Disclaimer: I was given this book by the publishers, SPCK, free of charge. I was not asked to review it, so, as ever, I publish this review off my own back.
Tom Wright manages to write books faster than most can read them. While I’ve caught up with all published volumes of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series and dip into his New Testament for Everyone commentaries every now and then, there are many more works that I’ve not yet got into. Most notably, these would be Virtue Reborn, How God Became King, Simply Jesus (though I bought this last year, it’s not yet percolated its way to the top of my reading pile) and Surprised by Scripture.
This work, subtitled ‘Why The Gospel Is News And What Makes It Good’ could be thought of as “Simply Paul”. For as some of his works published as “Tom Wright” have been closely linked to, and could be thought of an shortened version of, his longer works published under “N.T. Wright”, there is much here that is in common with Paul and the Faithfulness of God. If anything, this could be summed up as the ‘gospel according to Paul, according to Tom Wright’.
The major thesis is that what we refer to as “the gospel” is often misunderstood. He is not here proposing that the church has wholly misunderstood christianity, but that when we speak of the gospel, it is often more spoken of as advice rather than as news. Of course, there is a right an appropriate response to the news, but that response should not be mistaken for the news itself. So calls to repent are not inherently the gospel. Giving your life to Jesus is not the gospel. Taking part in the sacraments is not the gospel.
A master of the analogy, Wright begins by taking us not to the gospels, but to England’s victory in the rugby world cup final in 2003. The game was in Australia, but Wright was in America at the time (a country not exactly well known for its love of rugby). He was excited by news of the victory but found that anyone he wanted to tell simply didn’t care. Until he found some Australians, that is, who weren’t exactly keen on hearing the news of England’s triumph. His excitement about England’s victory was irrelevant foolishness to the Americans and was unwelcome to the Australians. It is in this way that Wright gets across what he understands by Paul’s statement that gospel is foolishness to the Gentiles (what does anything to do with a Jewish teacher have to do with us) and a scandal to the Jews (this person cannot be the Messiah if he died in ignominy).
The heart of the book is laid out very early on. What is the news? Firstly, it is a development, something unexpected happening within a wider context. Secondly, it is an announcement not only that something has happened, but that because of it, things will be different from now on. This then brings about a period of hopeful, expectant waiting.
The rest of the book is the fleshing out of this. So we get an overview of what the wider context was. This entails an overview of 1st century Judaism and the Roman Empire. The second part necessitates the “now and not yet” of christianity to be discussed, though Wright skillfully avoids the technical jargon of inaugurated eschatology, which can be so off-putting to many. Indeed, throughout the book, the theologically well-informed will recognise many a familiar concept, but Wright communicates them with the utmost clarity and gentleness.
In reading this, I could not help but think that the misrepresentations of the gospel Wright is so keen to correct are largely that of the more right wing American churches. In so doing, he does seem to rile up others who interpret him as saying that the whole church has failed to understand the gospel for centuries but thank goodness that Tom Wright has now arrived to correct us all. I don’t think that’s what he intends at all. It is rather that he is here trying to write for as wide an audience as possible, but having in mind particular ways of teaching of christianity that miss the central point of the gospel.
So he is neither being an heresiologist nor a general teacher, but trying to incorporate both aspects in his writing. A tough task, indeed, yet it is my view he does this just about as well as anyone could hope for. In so doing, he does bring a challenge; a challenge to our current understanding and our ways of communicating the news that God has come to earth to restore creation through Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and that we are all invited to be a part of that ongoing story which has already reached its dénouement in his death and resurrection.
To finish this review, one must think of who it would stand to gain most from reading this work. Might it be for the curious non-christian who wants to find out what we mean by ‘the good news’? Perhaps, though Wright does assume a level of familiarity with the ancient world that the person on the Clapham omnibus doesn’t have. Maybe it is more suited to the more Calvinist christian who, though familiar with the bible, doesn’t always seem to get the emphasis right. Maybe it is best for the person who has recently become a christian but is still trying to navigate their way around the rich, vast and multitudinous expressions of christian belief across different churches.
I would suggest that it may be read in conjunction with a few other works. Firstly, the gospels themselves. Examine the source material and make an assessment for yourself. Secondly, it might go well with Rowan Williams’ Being Christian or C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I hope that gives you a fair impression. If it at all piques your interest, then please do read it. It is well-written, gently provocative and has the gospel of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah, running through it like a stick of Brighton rock.