Reading N. T. Wright's latest book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes It Good (HarperOne), is somewhat like listening to a compilation album. All the classic hits are here: "the kingdom of God is for earth now," "the gospel is the key moment in a story," "resurrection is about bodies," "something has happened," and, of course, the well-loved ballad "fundamentalists and liberals are both missing the point." For those who are new to Wright, Simply Good News will offer a helpful introduction to and summary of his work. For those who have read plenty of him already, or for those who dislike compilation albums in principle, it will probably have less to offer.
The focus of the book is admirably clear: to explain what the gospel is, and why we should think of it as good news. In eight succinct chapters, Wright explains the nature of good news (chapter one), the essence of what that good news is (chapters two and three) and is not (chapters four and five), and what it means for the way we live now (chapter six), think about God (chapter seven), and pray (chapter eight). Each of these chapters is readable and insightful, characterized by Wright's familiar mixture of rich scholarship, vivid illustration, and contemporary application. The last two in particular are excellent. Yet for a good many readers, I suspect, the whole may be less than the sum of its parts.
Simple and Complex
I say this for two reasons. The first, as already mentioned, is the repetition within Wright's whole oeuvre (which is presumably inevitable, at least to some degree, when you write so many books). It is possible, of course, that there remain myriads of literate, medium- to high-church evangelicals convinced that God is a cross, medieval deity who has given up on the world, but sent Jesus so that people could escape it for a disembodied heaven. My hunch, however, is that neither most Pentecostals nor devotees of the Left Behind series would ever read this book, and that for the vast majority of people who would, these ideas hold very little sway. In large part, it is a testimony to the influence of Wright's towering, brilliant, and prolific scholarship that this particular dead horse no longer needs flogging.
My second reason stems from the tension between the two components of the book's title: "simply" on the one hand, and "good news" on the other. In one sense, Wright wants to present the gospel simply, without delving into the various ways the church has understood the effect of the Cross: "I have not tried in this book to approach the mysterious depths of meaning hidden in the shameful and cruel death of Jesus." This means that many of the themes one might expect to be addressed in a book on the gospel—regarding a theology of the atonement, for instance, or the questions of why, how, and from what one is "saved"—are omitted. (The only model of the atonement discussed at any length is penal substitution; Wright's treatment is largely negative, and in places does battle mostly with straw men.)
Yet in another sense, he wants to present the full, scriptural good news, in contrast to the rather flat, ahistorical gospel presentations that prevail in popular evangelicalism—and this involves making a number of things more complex, not less. After summarizing the "Christ died for our sins" message that he responded to as a boy, Wright comments, "But there are serious difficulties with stating things in this brief and simple way." As he wraps up this chapter, which goes on to contrast the gospel with the messages of rationalism, romanticism, and the emancipation of the Enlightenment, he admits, "This chapter has been quite long and complex."
Of course, there is nothing wrong in principle with making some things simpler and others more complex in the same book. Writers do that all the time. But in a book called Simply Good News, it may strike readers as odd that there is no space to explore how the atonement works (except insofar as it is not about an angry deity punishing his son), but plenty of time to contrast the gospel with the major intellectual developments of the last five centuries. To adapt a phrase Wright has used frequently elsewhere, the gospel is much more than an account of why and how human beings can be rescued, but it is surely not less.
Having said all that, the last two chapters are so helpful that the book is still worth reading, even if you’re already familiar with Wright's work. In chapter seven, "Surprised by God," Wright shows how the gospel forces us to reconsider the nature of God: not as a distant, dull, or dangerous being, but as a benevolent deity characterized by love, creativity, and justice. In a delightful couple of paragraphs, Wright points out the limitations of the word God—clunky, harsh, "like a lump of undercooked dumpling"—in contrast to the poetry of theos (the Greek name for God) and the mystery of Elohim (the Hebrew name), before going on to describe how, for many people today, his existence would seem like bad news rather than good news. If God is like Jesus, however, then it is unequivocally good news for the modern world, and Wright has no difficulty showing why. This, in many ways, is the moment in the book when the contemporary impact of the good news becomes clearest. The gospel is good because it means that God is good.
Lastly, in chapter eight, we have an account of prayer that does something I have never seen. Wright points out that most of us, instinctively, want to pray the Lord's Prayer backwards: First "Help!" then "Sorry!" then "Please provide," and then eventually more God-centered requests about the kingdom and his honor, before finally acknowledging him as Father. By working through the prayer in reverse order, Wright shows how it reveals various layers of the gospel. God does not just deliver us from the evil without, but he also forgives us from the evil within; he not only meets the world's needs, but plans to unite heaven and earth together; he is gloriously transcendent and worthy of being hallowed, but also immanent, intimate, and related to us. This insight, and the way he develops it, is the highlight of the book.
Simply Good News may feel like a compilation album, better suited to newcomers than to those who have read Wright before. Depending on your tastes, then, it may prove slightly disappointing. But even if the book is not his most original contribution, it remains the work of an undoubtedly brilliant artist, one worth listening to on virtually anything. And, like many compilation albums, it is somewhat redeemed by the two bonus tracks at the end.
Andrew Wilson is a CT columnist, an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, England, and a PhD candidate in New Testament Studies at King's College, London.