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Issue Date:  October 20, 2006

By N.T. Wright
HarperSanFrancisco, 240 pages, $22.95
The natural desire to see God


Some bishops over the centuries have excelled in the ability to engage in serious scholarship while carrying out their administrative and pastoral duties. The great “A”s readily come to mind: Athanasius, Augustine, Ambrose, Albert and Anselm. N.T. Wright, author of more than 30 books and the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, since 2003, has proven that it might be worth adding a “W” to that prestigious list. Though he is best known as a scripture scholar, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense proves that Bishop Wright is quite capable of writing for a wider, less academic audience. His latest book is a highly readable exposition of the desiderium naturale videndi Deum (“the natural desire to see God”) and a straightforward yet sensitive explanation of how Christianity fulfills that desire.

The book demonstrates that it is still possible in the 21st century to re-present the Christian tradition, especially as contained in the Bible, in a persuasive way that speaks to the human heart. Bishop Wright identifies four “echoes” of the divine voice within us: the unquenchable thirst for justice, the yearning for a genuine spirituality, the search for meaningful relationships, and the elusive desire for an unfading beauty. Each of these four voices calls us to burst through the superficiality of a self-centered approach to happiness. “Made for spirituality,” Bishop Wright observes, “we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment.”

Bishop Wright summarizes three options we face whenever we decide to heed the four voices echoing in our hearts. We may choose to equate our longing for the beyond with all that we encounter here and now (Option One: pantheism and panentheism). We may opt to believe that the world beyond has absolutely nothing to do with the world we currently live in (Option Two: Epicureanism and deism). Or, we may look at the world as a place where, through God’s own initiative, heaven and earth have been irrevocably overlapped. The main problem with Option One, the bishop contends, is that it leaves no room for a reasonable account of evil. The problem with Option Two “is that it has to plug its ears to all those echoing voices.” Option Three alone leaves open the possibility for us to be “put back to rights” (a wonderful way of translating the Pauline notion of justification) and to discover lasting beauty.

The bulk of this book is dedicated to explaining how, through the paschal mystery of Christ, the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in this world in such a way that heaven and earth become inextricably intertwined. Bishop Wright takes us on a tour of Israel’s privileged role in this plan, Jesus’ fulfillment of the plan, the Holy Spirit’s perpetuation of the plan, as well as the place of worship, prayer, scripture and the church in our participation in the plan.

Bishop Wright’s theology has been described as “evangelical,” and this book is more or less molded around that approach. Specifically, Bishop Wright accents the relationship between the Old and New Covenants, the Jesus-story as “event,” the historicity of the resurrection, and the foundational role of the Word of God for the ongoing realization of God’s saving promise. Bishop Wright persuasively argues against a number of tendencies within Christianity that cause us to miss the essential core of the Christian message. He faults biblical fundamentalism for its shallow view of literalness and metaphor. He eschews the tendency to diminish Christianity into a game we play in order to win the prize of heaven. He speaks boldly against the tendency to trivialize sex and detach it from both its anthropological context of reciprocal interpersonal love and its theological context as a reflection of God’s spousal relationship to the church. Most important, Bishop Wright urges us to grapple with the fact that the promises and demands of Christianity pertain just as much to the present life as to the life to come.

Simply Christian proves once more that Bishop Wright’s is an important voice in contemporary Christian theology. He has an extraordinary ability to find fresh, vivid images that help clarify difficult Christian truths, and he never tires of examining those images from every possible angle. The book’s primary weakness is that it is rather thin on the role of sacraments in Christian living. Nonetheless, as the church faces the urgent need to creatively re-express an ancient message to a postmodern world, this is a book worthy of sharing with a searching friend.

Fr. Daniel Gallagher is assistant professor of theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Mich.

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2006

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