need is a good example, we can’t be in quite such a bad state as some people (including Jesus himself) have suggested.” (126)

There are a few weaknesses in this book. I enjoyed Wright’s exegetical insights into Paul’s idea of virtue, and though I’m grateful that he considers Ephesians and Colossians to be authentically Pauline, I wish he had also addressed the idea of virtue in the Pastoral epistles. 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus provide a window into the idea of the virtuous Christian leader, including the list of qualifications for elders and deacons.

Another weakness in Wright’s proposal is his view of hell. For Wright (following the thought of C.S. Lewis), hell is the consequential outworking of sinful life patterns. Sin becomes its own damnation, leading to dehumanization to the point that an individual is beyond pity.

But this middle way between eternal conscious torment and annihilationism downplays the texts that indicate God will actively be involved in a sinner’s eternal destiny. It is puzzling to me that Wright never shies away from the glorious implications of resurrection and new heavens and new earth, and yet he seems to distance himself from the frightening implications of some of the descriptions of hell found in the New Testament.

Thankfully, Wright affirms evangelism as a central part of what it means to live a life of Christian virtue. He defines evangelism as proclaiming Jesus and persuading others to trust him. At this point, I wished the book would have been longer so that Wright could have written about how evangelism shapes us into God’s missionary people. Still, it was good to see an evangelistic thrust, since this subject has sometimes been neglected in his other works.

I suspect that many laypeople will have a hard time with the middle part of After You Believe (which summarizes biblical teaching on virtue). But church leaders can, with discernment, take many of the truths here and unpack them easily for their congregations.

RELATED ARTICLES: The Rebirth of Virtue: An Interview with N.T. Wright N.T. Wright on Protestant-Catholic Relations Piper vs. Wright on Justification: A Layman’s Guide My First Interview with Wright Book Review: The Future of Justification by John Piper

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