You can’t run in certain “intellectual” circles of modern Evangelicalism without hearing the name N.T. Wright. To some, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England is the modern day C.S. Lewis, only with more degrees in theology.
I’ve never read Wright, so when his After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters showed up in my local library recently (though the book came out in 2010), I availed myself of the opportunity to finally become hip and cool by claiming, “Oh yes, I’ve read Wright.”
The central idea of this Wright book is that a return to instinctual practice of Christian virtues is the only way to save Christianity. Too many Christians today don’t function like genuine Christians because a true Christian ethic eludes them. Most of this, Wright claims, is due to a misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian postconversion. Too few people grasp how the basic truths of Christianity should inform our practice of the Kingdom of God on earth, and how the Kingdom should undergird our beliefs.
Wright’s solution to the problem is to instill Christian ethics in people the same way a drill sergeant teaches his military charges how to rebuild a gun while blindfolded. Everything about the Christian life needs to be so instinctual and second nature that we no longer think about what we’re doing, but it instead comes naturally. Wright claims this occurs through a synergistic practice and methodical incorporation of five elements: Scripture, Stories, Examples, Community, and Practices.
Quite a few leaders in Evangelicalism would certainly add a hearty Amen to Wright’s plan, especially those who love to talk about the Desert Fathers and Ancient Faith. Practice makes perfect in their regard, and building a new Christian army of those who do without thinking sounds like the cure for what ails us.
While I can certainly see that drilling people in the core truths of Christianity, both truths in fact and truths in practice, is a good thing, Wright’s book has a glaring omission. As someone who has not read Wright before, I see this lack as so enormous, it makes me wonder just how wise Wright truly is and how he ever ascended to gathering such a herd of fanboys.
To me, what cripples modern Christians more than anything else, even when they embody those worthy virtues Wright espouses, is a complete lack of understanding as to what it means to live by the Spirit. The key differentiator between the righteous people of the OT and the righteous people of the NT is that the NT folks now have the Spirit of God living in them always. Say what you will about the Church, but its defining characteristic is that God now resides in men. No other reality trumps this.
That Wright writes almost nothing in his 307-page tome about how to live by the Spirit pretty much renders his entire book useless. Christian virtues are critical, but Wright’s advocacy of a drilled Christian ethic resembles building a Lamborghini and then leaving out the engine. Unless Christians learn to live by the Spirit, all that drilling, worldview, and ethic will lead to just another failed attempt to turn Christianity into a set of rules, with Wright’s entire plan condensed to making those rules reflexes that require no thinking—and no Spirit, either.
What is particularly galling is that Wright goes so far as to downgrade the idea of fully realized Spirit-led living as “romantic.” This smacks of rushing to the polar extreme in an effort to make his point about the need for a practiced, down-to-earth Christian ethic. He makes the mistake of denigrating the key element of the Christian life in his effort to amplify a smaller component he feels has been neglected. In the end, though, he commits the ultimate “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” error that someone of his stature in Evangelicalism should NEVER make.
When Evangelicalism persists in reducing Christianity to a Spirit-less ethic, it substitutes the zombie religionist for the fully alive believer. And we need more “Christian” zombies like we need…well, more zombies. Which is to say, not at all.
How Evangelicalism can continue to mangle life in the Spirit and push out this pale imitation of Christian maturity is beyond me, yet this is what passes for the Christian life in most churches: Here are the rules of the Faith; now live by them. How no one can see that this is no different from any other failed religious system is startling to me, yet this is what I perpetually see in most Evangelical churches. We simply do not know how to live by the Spirit.
Words cannot adequately express my utter disappointment with After You Believe. To me, it’s little more than an intellectual exercise that represents the half-answer now working against restoring the Church in the West to its former glory, despite Wright’s contention that it is the balm for what ails us. A partial balm maybe, but until more reputable Christian authors start writing on how to live by the Spirit, we’ll keep instituting partial balms that ultimately prevent us from becoming all that God intends us to be.