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Finding the New in the Old

A Review of Simply Christian

As a teen I loved hanging out in the small basement library of my church. Retreating among the books before or after the service, I’d usually head towards my favourite shelf - the one which housed the books by C.S. Lewis. His clear and profound writing drew me more deeply into the Christian path and kindled a hope that there was more to Christianity than what I heard in Sunday School. Considering Lewis’ ongoing popularity today, I know I wasn’t alone.

N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense has been likened to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Lewis’ classic from the 1940s is still renowned and widely read today because he restates the fundamental teachings of Christianity in an informal, conversational style. No jargon, no complicated terms, just straightforward teaching about deep truths for everyday people. This was Lewis’ gift. I first picked up this book as a teen, and was drawn into his teaching even then. As I read Simply Christian, I could understand the comparison to Lewis’ classic.

Like Lewis writing the Narnia books for his godchildren, Wright dedicates Simply Christian to his grandchildren. One can see why. Like Lewis, Wright covers the broad strokes of Christianity, writing of complex themes in a clear and compelling way. For someone like me (or Wright’s grandchildren for that matter), raised in church and exposed to the Christian story all my life, I was amazed how much there still was to learn. Like Wright, I found myself wanting to give this book to all the young people in my life, in the hopes that they too would be drawn to these teachings. As the subtitle suggests, Christianity makes sense.

So what is Christianity about then, according to Wright? Someone who hasn’t cracked open a Bible in a while might assume it’s just a book of moral teachings, but the truth is much more compelling. In a nutshell, Christianity is about something that happened through Jesus, a Story which affects us deeply and changes us for good. Written as an introduction for outsiders as well as those within the Christian tradition, Simply Christian deepens a Story we think we know everything about.

Wright doesn’t immediately launch into telling the Story however. Instead, he helps us wonder why we’d even want to hear it in the first place. Why concern ourselves with God and Jesus? He makes a convincing case to keep turning the pages by identifying four things that make us suspect that this world is not all there is. What or Who is beyond the material world? In short, our desire for justice, quest for spirituality, hunger for relationships, and love of beauty all leave us seeking something that we have never actually seen. Wright says that these four things are like an echoing voice in a cave. We hear it but have no idea where it’s coming from. As our curiosity is piqued, we find that the echoing voice points beyond us to the Creator.

He then unfolds three basic ways we can think about who this Creator is, asking, "How can we imagine God’s space and ours relating to one another?" The first two views of God - pantheism (that God is everywhere, even in evil) and deism (that God created the world but stays distant from it) - are false. Option three is the clincher, and is the view found within classic Judaism and Christianity. God is not in everything nor is God distant from it. Rather, heaven overlaps and interlocks with Earth. And this is where the Story begins.

The beauty of the book is that Wright takes us on an exciting tour of Old and New Testaments with this question in mind: how do God’s world and our world overlap? So often historical books like the Bible are misread (or ignored) simply because we don’t understand how to interpret them. This sense of overlap between heaven and earth lies at the heart of Jewish and early Christian theology. Heaven and earth were overlapping in the nation of Israel, in places like the Temple, the Torah, the King and in the promises God made of a new creation to come. The ultimate overlap happened when Jesus came to earth. As Wright put it,

"Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever."

Seen through this template, I kept having "Aha!" moments as I read. It was like looking at an old familiar picture while seeing it in a completely new way. For example, the story of the Exodus in the Old Testament is a grand enough story in itself, but Wright tells how it found its echo in the story of Jesus. Another "Aha" moment was seeing how the Temple (where God met His people in the Old Testament) was replaced by Jesus. Though the ideas were not always new to me, it was refreshing to be reminded in such a clear way. Oddly enough, though the genre is non-fiction, it was a page turner.

Like a good storyteller who knows the heart of the story, Wright continues to remind us of his theme at every new chapter, showing himself to be a trustworthy guide. The book reminded me of Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time by Marcus Borg, another book that explores the question, "Who is this Jesus anyhow?" Books such as these help us to continue to experience the third option Wright teaches about - that God in Jesus has not left us alone, but continues to intersect with us here on earth. The Story is still relevant and still profound for modern times.

I would recommend Wright’s book if you are a newcomer to the Christian story, or if you would like to "meet Jesus again". As the individual stories are revealed to be contained in a larger Story, it all makes sense. Like that teen from long ago discovering a deeper version of Christianity through C.S. Lewis, you may just find your mind opened and your faith stirred.

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