N.T. Wright and the Renewal of Christianity

Bishop Tom Wright speaking at Soularize
Image by Jordon via Flickr

Mick Turner



I am an admitted book addict and have been an avid reader since childhood. I guess there are worse things one could be and, other than spending more than I should for books on occasion and having a head full of somewhat useless knowledge, I don’t think my life is any worse for wear as a result of my excessive reading.

I mention all this because I am going to do something I rarely do in these pages: I am going to recommend a series of books by a particular author. I normally shy away from doing this because I understand that readers have a wide range of tastes and, as a result, what appeals to one may not be pleasing to another. However, from time to time I run across a book, or in this case a group of books, that are so outstanding – so relevant and informative – that I feel called to bring them to my readers’ attention.

The author of the books I will briefly discuss is N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey. Many of you are most likely already familiar with the works of Bishop Wright, especially if you are at least somewhat connected to the loose association referred to as the Emergent Church or Emerging Church. Representing a more moderate, traditional stream within the Emergent movement, Bishop Wright’s books are well-thought-out and presented in a manner characterized by logical coherence, a trait sadly lacking in far too many contemporary writers.

I would recommend any of Bishop Wright’s works, but I especially want to recommend the following quartet of titles: The Challenge of Jesus; Simply Christian; After You Believe; and Surprised by Hope. In addition to giving the reader a general picture of Wright’s theology, these four books also contain truths that are highly practical and, when applied to a disciple’s daily living, are highly transformative.

Further, Bishop Wright presents the often confusing but highly pertinent conflict between modernism (a worldview that is rapidly dying) and post-modernism, (the worldview that is replacing it). Wright’s books also paint a clear picture of where the church fits into this process and why it is necessary for individual Christians in general and the church in particular to understand and live within the context of the emerging post-modern world. Contrary to the strong desires of many in the contemporary church, Bishop Wright makes the valid point that retreat headlong into the arms of modernism is not a viable option. The following series of quotations, taken from The Challenge of Jesus, is especially illustrative of Wright’s take on the situation:

I suggest, in fact, that if postmodernism functions as the death of modernist culture, many of us will find ourselves like the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We as Western Christians mostly bought a bit too heavily into modernism, and we are shocked to discover that it has been dying for a while and is now more or less completely dead. We need to learn how to listen for the hidden stranger on the road who will explain to us how it was that these things had to happen, and how there is a whole new world out there waiting to be born, for which we are called to be the midwives. The answer to the challenge of postmodernism is not to run back tearfully into the arms of modernism. It is to hear in postmodernity God’s judgment on the follies and failings, the sheer selfish arrogance, of modernity and to look and pray and work for the resurrection into God’s new world out beyond. We live at a great cultural turning point; Christian mission in the postmodern world must be the means of the church grasping the initiative and enabling our world to turn the corner in the right direction.

Bishop Wright makes the cogent observation that we stand at a major cultural crossroads. The old modernist view is dying away and the new worldview, along with its practical, concrete ramifications, is moving into the birth canal. The reality is, however, that the new world has not yet been born. As a result, our culture in general and Western Christianity in particular, is presently in a state of confused, unstable limbo. It is as if we are all stuck on an eternal Saturday, halfway between crucifixion and resurrection. What we need now is an increasing clarity as to God’s purposes and a boldness of spirit exemplified by a consistent willingness to think out of the box and take positive risks. We must never reject a new wineskin, just because it “feels different” and may even make us uncomfortable.

As Wright states, we are the midwives that will give birth to the structures and forms that Western Christianity will take as the 21st Century unfolds. As uncomfortable as the age may seem at times, it is also a time of exciting challenge and unlimited opportunity. God is indeed birthing something entirely new and although the past is important in terms of tradition and legacy, it must never be an obstacle to what the Spirit is trying to unfold. This is evidently a very hard truth for some of us to digest, but digest it we must. If we fail to do so, we may hear Taps being blown over the entire edifice of the Western Church.

According to Bishop Wright, and I agree wholeheartedly, if we want to see the rebirth of a vital, livable, and transformational Christian faith, we must learn to live out God’s great story in our day to day lives. Our greatest evangelistic tool must be the love of God translated through the very canvas of our own lives. Bishop Wright expresses this much better than I ever could:

We must therefore get used to a mission that includes living the true Christian praxis. Christian praxis consists in the love of God in Christ being poured out in us and through us……………..We must get used to telling the story of God, Israel, Jesus, and the world as the true metanarrative, the story of healing and self-giving love. We must get used to living as those who have truly died and risen with Christ so that our self, having been thoroughly deconstructed, can be put back together, not by the agendas that the world presses upon us but by God’s Spirit.

For those of us raised in the context of the Christian tradition, much of the magnificent glory of God’s Great Story of redemption and restoration has been lost. In many cases, we have heard the story and been immersed in the symbols for so long that both the meta-narrative and the symbolic traditions have ceased to have transformational impact. For many others, the basic story has been changed to suit the theological prejudices of various groups and leaders and, as a result, the Christian faith being lived out is often a far cry from the reality that Christ ushered into being. And for still others, the traditions of the faith have been adulterated by the cultural ethic in which the particular church finds itself existing. This is especially true of the American church.

No matter the reason for the loss, the result is basically the same: we lose touch with the true splendor of Christ’s being, his mission, and how all this fits into God’s great plan of restoration and renewal on this planet. In addition, we lose our perspective on how unique and incredible the Christian faith is. We lose perspective on how unique and magnificent Jesus Christ was and is.

And when we lose that, we have lost the core of the Christian faith.

© L.D. Turner 2012/All Rights Reserved


3 thoughts on “N.T. Wright and the Renewal of Christianity

  1. “It is as if we are all stuck on an eternal Saturday, halfway between crucifixion and resurrection.” Love this!

    As I say in my own book (not yet published), for all our talk of resurrection, we can’t seem to get Jesus (and ourselves) off the cross, out of death, and into life.

    Enjoyed your post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s