Living God's Ongoing Story
Against the backdrop of the recent economic crisis, N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, opens with a persuasive call to recover character. Many Christians focus on "getting saved," but what about the rest of the Christian life? Often we get stuck between two extremes: an antinomian ("against law") spontaneity, and a rule-focused legalism. Instead, argues Wright in After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (HarperOne), we need to develop virtuous character.
At first, the author's prescription sounds like a popular version of Aristotle's ethics: Virtue is formed by self-consciously adopting new habits, countless daily decisions, with the goal of becoming a just person. Do the right thing (which feels odd at first, not spontaneous) long enough, and it becomes second nature. The main means of attaining this virtue is "following Jesus."
By the second chapter, however, Wright begins to show how the valid concerns of pagan wisdom are taken up by the New Testament writers (especially Paul) and, in the process, are transformed by the gospel. We do not live toward the human-centered goal of virtue formation for the sake of happiness or even "human flourishing," but ultimately as priests and rulers who anticipate the restoration of the whole cosmos. "[W]e urgently need to recapture the New Testament's vision of a genuinely 'good' human life as a life of character formed by God's promised future, as a life with that future-shaped character lived within the ongoing story of God's people, and, with that, a freshly worked notion of virtue." And "you don't get that character just by trying. You get it by following Jesus."
Wright points out the tendency of Christians to assume the wider culture's romantic, existential, and therapeutic view of the self. Essentially Gnostic, this view assumes that Jesus came to put us in touch with our inner selves, the divine spark that just does what comes naturally to it: "you have to be true to yourself." Moral action is therefore all about being "authentic," "spontaneous," and "free," without any connection to habits, rituals, external authorities, and, especially, rules. We see this in the free-for-all approach to worship today. "All of this life of worship is something to be learned," says Wright, and it has to be learned together. It's "a team sport."
Crucial to character formation, Wright argues, is mind renewal. Prizing "spontaneity," the "low-grade romanticism" that many Christians have adopted from the culture has colluded "with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think." In contrast to both rule following and spontaneity, growing up into Christ is hard work, not least of all hard thinking.
There is some tension between Wright's emphasis on character formation by following Jesus' example and his later insistence that "holding up Jesus as an example of how to live a moral life seems rather like holding up Tiger Woods as an example of how to hit a golf ball." In fact, "Jesus as 'moral example' is a domesticated Jesus, a kind of religious mascot …. If all we need is a good example, we can't be in quite such a bad state as some people (including Jesus himself) have suggested."