There has been a number of books in recent years that seem to be trying to move the debate about Christianity from merely an intellectual argument to a discussion about how we therefore live our lives as Christian’s.
I suspect that the former stage was the arena of the enlightenment. Christianity came under sustained attack from the changes that were seen in society to do with being in a scientific age and the whole idea that things were getting better all the time. The whole idea of “progress” came out of this. Things were getting better and Christianity stood for a more ignorant age and stood in the way of all reasonable people. The most that could be argued for was a Deist view of God. God the great designer (of the masons). God who began everything and then stood back and let the world get on with it (Dawkins has a great quote in a debate about the death and resurrection of Jesus being too earthy, too unworthy of the Universe, without any sense of the irony from a Christian perspective).
But I must admit that a lot of that current debate leaves me faintly bored. Now and again I can get motivated by it but often not. The main reason being is that it doesn’t transform.
There is an area that I am much more interested in. This is the whole area of how we live our lives in the light of Jesus. I believe that this is the area above all that it is most important for Christians to re-discover. All too often we are caught between a rule based faith (because God is angry with me and I need to be careful) or an anything goes faith (because God is nice and he won’t mind)
I know that both of these are a bit of a parody but I have met many who are attracted by them. Neither take seriously enough the idea of discipleship and what it means.
So, when I learnt that Tom Wright had written a book, Virtue Reborn, about this whole area I had to go and buy it. Tom Wright (who has just stepped down from being Bishop of Durham to go back into academic life) is one of the great modern theologians. He writes under NT Wright (his academic works) and Tom Wright (more popular works).
Tom Wright has obviously written the book out of a sense that many Christians don’t understand what their faith is for or what it entails. Towards the beginning of the book he recounts a conversation with someone who is grappling with this issue.
What am I here for?
He put it like this, as we talked. This is how it stacked up: God loves me: yes
He transformed my life so that I find I want to pray, to worship, to read the bible, to abandon the old self-destructive ways I used to behave [in]. That’s great.
Clearly …. God intends me to tell other people about this good news, so that they can find it for themselves. Fine. It feels a bit strange, and I’m not sure I’m very good at it, but I am doing the best I can. And obviously all this comes with the great promise that one day I’ll be with God forever.
But what am I here for now? What happens, as it were, after you believe?
And with this as his overarching question Tom Wright looks at the idea and the practise of virtue. He defines virtue as
what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t “come naturally”.
He looks at this as a contrast to the way that either we become “rule based” or we just “go with the flow”; which he sees in much of western Christianity. In this he is following not just the ancients but also more modern writers such as Dallas Willard in his “The Divine Conspiracy” or “The Spirit of the Disciplines”.
He sees the purpose of all this is that we learn the habits that will enable us to live lives that reflect the image of the God who made us. That enable us to be the Royal Priesthood reflecting God’s glory. And it is summed up in the practice of love.
Love is the language they speak in God’s world, and we are summoned to learn it against the day when God’s world and ours will be brought together forever. It is the music they make in God’s courts, and we are invited to learn it and practice it in advance. Love is not a “duty”, even our highest duty. It is our destiny.
He reflects on the sort of characteristics that we need to develop and ways in which we can do so. One of the keys that he sees is the renewing of our minds. Thinking deeply and thinking carefully. Allowing our minds to be re-fashioned – he quotes Paul
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:12)
In this book he covers, with his usual ability and turn of phrase, a wide area of the Christian life. Its a great book by a great writer.
The one area that I would have liked to have heard more from him on was that of the role of the community in all of this. It does come up but I suspect that for the early church it played a much bigger part of their lives than our atomised society does now. There are real issues for us in how we lead a life in community that reflects the community of God and I believe that there is much more thinking required about how this might happen.
He quotes the writer Rodney Stark in his book ‘The rise of Christianity’ on how Christians in ancient Turkey reacted when plague struck:
The Christians…. would stay and nurse people, including those who were neither Christians, nor their family members, nor in any other way obviously connected to them.
I would like him to have developed this much more as to the way that the churches now developed and created such great sacrificial, agape centred communities.
Well worth reading and to start reflecting on in the New Year.