After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by NT Wright- A Review

About the Author

N.T. Wright is an Anglican Bishop and one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars; he earned his Doctor of Divinity degree from Oxford University in 2000.  “He has broadcast frequently on radio and television, and has lectured at universities and colleges around the world, holding visiting Professorships at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Harvard Divinity School, and the Gregorian University in Rome. He has received honorary doctorates from several universities.”[1] A prolific author, Wright writes for the theologian and layman alike.  He wrote After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters during his tenure as the Bishop of Durham.  He is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  Wright is quite popular; his official Facebook page has garnered just fewer than 11,000 likes.

Christian Character

Central to theme of the book is the eschatological idea that “God the creator intends to bring heaven and earth together…and this plan has been decisively inaugurated in Jesus Christ.”[2]  This idea is a common one, given that the prophecy of Revelation 21 illustrates a new heaven and new earth in which God will dwell among His people.  Oftentimes, the present state of the earth is looked upon in disdain in deference to the coming of the new heaven and new earth.  This feeling is best captured in the words of an old blue grass gospel song: “I don’t want to get adjusted, to this world, to this world.  I got a home that’s so much better, I want to go there sooner or later.  I don’t want to get adjusted to this world.”[3]  Essential to this type of feeling is the idea that the events of Revelation 21 are something that is going to happen.  Wright states that the events of Revelation 21 are something that has begun to happen and that this was the view of the first Christians.  He explores this notion at length in his previous books Simply Christian and Surprised by HopeAfter You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (“the book”) is, more or less, a sequel to those books that explores Christian character and virtue.  In the book, Wright argues that “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.”[4]  In other words, the book is about being adjusted in this world with an eye towards the world to come.

Of course, the book is titled “After You Believe.”  The ethical framework explored isn’t for everybody; it’s only for believers.  Just as God is transforming creation itself through the resurrection of Jesus, God transforms individuals through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  There is a transformation of character that comes after one believes.  If one has not had that transformation of character, the virtues explored just aren’t applicable to them.  Wright’s treatment of virtue looks forward to the events of Revelation 21.  Those who don’t believe are destined for a much different end than those who do.  The book is an “exploration of how Christian character is formed.”[5]  Such a character, when formed, will exhibit certain virtues.

In addressing the concepts of character and virtue, Wright draws a very interesting parallel with Greek philosophy.  Without discounting the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Wright points out that the New Testament is a product of Hellenistic authors written to a Hellenistic audience.   The writers and the audience (at least the educated ones) already have an understanding of developing desirable character and exhibiting noble virtues…an Aristotelian one.  This Aristotelian view already recognized a goal of developing human character, the importance and existence of specific virtues, and a method by which one could live out a virtuous life.  It’s as if a basic framework for right-living is built into the human experience itself.  Aristotle and the Greeks recognized it, but overlaid worldly values upon it.  Paul and the early Christians (themselves Greeks or Hellenistic Jews), recognized the framework and overlaid Christian values upon it.  The end-game for Aristotle was living out Greek virtues; to do so was to function well.  In functioning well, one would flourish.  The end game for the Christian is to live as a ruler and a priest in God’s perfect creation.  This has been God’s plan all along as documented in Genesis all the way through to Revelation. Wright sees living out the Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5)  as functioning well in the kingdom God has inaugurated through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Christian character is developed through the Holy Spirit and exhibits the fruits of the Spirit.  The old bluegrass attitude of not wanting to get adjusted just won’t do.  A more contemporary folk song whose authors’ borrow from Shakespeare (as Wright does throughout the book) comes through with a much more faithful hymn to sing: “Love it will not betray you, dismay, or enslave you, it will set you free. Be more like the man you were made to be.”[6]

Ideas and Ethical Insights

Wright’s approach to Christian Ethics as related to the classic Aristotelian framework is a novel one (to my knowledge, at least.)  Looking at Christian life as working towards a goal puts living in perspective.  Oftentimes, people come to faith and stop their intellectual assent by thinking, “It is finished!” They think that because Jesus’ work was finished on the cross that theirs must be too.   Taking the attitude, that things are just underway and working towards a goal puts more of an onus on the individual to strive to exercise Christian virtues.  Due to Wright’s general attitude about ethics, this is as deep as the book delves into ethical theory.  Wright states that the book is “not a full account of ethics…which is what some people expect from a book on Christian behavior…that’s the wrong way to go about the whole thing.”

Thus, the book does not explore various ethical theories.  It’s not a treatment of Emmanuel Kant through Ayn Rand and how their views square or don’t square with Christianity.  The ethical insight that Wright offers is that Christian ethics can’t necessarily be systematized in the same way that Christian theology can.   Christian ethics can be viewed through the prism of secular ethics but only, as Paul might put it, “in a mirror dimly, known in part but not yet fully known.”[7]  Wright puts the study of ethical theory in perspective; everyone has some system of ethics by which he orders his life.  (Wright briefly explores varying ethical attitudes in some chapters).  Even if one manages to live with complete integrity within his system, he falls short of being a ruler and priest in the kingdom of God.  The ultimate vocation of the Christian is to live as a ruler and priest.  Secular ethical systems do not provide an avenue to do so.  Living in such a way is something that can result from a set of systematized ethics; it’s just something that is going to happen.  It has been inaugurated already.  When the Christian understands this, he can stop looking at ethics as a set of rules and start looking at ethics as a way to live.  Aristotle’s ethical system, which was not rules based, seems like the closest secular ethical theory to the one Wright advocates.  However, as Wright points out, living out the Aristotelian virtues doesn’t truly equate to functioning well.  Aristotelian (worldly) virtues are too much at odds with Christian ones.

Unfortunately, Wright puts the cart before the four horseman of the Apocalypse.   One can tell by his writing that Wright is clearly annoyed by the prevailing attitude that man’s ultimate destination is a far off heaven on cloud were one plays a harp as a disembodied spirit in blissful solitude.  A faithful reading of the Bible clearly indicates that this is not the case.  A new creation is coming down out of heaven and Christians will be very much embodied.  Wright is theologically correct to advocate the coming Kingdom of God, but he doesn’t make a case that this has anything to do with ethics or character in the present age.  Yes, the Kingdom of God has come in the sense that the Holy Spirit dwells with Christians on earth, but the sinners are still here too.  We just aren’t there yet.  Wright’s focus on the Kingdom of God, while it makes one cognizant about the ultimate goal for Christians, just seems out of place in a discussion of ethics in a sinful world.  There’s just no application to it.  Wright needs to do a better job of connecting man’s ultimate kingdom vocation to his ethical life in this world.  Yes, the Christian’s ultimate destination is relevant theologically, but how does it affect his Christian character?

It may not.  However, that doesn’t mean that Wright’s view of ethical theory is out the window.  Ethical theories are best tested by their real world application.  All of the world’s ethical theories have shortcomings; they all fail the test.  Wright’s ethical theory, steeped in the coming of Christ, cannot ultimately fail because Christ will establish His Kingdom.  The church can apply this thinking in the present day.  Rather than seeing contemporary moral attitudes as valid based upon ethical theories; the church can see moral attitudes as an absence of Christian character and virtue.  These are things that cannot be taught and learned, but things that must be applied and inaugurated by God himself.

Strengths and Weakness

Wright’s parallel of New Testament though and Greek thought is an excellent one.  As a Baptist who advocates “doing church” like it was done in the first century, I can appreciate the idea of “doing thought” like it was done in the first century.  The Aristotelian parallel is a good, but limited one.  I get it, but other readers may not.  Before I ever picked the book up, I read, studied, and discussed at length in an academic setting Aristotle’s Nichomachen Ethics.  If I hadn’t, Wright’s short treatment of Aristotelian thinking would not have been enough to drive home his points about living in a state of Christian eudaimonia. Thus, Wright’s reliance on an Aristotelian framework is both a strength and a weakness.

I wasn’t as familiar with and studied up on some of Wright’s Shakespearean references and, thus, some of his illustrations supported by Shakespearean dialogue may have been lost on me.  Furthermore, unlike the books of the New Testament and Nichomachean ethics, Shakespeare’s works were meant for entertainment.  There are, of course, underlying philosophical and ethical idea within them.  However, because these ideas are included in works intended for secular entertainment, they are much more open for interpretation than the books of the New Testament and Aristotle’s philosophical writings.  Furthermore, an author can reasonably expect that a Western Christian reader would be educated in the Bible and even Western philosophy.  However, not everyone knows the finer points of Shakespeare…especially outside of England.

Wright can’t help but be English…he is from England and wrote as a Bishop of the Church of England.  However, many of his readers can’t help but be American.  He writes like an Englishman talks and it’s sometimes confusing.  To paraphrase Orson Wells, the book is full of things that are only correct because they’re grammatical but they’re tough on the eye; the phrases are very wearying ones, unpleasant to read.  Even academic work shouldn’t be a strenuous read.  (The book is an academic work, unlike his “For Everyone” series that the author publishes as “Tom Wright.”)  Part of what makes the book is a confusing read is Wright’s penchant for stating an ethical or theological perspective he is advocating against in a way that makes it seem like he is advocating for it, only to ultimately describe that viewpoint as lacking.  Sometimes it’s just plain hard to tell exactly what Wright it advocating, which makes for a frustrating read through an ethics book.

When the confusion is sorted out, Wright does advocate an orthodox position.  This is quite pleasant in a world where the resurrection and divinity of Christ is sometimes removed from treatments of Christian ethics.  Wright is a writer evangelical Christians can, in some areas, trust .  His dedication to faithful orthodoxy (his “new perspective” on Paul not withstanding) shines though in the book; this strengthens his arguments for Christian living.

Recommendation

The title of the book seems to imply that it is a work geared towards every Christian.   However, the book is more accurately understood to be a work geared towards only Christians.  I wouldn’t recommend it for every Christian.  I certainly recommend taking the attitude Wright advocates in the book.  To think to oneself, “I am a ruler and priest in the kingdom of God who should exhibit the fruits of the Spirit; I am able to so exhibit these fruits because the Holy Spirit works though me to do so,” is right-thinking.  For the American Christian layman, the book would come off as a bit of a wonky (to borrow term from the British) read.  I would recommend it to the individual who is quite studied on the New Testament, English literature, and western philosophy, especially if that individual is in the ministry.  Part of the ministry is being able to take complicated spiritual concepts and communicating them in simple terms that everyone can understand.  For anyone who can do that, the insights included in the book can be valuable tools.

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

Works Cited

D.J. Lactose Productions. I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted. http://www.harptabs.com/song.php?ID=17712 (accessed June 8, 2012).

LyricsMania.com. Sigh No More. http://www.lyricsmania.com/sigh_no_more_lyrics_mumford_and_sons.html (accessed June 9, 2012).

St Mary’s College. Curriculum Vitae – Web Version. http://www.ntwrightpage.com/NTW_WebCV.htm (accessed June 6, 2012).

University of St Andrews. N. T. Wright appointed to Chair at St Andrews. April 27, 2010. http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/about/news/title,50688,en.html (accessed June 6, 2012).

Wikipedia contributors . N. T. Wright . June 4 , 2012 . http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=N._T._Wright&oldid=495874474 (accessed June 6, 2012).

Wright, N.T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. Kindle Edition. HarperOne, 2010.

 

[1]  (University of St Andrews 2010)

[2]  (Wright 2010) Location 33 of 5610

[3]  (D.J. Lactose Productions n.d.)

[4]  (Wright 2010) Location 33 of 5610

[5]  ibid

[6]  (LyricsMania.com n.d.)

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:12

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