It’s hard to know what to make of N.T. Wright sometimes. He’s a brilliant theologian and compelling writer. He’s quoted by evangelicals on topics like the resurrection, and yet distrusted by some when it comes to books like Justification. This explains why someone like Trevin Wax feels the need to begin a book review explaining how to read a book by someone like Wright.
Whatever you think of Wright, he’s always worth reading. And Wright’s latest, After You Believe, is no exception. It’s third in a series of books that includes Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope. Having explained why Christianity makes sense and what really happens when we die, Wright now focuses on the question of how Christians should live in the present. In short, this is a book on virtue, specifically Christian virtue. It asks how our characters can be “shaped, together and individually, to become the human beings God meant us to be.”
There’s a lot of ground to cover. Wright points past mere rule-keeping to the transformation of character. He examines the ancient concept of virtue, and wrestles with how the Christian understanding of virtue is different from other views. It has much in common, but it’s also radically different. Wright understands that the transformation of character is a slowly forming thing, similar to learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument. It feels strange at first, but slowly becomes second nature.
You can’t talk about these issues without confronting counterfeits. So Wright dismantles some views that are prevalent today: that virtue is discovering the real you buried deep inside (a modern version of Gnosticism), or that it’s just a matter of living authentically and spontaneously without any rules. He argues that character is formed through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus and the Spirit, anticipating the ultimate reality of our future in a renewed heaven and earth, allowing that future reality to shape how we live now. It’s about reclaiming our original vocation. “God’s future is arriving in the present, in the person and work of Jesus, and you can practice, right now, the habits of live which will find their goal in that coming future.”
Wright then applies this, using some well-known passages of Scripture on love and the fruit of the Spirit and the unity of the church. He applies all of this to the worship and mission of the church. And he explores some of the practices that will aid in developing Christian character with God’s help.
This is a profound book. I especially appreciated chapter 3, which talks about our original vocation as humans, and how this vision has been recaptured and restored through Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Overall, Wright does a masterful job of clearly explaining some challenging concepts without getting bogged down.
I didn’t find this book to be a page-turner. At times I found myself searching for the structure of the book. And I’m not completely sure of the intended audience: it’s not quite a popular-level book, nor is it an academic one. It’s a great book for pastors to read as we work at understanding our role in helping God’s people develop Christian character.
Wright is always worth reading. This isn’t a perfect book, but it’s a profound one, and I’m sure I’ll be reading it again.