In the Direction of a World without Death”
A Review of
After You Believe:
Why Christian Character Matters.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
After You Believe:
Why Christian Character Matters.
Hardback: HarperOne, 2010.
Buy Now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
N.T. Wright’s newest book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, follows in the footsteps of two of his other recent books 2006’s Simply Christian — which makes a case for Christianity in a fashion not unlike that of C.S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity — and 2008’s Surprised by Hope — which explores in depth resurrection and the biblical concept of heaven. Wright describes the trajectory of the three book in this new volume’s preface: “Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed. The better we understand that goal, the better we shall understand the path toward it” (ix). All three of these books are excellent, but this newest volume is most relevant to the sort of holistic Christian faith that we regularly advocate for here in the pages of The Englewood Review. Wright’s case for the significance of Christian character is based on the philosophical concept of virtue, which he traces back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, although he emphasizes that for the Church, the Aristotelian concept of virtue must be reinterpreted through the lenses of Scripture and the tradition of the Church. His locating the focus of Christian ethics — for that in a nutshell is what After You Believe is about — in virtue is much endebted to the work of Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre and noted theologian Stanley Hauerwas, whose work relies heavily upon that of Macintyre. However, although Wright does believe that the church is essential to the redemptive work of God in the world, After You Believe seems to evade the strongly communitarian themes that drive the work of Hauerwas and Macintyre. For instance, for the first half of the book, Wright addresses virtue in almost completely individualistic terms and only in the second half of the book does he begin to explore the role of the Church in the development of virtue. Finally, in the last chapter he gets around to making the crucial point that “[O]ne of the primary locations where, and means by which, any of us learns the habits of the Christian heart and life is what we loosely call the church” (272), noting that this is not a book on ecclesiology. Although Wright is a bit reticent on the role of the Church in the development of virtue, we should be clear that he is also not a thoroughgoing individualist. For instance, he drives home the point early in the book that:
Christian virtue isn’t about you — your happiness, your fulfillment, your self-realization. It’s about God and God’s kingdom, and your discovery of a genuine human experience by the paradoxical route — the route God himself took in Jesus Christ! — of giving yourself away , of generous love which refuses to take center stage (70).
Despite his overall minimization of the Church’s role in the development of virtue, After You Believe is an excellent book and makes a strong case for virtue as the demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s “transformation of character” in us.
The road to virtue travels, Wright observes between the all-too-well-known polarities of a black-and-white legalism in which rules are either kept or not kept and in which the transformation of character is incomprehensible and an individualistic obsession with a sort of authenticity in which “any attempt to force yourself to keep particular moral rules and standards which seem alien to you is a denial both of God’s free acceptance of you and of your own authentic existence” (30). As alluded to in Wright’s summarization of the aim of this book stated at the beginning of this review, having a keen sense of the telos, or end toward which God is guiding creation, is essential to understanding our mission as God’s people in the present. The scriptural story teaches us that the end of creation is the reconciliation of all things in creation and that this reconciliation has already been secured in the death and resurrection of Jesus and now is being worked out “through human beings for the whole world.” With this story firmed planted in our hearts and minds Wright argues, we begin to get a sense of how our lives should be arranged now in order to set us on a course toward these ends. Wright’s work here thus could be understood as an introduction to Christian ethics for the missional people of God. Fundamental to Wright’s concept of ethics is the notion that the Church is called to be priests and rulers, “a royal priesthood” as Peter described it in his first epistle. Ultimately, humanity will reign with God over all creation; however, as we seek to discern our calling in this direction it is crucial for us to realize that the way in which we will rule creation is not the authoritarian and oppressive manner in which rulership is typically understood. Wright observes:
If you want to see what it looks like for God’s renewed people in Christ to be “royal” … don’t look at the fourth and fifth centuries , when Roman emperors first became Christians. … Look, instead at what the church was doing in the first two or three centuries, while being persecuted and harried by the authorities — and announcing to the world that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah of Israel, was its rightful Lord. That is what it means to be “rulers” in the sense we’re discussing here: to be agents of that King’s reign, the reign of the Prince of Peace, the one through whom tyranny itself… was overthrown with the destruction of its most vital weapon — namely, death — and the one through whom therefore was brought to birth a new world in which order and freedom at last meet (225-226).
Central to Wright’s account of virtue is the scriptural reality that transformation of our character comes within the context of the renewing of our minds in worship. His case for the significance of worship here is reminiscent of Jamie Smith’s recent — and excellent — book on worship and transformation, Desiring the Kingdom (see our review here). Wright surveys the New Testament witness, making a case that by actively participating in the worship of the church, our minds are renewed, which over time leads to the transformation of our whole character. The primary virtues that are nurtured in us as we are transformed in this way, Wright argues, are the familiar triad of I Corinthians 13: faith, hope and love. Furthermore, we see signs of the development of these virtues in us by the familiar “Fruits of the Spirit” that Paul names in Galatians 5. Additionally, God’s transforming work in the midst of the church community nurtures the corporate virtue of unity. Although Wright is certainly correct to name unity as a virtue that God is cultivating in the church, his distinctions between individual and corporate virtues seems a bit artificial, a result no doubt of his minimalization of the Church in his account of virtue.
The book’s final chapter holds one of its finest gems, “the virtuous circle,” the following cycle which Wright maintains desrcibes the development of Christian virtue (imagine, if you will, these terms laid out in a circle):
scripture >> stories >> examples >> community >> practice >> scripture
Most of these terms are familiar to us, with the possible exception of “examples.” By examples, Wright is referring to a specific sort of story of virtue manifested in people that we deem worthy of imitation. However, he is quick to add that these sort of examples are more than “mere imitation,” but rather inspirations that through the leading of the Holy Spirit, “can be a means toward something quite new” (270). It would be exciting to see churches reflecting on this cycle of virtue and maybe even beginning to form their lives together more intentionally in this direction.
After You Believe is perfect reading for the season of Easter in the Church. As we remember the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Wright’s fine theological reflections here shed much light on what it means for us to be a people being transformed in the direction of a world without death. May we be encouraged by Wright’s work and may the virtue of Christ our resurrected Lord be continually nurtured in our midst.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com