Reviewed in the United States on November 12, 2014
Title: Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He was, What He Did, and Why He Matters
Author: N.T. Wright
I am typically disinclined to give an N.T.Wright book a poor review. I'm not going to start doing so here. That's not to say I have no criticisms; I do. But I really have a difficult time understanding why so many folks get their pants in a wad when it comes to Wright's work.
Every now and again an author comes along on our planet who understands that deep inside the human heart there is a profound emptiness--an emptiness that cannot and will not ever be filled by the things this world has to offer or withhold. What I think N.T. Wright does is points his readers in the direction where that emptiness, that intellectual, spiritual, psychological void, can be filled. But he doesn't do so in the way of so many other authors--where Jesus is a mere helper who teaches folks how to be a good American. Many theologians are just that: therapists or counselors. That is, they have an eye for the great God of the universe, but very little idea of how that great God has effectively taken back this world. Oh, yes, God is sovereign, they say, but only in some sort of strange and controlling way that most folks can scarcely relate to or understand. Thus the stories of the Gospels, the Old Testament, Acts, and the Epistles are merely the stories a good counselor might tell a patient: here's how to pray, here's how to be compassionate, here's how to have a good marriage, or here's what Jesus said about conservative (or liberal!) American politics.
Wright will have none of that. His is the voice not of a counselor or therapist who sics Jesus on a would be patient who is having a bad day or a bad year or a bad life. N.T. Wright is the voice of the prophet crying out in the wilderness: here is your King! So the subtitle, a 'new vision,' is not entirely accurate because what Wright is really doing is pointing us back to what has always been there but what has been covered over by so much encrustation and (wrong) theology in the 2,000 or so years since Jesus walked among us. If Wright is doing anything he is chiseling away the barnacles that have been built up around the Scripture--barnacles I suppose that may have at one time been designed to protect the Bible but that in more recent years have been thickened over in order to protect a theological and/or political system from scrutiny. It is this action of Wright that I suspect lends many folks to label him a theological liberal. To wit:
We have reduced the Kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself. (5)
This is the point in a nutshell. And sermons that do little more than teach me how to be a good Christian or worse a good American (complete with the requisite 'special worship services' on significant holidays) do nothing for me. I want to hear about Jesus and what he has and is doing to upbraid the world and bring about his rule and reign. This is why I read N.T. Wright over and over and over again. He shows me Jesus. "We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world!" (5) And so right he is.
Wright has a way of making God understandable, but certainly not palatable in the 'I'm now comfortable with this God' kind of way, to everyone and I don't really care if you are reading his lofty theologies or if you are reading his 'made for the popular reader' books. He challenges readers at every step of their presuppositions. He confounds them at every point of their preconceptions. He unravels every blanket of theological safety they believe they have wrapped themselves up into. He does this in such a way that, you might not believe me unless you read it, neither political (or theological) conservatives nor liberals come out unscathed. And, frankly, this is so because Jesus spared no such pain to anyone either. Jesus is the King. God is taking back the world. Get on board or get left behind, but there is nothing anyone can do to stop Jesus from being King and, in Wright's words, 'setting things to rights.'
Simply Jesus is another of Wright's books that does so much the same. He places Jesus firmly in the context of his culture and is quite content to interpret the New Testament within that context. And let me be frank: that's exactly where Jesus ought to be interpreted. Preachers spend far, far too much time trying making Jesus 'relevant.' I say leave Jesus in the first century, understand what his words and actions meant then and there, and then figure out how that works out in words and actions in our own time and place. But here's the key: Jesus' words and actions really have one meaning and purpose. Preachers around about our times have made Jesus far too predictable. "Blessed are those who can see this, who can spot what's going on, who are prepared to go with Jesus rather than with the princelings of the earth, even though what Jesus wasn't what they had expected" (84).
The only quibble I have with Wright, in general (and as it particularly pertains to Simply Jesus), is his take on the event of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent war afterwards. I fully understand that, ultimately, our battle is against the satan. Yes! (See pp 126ff.) With this I find no disagreement. I have no doubt that the satan uses people and powers to his/her own end. Yes! But he writes, "It is the battle against the satan himself. And, though the satan no doubt uses Rome, uses Herod, uses even the chief priests themselves, Jesus keeps his eye on the fact that the satan is not identified with any of these, and that to make such an identification is already to give up, and so to lose the real battle" (126). But Wright appears to mitigate human responsibility when he says such things. Maybe I'm not reading closely enough; maybe I'm reading too closely. I'm not sure.
That is, I'm not sure how to understand Wright when he accuses (!) the U.S. government in power during 9/11 (a conservative government, to be sure; yet a government that passed bi-partisan legislation authorizing the sword) and fails to see what those who might otherwise be labeled 'enemies' did to provoke the U.S. government (and many nations around the world besides, including his own!) He is fond of Romans 8; not so fond of Romans 13. I think this is bothersome. He is fond of criticizing the United States (and not so subtly George W. Bush) but eschews criticism of other governments who were also involved in action against those who attacked the U.S.A on September 11, 2001. Here I think Wright is unable to make the correct theological connection and fails to understand the difference between a secular government charged with responsibility to protect its citizens (Romans 13 and elsewhere) and an ecclesial authority not authorized to use the sword ('put your sword away', Jesus said to Peter).
In my opinion, Wright makes a serious error here. Yes, war is bad. Yes, we should avoid it. But the truth is this: in international politics, in global politics, the ethics of the kingdom of God are not always so neat and tidy or evenly applied or understood or appreciated or cared for. Ask one of the folks who flew an airplane into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 if he cares a lick about what Jesus said about war, turning the other cheek, and loving your enemies. I'm not sure what the answer is; I'm not sure Wright's ongoing criticism of the United States government (he rarely says anything about the current government of Barack Obama) is wholly justified. I do know this: the radicals who continue to kill (women, children), main, murder, and provoke wars in the name of God are not the same as those folks who take up the sword to defend women, children, the weak, and others whose daily goal is simply to live life. Is it fair to apply a biblical standard of ethics (loving enemies, turning the other cheek, etc.) to a secular government?
The reality of this life is this: sometimes evil does have a face. Sometimes evil is more than an invisible being or force. Sometimes evil does have a name and we do well to name it as such. I'm not suggesting I have all this worked out, and at times (like when Jesus looked at Peter and commanded Satan to get behind) I am stretched too thin to wholly justify my position. What I am suggesting is that Wright's position at this point is weak and, in my opinion, mitigates human culpability. Suggesting there are no evil people really fails to understand the full workings of evil and the evil one in this world.
I can go on and on telling you how important this book, along with any other by Wright, is. I could tell you that Wright is at his best when he is engaging the text and tying together all the threads he is remarkably twisted from so much ancient history and text. I could tell you of his masterful understanding and application of Daniel, Isaiah, and Zechariah. I could tell you about his superior interpretation of the historical events from the time of Jesus. But to what end? Those who have read Wright already know and those who haven't will not be disappointed.
I have read enough of Wright's work to see and know that a lot of what is in this book is repetitive. How God Became King is a similar, and in my opinion, superior book by Wright. His monumental Jesus and the Victory of God is a much expanded and academic version of Simply Jesus that may appeal to more detail oriented readers. Simply Jesus kind of distills a lot of what is written in the academic volumes to a more popular level; it is no less potent.
The person who knows Jesus will appreciate very much Wright's work to interpret Jesus within his own context. The historical details Wright brings to our attention, the cultural phenomena of the time, the complexities of would be messiahs, revolutionaries, and temple authorities, and the sophistication and intrigue of secular politics are all woven together nicely and interpreted brilliantly to help the reader see that God's plan has always been the same: to reclaim the earth for himself through his appointed Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the Son of God.
And God wins.
4/5 stars (because he has written better versions of these thoughts elsewhere and it gets repetitive, and because I struggle with his interpretation of evil and his seeming inability to distinguish the role of a secular government in protecting innocent people from the forces of evil at play in this world.)