Wednesday, January 13, 2010

'After You Believe', new Tom Wright book

Tom/NT Wright has a new book due out in March, called 'After You Believe'. The book tackles the problem that many churches see their job as warehousing people for heaven: counting the souls in through the door, and then keeping them safe but otherwise unchanged until the next life.

The book is about Christian character, and how it's formed. Interesting to note that 'character' is a current issue in various places - witness Mondays' Demos event with David Cameron at the start of their enquiry into character and it's place in the good society. Here's an extract from an interview with Wright:

N.T. Wright: The point about the word “virtue” – if we can recapture it in its strong sense – is that it refers, not so much to “doing the right things”, but to the forming of habits and hence of moral character.

I remember Rowan Williams describing the difference between a soldier who has a stiff drink and charges off into battle waving a sword and shouting a battle-cry, and the soldier who calmly makes 1000 small decisions to place someone else’s safety ahead of his or her own and then, on the 1001st time, when it really is a life-or-death situation, “instinctively” making the right decision. That, rather than the first, is the virtue of “courage”.

In the book I use, as a “secular” example, the lifetime forming of habits exemplified by Chesley Sullenberger III, the pilot who, last January, brought the US Airbus down safely in the Hudson River after a flock of geese got into the engines after take-off from La Guardia. All his instincts had been trained so that when the moment came he didn’t have to stop to think what to do; it just “came naturally”.

Forming character by deliberate choices goes against the grain of just doing what we feel like, and expressing ourselves - another extract from the same interview on Prodigal Kiwis makes this point. The goal of character formation is that holiness becomes 'what we feel like' and 'what comes naturally', rather than just a random splurge of what we happen to be thinking or feeling.

I'll be interested to see what Wright sees as the path to character formation. My suspicion is that a lot of it will be about getting a correct understanding of life, God, the future and the present. We're currently talking about character and change on our Growing Leaders course with a group of lay leaders, and exploring what helps this process, including spiritual disciplines, accountability, reflection, suffering, overcoming at the points where we're tempted to quit etc.

Making disciples is the great challenge for the modern church, so if Tom Wright is applying his mind to this then so much the better. What I'd really like to see though is not a book, but a curriculum.


  1. Have you come across Graham Tomlin's book Spititual Fitness: Christian Character in a Consumer Culture? It covers some of the same ground and is practical in its focus. My wife read it over Christmas and found it both challenging and helpful. In some ways Graham is developing themes he began exploring in The Provocative Church.

  2. Thanks Philip - I'd not heard of that one, but will keep an eye out for it. Since David Watson, the only people writing anything significant about discipleship and growth seem to have been US authors like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. I'm glad that a few UK authors are getting into this, and Graham Cray keeps mentioning as the church's biggest challenge, so perhaps this is the big mission topic for the 2010's, the way 'what is church?' was a biggie for the noughties.

  3. I wonder if the challenge here is not producing a curriculum to be held over people, but in producing the kind of faith that encourages people to pursue their own curriculum. If change comes from within, then the best churches can do is encourage that attitudinal shift.

    Facinating problem.

    On a much lighter tone, have you heard the recent story of a vicar blessing laptops and mobiles? I suppose it's an example of a church adapting itself to the people, rather than waiting for the people to adapt themselves to a church.

    Good day to you!

  4. I guess we have a 'curriculum' already, called the Lectionary, but it isn't working. I don't know of many churches which are putting their main energies into making disciples, or even are sure how to go about it. I think you also need to give people tools to work with: if someone wants to grow in faith and Christian character, then the church needs to be able to draw on some sources of wisdom and good practice to help them do so.

    I thought the laptop story was quite fun, and a natural extension of the 'offertory' part of a CofE communion service, where the work of the people is recognised in the offering of gifts, bread, and wine.

  5. Great news - at last we've got a bishop who is looking beyond the Church Quota. Bums on seats may keep statisticians happy and the Secular Society at bay, but Christianity is about the changing of lives on a personal level and the development of a new way of life.

    Looks like it's another book that will be ignored by those more interested in full pews than true faith.

  6. I really enjoy how Wright brings wholeness to the scriptures.

    Sometimes is seens Reformers are so anti anything remotely related to "works", that the idea of writing a book on ethics would be out of the question.

    Praise God for Wright! I'm going to read this book, and I'm also giving a copy away on my blog of you are interested!

    Covenant of Love, click here