"After You Believe" – Review

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite writers is C.S. Lewis. The combination of his logic, wit, and imagination were practically unparelled in the twentieth century, with G.K. Chesterton as one of his few equals. Since Lewis stopped writing upon his death, however, there has existed a constant search in the world of spiritual literature to tap the “next C.S. Lewis”. As a follower of basketball, it’s similar to the persistent hunt to determine the “next Michael Jordan”, though maybe to a lesser degree.

A man that many today have considered to be “the next C.S. Lewis” has finished a new book that I’ve recently read. His name is N.T. (Tom) Wright, and he is currently the Anglican Bishop of Durham in England. Looking at Bishop Wright’s literary style along with his bibliography will yield immediate similarities to Lewis. Bishop Wright’s cheeky English words, conciseness of thought and logic, and use of imagination all mirror Lewis’, while some of his book subjects also reflect those of Lewis’—many have hailed Bishop Wright’s “Simply Christian” as a modern echo of Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”. Or, it could just be that they both are English, taught at Oxford, and write about God.

For some time I had been anxiously awaiting Bishop Wright’s new book, “After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters” (HarperOne, 320 pages, $24.99). This new book is the third in a trilogy from Bishop Wright. I’ve read the first book, the previously-mentioned “Simply Christian”, in which Wright pointed out clearly the basic beliefs of Christianity, specifically through modern lens such as “story” and “beauty”. I have browsed through the second book of the trilogy, “Surprised By Hope”, and discovered a fascinating vision of Heaven and Resurrection, along with the reality that both begin here and now. In addition to these two works, Wright has also written some dense works of theology, particularly the three works in his “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series. As an eloquent, smart, and outspoken Anglican, though, he has been drawn into much critique and debate, especially by other Protestants regarding his understanding of justification (how we are made right with God).

However, “Simply Christian” and “Surprised By Hope” were written in a much lighter style than the Bishop’s other works; each had a great balance of theology and practicality. And forming a pseudo-trilogy, these first two books pointed to a third one. After we understand the basic tenants of the Christian faith (“Simply Christian”) and gain a full understanding of the New Heaven and New Earth (“Surprised By Hope”), the question that begs to be answered next is, “how, then, should we live?”

Bishop Wright begins answering this question in “After You Believe” by detailing two different people. The first understands the Christian life as one that is full of “freedom”, meaning that he should be spontaneous in his actions, confident that Christianity leads to a life of no rules or laws; he should simply do “what feels right” and always be “authentic”. The second person is one who is constrained by many laws and rules that she has deduced from the Scriptures; she believes that certain things, such as divorce regulations, are painted clearly in the Bible and should be obeyed whether or not one “feels” like it. Though both claim to begin with “the Bible” and the words of Jesus, both ultimately reach different conclusions. So, Bishop Wright asks why this is; does there exist a definite, determinable understanding of “virtue” (right-living) or are we each bound by our own feelings and consciences to tell us how to live?

As a Catholic, I understand the Church to stand in this role. The Magisterium of the Catholic Church seeks to define morals and ethics for the people of the Church, and Her authority stems from the apostles of Jesus themselves. Bishop Wright, as an Anglican, doesn’t quite recognize this type of authority, so he of course finds himself probing questions that I believe to already be answered. However, as a former Protestant, I can assuredly say that this book speaks directly into some of the main conundrums in the Protestant church: who defines what “virtue” is, and what is it? (I will say that for a Catholic, the answer to these questions that Bishop Wright centers his book around can be given immediately by the Church, and you will find a fuller Catholic explanation of this answer in other books.)

I imagined that “After You Believe” would be written in a similar style to its preceding books, but with the different subject of practical Christian living. I quickly found I was wrong on both fronts. Each of the first two books was written in a light, conversational tone with understandable chunks of theology. They were easy enough to read and comprehend for the armchair-theologian. “After You Believe”, however, is extremely dense and deals with the philosophy and theology behind the idea of “virtue”. Bishop Wright spends little time on the practicalities of virtue itself, instead using hundreds of pages to analyze the history and theological understanding of the purpose of our existence and the theology of virtue. He rightly believes that the question of “how to live” can’t be answered if the question “why are we here?” isn’t answered first. So, he spends many chapters analyzing this.

As undoubtedly one of the sharpest theologians today, one of Bishop Wright’s specialties is his understanding of the letters of Paul. In “After You Believe”, Bishop Wright draws heavily from these Pauline letters to explain that our purpose on this planet—the ultimate source of the “how, then, should we live?” question—is to be “priests and rulers”. Now, again speaking as a Catholic, it should be noted that Bishop Wright isn’t referring to our “priestly” roles in the liturgical sense, but in the sense that we are all called to sacrifice and participate in Temple-like worship, even while we are on earth. Our call to be “rulers” stems back to our call in Genesis to “subdue” the Earth and to our destiny in Revelation when we will be co-rulers with God over all of Creation.

Bishop Wright explains that these are things that we are to be doing now, not simply when we are Resurrected, and in Heaven. And the reason we are to do them now is because the way we live these roles in this life—the way we live lives of “virtue”—is an “anticipation”, or a “foreshadowing” of the way we will live for all of eternity. We don’t live lives of virtue to “gain” heaven or because we are to follow pointless moral commands, but because they prepare us to begin living now the way that we will be living forever.

Even though I consider myself to be fairly well-read in the realm of theology, this book was a struggle to get through. I thought much of the material was repetitive, and—maybe due to my own fault—felt deceived by the publisher’s description of the book. I thought this was going to be a lighter, imaginative stroll through the world of Christian living, but was instead greeted with a heavy tome, which included a thick comparison of the Aristotelian and Pauline visions of the purpose of life.

On the other hand, after finishing and chewing on the Bishop’s thoughts, I’ve come to see his contributions to the field of Christian living to be wise: instead of focusing on the practicalities of lived virtue, Wright centers on the underlying purposes and foundation of virtue itself. He sees that once we become “transformed by the renewal of our minds”, as Paul says, then we will innately know how to act in certain spontaneous situations. In essence, once you embrace your “purpose” which is to live as a “priest and a ruler”, then you don’t worry about specific virtues for specific situations; virtuous actions flow naturally out of a transformed heart and mind.

If you are searching for clear, practical explanations of how to live virtuously, there may be better books (two I recommend are Dallas Willard’s “Renovation of the Heart” and Andy Stanley’s “It Came From Within”, which I briefly reviewed here). If, on the other hand, you are looking for a heady theological explanation of virtue and its philosophical foundation, “After You Believe” is the book for you.

(If you would like to browse through a wealth of writings, lectures, audio, and video of Bishop N.T. Wright, go here. Also a day after I finished this review, Bishop Wright wrote an article discussing C.S. Lewis’ role as his mentor.)