Against Tapioca Pudding
At my alma mater we were reading C. S. Lewis before shelves of books were written about him. Though he smoked pipes in pubs, we overlooked such "personal lapses" because we were sure his books, especially Mere Christianity, would bring many into the Kingdom. At my church we affectionately refer to Lewis as "St. Clive" and adjudicate certain doctrinal disputes with a citation from the "Fifth Gospel" (i.e., his complete works). At the community college where I sometimes teach Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas, students occasionally ask questions about their Christian faith. My discussions typically end by handing them a copy Mere Christianity.
But now Tom Wright has written Simply Christian. It obviously trades on the popularity of Lewis; worse yet, it's marketed as another Mere Christianity! Is there really room for a sixth gospel, or is this a covert plot to replace Lewis? My pastor fears it's the latter. I believe it's the former: some students should read Lewis, but others should read Wright.
Lewis' apologetic works—Mere Christianity, Problem of Pain, Miracles, etc.—are still the best introduction for the philosophically minded student with very little church experience. Lewis is able to write for pagans because he experienced paganism first hand. Wright, because he grew up in the church, is able to write for those in danger of becoming what Christian Smith calls "moralistic, therapeutic deists." These are students who speak "Christianese" fluently. They have been raised in Sunday School; at church camp they have committed their lives to Christ; most important, they are "spiritual"—they call on God for help with everything from passing a math exam to difficulties in personal relationships. But even so—and this is the crucial point—by the time they get to college, they choke on the name of Jesus.
This is hardly surprising, given the culture in which they have been raised. Lewis' generation worshiped science. Industrialism was triumphant, and everyone thanked the scientists. Anything that smacked of religion was old fashioned and out-of-date. (Perhaps room could be found for the Bible when teaching children, but it would have to be de-mythologized for adults.) Today, large segments of the population take science for granted or regard it with suspicion; meanwhile, they value "spirituality"—that vague sort of feeling which pictures God (to use one of Lewis' prescient phrases) as a sort of "tapioca pudding." This sort of spirituality will never cause offense. But as Wright makes clear, when the earliest Christians proclaimed that "Jesus is Lord" they were implicitly adding "and Caesar is not." Such exclusivity was offensive then, and it's offensive now.
Simply Christian, however, is not another lament over the sorry state of the church. Neither its tone nor its content is scolding. Instead, it is a distillation of years of historical research and pastoral care, written for those whose faith is wavering and subjective.
Wright begins by tipping his hat to Lewis' classic description of children's innate ability to protest injustice in all its multifarious forms with the cry, "That's not fair!" What can this be, asks Wright, but an "echo of a voice" from a king and a kingdom where justice is the rule, not the exception? And where do we get our thirst for spirituality, beauty, and meaningful personal relationships if not from the same voice, the same place?
Of course, some students are still enamored of materialistic answers to such questions and will be unmoved by Wright's metaphor of an "echo." Those students should first read Lewis. Where Wright shines is with students who are already "spiritual" but are put off by a theology which insists on the centrality of Jesus. And not just the "Jesus of faith," who lives only in the subjective experiences of individual believers, but the Jesus of history (not the fictional figure of the Jesus Seminar).
We will only learn from the historical record if we are honest about our prior conception of God. Here there are three options. The first is pantheism. Pantheism pictures the universe and God as one and the same—God is in everything and everything is in God. This is the God of both ancient Stoicism and contemporary New Age spirituality. And while Wright insists that God is always at work in his creation, the created order as it now exists is not always working in God. Radical evil is real, and pantheism's only response is suicide (Stoicism) or denial (New Ageism).
The second option is deism, given a peculiarly modern twist in its "moralistic, therapeutic" form. Deism pictures the supernatural realm and the natural realm as two distinct circles. God is in heaven and we are on earth, and neither has (nor desires) much to do with the other. This option is quite appealing, says Wright, "when you're sitting in front of the television or hooked up to a portable stereo, one hand glued to the cell phone for text messaging, the other clutching a mug of specialist coffee." When life is good, why worry about God? Naturally, life is not always good, but the promise of cozy deism is that happiness will quickly be restored to those who confess their mistakes and pray to God in heaven. While the pastor in Wright is pretty gentle with this sort of thing, he is stern enough to add that "quickly" is a relative term. Yes, God wants (and promises) our happiness; but on his schedule, not ours.
The third option is the only fully Christian conception of God. Here, God and his creation are distinct, and heaven (the supernatural) and earth (the natural) are overlapping and interlocking. What's more, there are thin places where no "random invasion of earth by alien ('supernatural'?) force" is necessary for God to reveal himself. But looking at God directly is like "staring at the Sun." God
can't be defined in terms of anything or anyone else. It isn't the case that there is such a thing as "divinity" and that he's simply another example, even the supreme one, of this category. Nor is it the case that all things that exist, including God, share in something we might call "being" or "existence," so that God would then be the supremely existing being. He is his own category, not part of a larger one.
How, then, is God to be known? And why should we believe that such a God even exists?
Wright is quick to say that the existence of such a God can't be "proved." (In fact, he may be a bit too quick. As Ralph McInerny obserbed in his Gifford Lectures, the Catholic Church has made "a dogmatic declaration that dogma is not necessary for one to know that God exists."1) But, given the "echoes of a voice" mentioned earlier, he argues that those who are intellectually honest can't help but be impressed by the congruence of the historical data, Christian doctrine, and this third conception of God.
If we want to go beyond congruence, says Wright, we must begin by looking at Jesus. And when we do, we must remember that Jesus was a Jew. This assertion is not trivial, nor does it entail disrespect to our Jewish cousins. Only by seeing Jesus in his historical context, where he experienced from birth the hopes, fears, frustrations, and failures of Jews under Roman rule, can we begin to understand the New Testament. Simply Christian does this, but since it is impossible to summarize its richly detailed account, I will consider a single (and perhaps singularly important) example—the Jews' hope for a Messiah.
The Jewish hope for a messianic deliverer goes back to at least the Babylonian captivity. By the time of the Maccabees (2nd century BC), the hope for a political and military Messiah was widespread. Around the same period, the hope for a bodily resurrection of faithful Jews was also gaining ground. Connecting the dots, many skeptical scholars have described Jesus as simply one of many failed "Messiahs" of the period. The only difference is that his disciples (not fraudulently, but self-deceptively) connected the hope for a Messiah with the hope for the resurrection and started preaching that Jesus was risen from the grave. This account makes our spirituality safely pantheistic or deistic—of course Jesus was not bodily raised from the grave (what self-respecting modern person could believe a story like that?), but his hopeful optimism lives on in the hearts of individual Christians.
Wright argues that historically speaking this skeptical account makes no sense. Yes, many Jews hoped for a resurrection of the dead. But no contemporary of Jesus hoped for the resurrection of a single person—Messiah or not—in the middle of history. For his disciples to "make up" stories about the risen Jesus cannot be explained as a case of wishing that something should be so until one starts believing it really is so. No, it would be a case of someone wishing for something before he or she had even thought of it, much less desired it: a patent absurdity. The only historically satisfying account of the phenomenal growth of Christianity after Jesus' violent death, says Wright, "is that he really was bodily alive again three days later, in a transformed body."
The implications of Jesus's bodily resurrection are huge. It means that "God's kingdom has indeed arrived; and that means we have a job to do." Part 3 of Simply Christian describes that job in terms of worship, prayer, and fully living in the new creation. Again, the power of Simply Christian is in the details, but the argument is simple—sin makes it impossible to be completely, genuinely, and gloriously human; but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have made the impossible possible; so the Church must make the echo of God's voice a reality right now (even if its completion awaits the "new heavens and earth") by restoring justice, establishing faithful relationships and giving birth to beauty in all its forms.
For the hard-nosed, materialistically minded skeptic, there is still no better introduction to Christianity than C. S. Lewis. But for students in danger of losing their uninformed faith or for those who have already lost their faith in everything but a vague sort of "tapioca pudding" spirituality, the best introduction to Christianity is a latterday St. Thomas, N. T. Wright.
Ric Machuga is professor of philosophy at Butte College. He is the author of In Defense of the Soul: What It Means to Be Human (Brazos Press).
1. Ralph McInerney, Characters in Search of Their Author (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2001), p. 5.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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