This is week one of an ongoing commentary for the book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters:
I’m generally a good person. I tend to follow the rules and always have. Sure, I misbehave from time to time, but for the most part those who know me say I have “character.”
At this point in my life – having recently turned 37, I am more or less happy with my character but remarkably unhappy with the reasons why I am who I am. I am not entirely sure that why I behave the way I do is consistent with what I believe about God, Jesus and the Kingdom.
When I was eight years old my family started going to church and we became “Christians.” I was taught that Christians obey God and keep the rules in the Bible. As a child, that was all I needed to hear. That is why, though I had moments of failure, I was the perpetual “good kid.” I didn’t do the “bad things” that many of my friends in high school did. I didn’t drink until I was 21. I didn’t do illegal drugs or have sex before marriage. As I grew older I didn’t cheat or lie to get ahead or make a buck. I’ve been faithful to my wife. I’ve helped people in need. I’ve been a “good person.”
The problem for me now is that I am not sure why I am still so eager to be “good.” All of my big-word-ologys have changed: my epistemology, theology, christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, eschatology and basileology have dramatically evolved over the last 15 years. (And yes, I think I made up the word basileology – but the one thing world needs is more basileogists – Kingdom students.)
In other words, almost every foundational truth that relates to my understanding of God and faith has evolved since earning my theology degree in 1995. All but perhaps one – my reasons for being moral. Now that the gospel is fundamentally about Jesus and the Kingdom – not about me and my sin – I have felt that my old way of viewing morality is somehow broken or inconsistent. As a result, I have been a good person because it is all I have ever known. I know morality, virtue and character have to tie into the Kingdom-centered life, but I’m not sure I have been able to say exactly why.
This is the personal disclaimer behind my desire to read and blog through NT Wright’s After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. The subtitle for the book won me over. I want to know why Christian character matters. And since I have pretty much devoured NT Wright’s thinking on most every other matter, it seemed like the right time to tackle the topic.
I haven’t read ahead in the book and don’t plan on doing so. I’ve read the preface and first chapter and will write briefly about it now. I’ve converted to a Kindle, so I am unable to reference page numbers. I hear that issue is fixed in the Kindle 2. But…here we go…
I hope you didn’t skip the Preface of the book. Wright clearly claims that this book is a logical third installment after his previous popular works: Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope. He specifically notes that this book remains rooted in his thesis that “the final hope of Christians is not simply “going to heaven” but resurrection into God’s new creation, the new heaven and new earth." My interior response to this was a huge sigh of relief. This is what I had hoped the book would be.
Also in the Preface, he tells us his objective: “But the main point of the book…is to stimulate tomorrow’s Christians of whatever sort, and in whichever tradition, to be encouraged and excited in the pursuit of virtue in its specifically Christian form, and to have their character shaped, together and individually, to become the human beings God made us to be, which means being concerned primarily with worship and mission and with the formation of our own character as the vital means to that double end.”
And here we have it – before we even see chapter one. Character, he will evidently attempt to prove, is an outflow of our dual mandate to worship and do mission. This intrigues and excites me.
Chapter one is a series of real-life narrative examples that ring very true to me – especially as a pastor. Example one is “James.” James experienced a real and dramatic conversion to Jesus that changed his life, but the church was unable to answer his next big question, “What happens now? What does life look like after I believe?” This causes Wright to respond:
“Many Christians have so emphasized the need for conversion, for the opening act of faith and commitment, for the initial statement of faith (“believing that Jesus died for me” or whatever), that they have a big gap in their vision of what being a Christian is all about.”
This resonates. Our gospel must lead to genuine transformation in the here and now or it is not the gospel of Jesus. I sometimes worry that half of the people in my church are “James’s” afraid to ask someone, “Is this all there is?”
The next narrative account – of “Jenny” and “Philip” surpassed the James example for me. This one hit closer to my heart. Jenny was presented as a moralist who sees the Bible clearly as a document providing black and white/right and wrong answers. Philip is presented as her opposite – seeing a gospel of grace, love and forgiveness…and a lot of gray in the black and whites. Philip thinks it is all about discovery and the process.
I used to be Jenny. Then I became Philip. The problem is...Wright doesn’t portray either as the hero. They are both missing something. It is, likely, also what I am missing. I am counting on the rest of the book to flesh out the answer, but it starts with this:
“Character – the transforming, shaping and marking of a life and its habits – will generate the sort of behavior that rules might have pointed toward but which a “rule-keeping” mentality can never achieve. And it will produce the sort of life which will in fact be true to itself – though the “self” to which it will at last be true is the redeemed self, the transformed self, not the merely “discovered” self of popular thought…In the last analysis, what matters after you believe is neither rules nor spontaneous self-discovery, but character.”
The third narrative account in chapter one centers around the 2008 world-wide economic collapse. I found it an interesting example of how creating rules or regulations cannot fix things – only genuine character can. But, for me, it wasn’t as timely or personal of an example as the first two.
The fourth narrative is the story of the “rich young ruler” who approaches Jesus in Matthew 19, Luke 18 and Mark 10. A reader new to Wright should take the time in this section to meditate on his take on eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven. Here we see the connection to his previous works and eschatology. I found this section rich, but would like to focus now only on his conclusion:
“But what we notice in Mark 10 is something which seems to operate in a different dimension. For a start, it is a call, not to specific acts of behavior, but to a type of character. For another thing, it is a call to see oneself as having a role to play within a story-and a story where, to join up with the first point, there is one supreme Character whose life is to be followed. And that Character seems to have his eye on a goal, and to be shaping his own life, and those of his followers, in relation to that goal.”
This is when it hit me. It has been there all along, but I have been unable to see it with my religious and cultural blinders. God through Jesus is bringing Heaven to Earth. (That part I have gotten.) I get to be part of that story. (That part I have also understood.) Therefore, I must be being made fit for Heaven now in preparation to play a role in the great story of Heaven come to Earth. (Somehow…I had not fully gotten this connection.) This was the big break through for me in chapter one.
The fifth narrative in the chapter is the story of Captain Sullenberger – the pilot who landed the airplane on the Hudson River a while back. Wright used his story to explain virtue. In essence, he concludes that virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature. We train ourselves to be virtuous. It is perhaps less about being good and more about being ready. The sixth narrative also supported this theory – the story of the man who saved his daughter from drowning instinctually because of his training. Wright claims that to be virtuous is to be fully human. He reminds the reader that this is both rooted in worship and mission.
The chapter ends this way: “The heart of it – the central thing that is supposed to happen “after you believe” – is thus the transformation of character.” This, he tells us, will be the discussion of the next chapter. I’m looking forward to it.