I know it’s usual to review books shortly after they’re published. Given that Simply Jesus was published in 2011, I’ve missed the boat by a good couple of years. I only read it recently myself, and I have two good reasons for posting this late review:
1. I think this is a book most Christians, and certain all pastors/ministers and preachers/teachers, should read.
2. This is a book that people will hopefully still be reading years from now.
For those don’t know, Tom Wright was Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010. Prior to that, he held a variety of academic posts in both the UK and the USA. He retired from his church position in 2010 at age 62 to return to academic life, feeling that he still had a number of major books in him that he needed time to work on. He is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College, St Andrews, Scotland. He has scores of published works to his credit, and writes both scholarly works (as N. T. Wright) and popular-level books (as Tom Wright).
Wright is one of the most highly regarded New Testament scholars alive today. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of his. But I’m not a fan because of his pedigree or reputation: I’m a fan because what I’ve read of his so far has been profoundly helpful to me.
The clearest explanation of what Simply Jesus is about is found it its subtitle: Who he was, what he did, why it matters. The book is divided into three parts. In Part 1, Wright sets out the first century context into which Jesus was born, focusing on the political context (an oppressed people dominated by the mighty Roman empire), the complex history of the Jewish people, and the religious context, characterised by unfulfilled hopes of divine rescue and vindication.
The real meat of the book is found in Part 2, in which Wright principally sets out to explain who Jesus thought he was, what he did, and why. Topics covered include Jesus’ parables and other teachings, his understanding of the kingdom of God, his relationship to the temple, and his death and subsequent resurrection. Finally, Part 3, which consists of just one chapter, basically seeks to answer the question: so what? Even if all this really did happen two thousand years ago in Palestine, what difference can it possibly make today?
I loved reading this book. Like many people at the evangelical end of the church spectrum, I spent much of my Christian life carrying around a very simple and unquestioned view of Jesus. If you’d asked me why he had to die, I would probably have answered something along the lines of “Because he came to fulfil the ancient prophecies and enact God’s saving plan”. That answer is, of course, true, but it is far from the whole picture. To believe that it is the whole picture is to believe that Jesus was some kind of divine automaton who taught, lived, died and rose as he did because he was pre-programmed to do so. The reality is much more complex. While complexity might be off-putting to those who like their Jesus safe and simple, it also means that those with eyes to see and ears to hear stand to discover far more depth, significance and beauty in the life and mission of Jesus than they ever realised was possible.
There are many good things I could highlight in Simply Jesus, but I’ll limit myself to pointing out two aspects that I found particularly helpful:
1. Jesus lived and taught in a first century Jewish context. As such, most of what he said and did was steeped in cultural and religious significance that we, from our twenty-first century western vantage point, struggle to even notice, let alone understand. Wright does an excellent job of explaining how and why Jesus’ teachings, actions and, ultimately, death and resurrection fulfilled not only specific prophecies but also the hopes of an entire people and God’s eternal plan of redemption, albeit it in a surprising and unexpected way (which is why so many of his Jewish contemporaries missed it and continued to look for a messiah). Nowhere is this clearer than in the penultimate chapter in Part 2, entitled “Why did the Messiah have to die?”
2. From Jesus’ own understanding of his life and mission, Wright draws out a portrait of what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of God. Those who thirst for a meaning to the Christian life that is more than “be good, go to church, and you’ll get to heaven” will at last begin to see not only the scale of Jesus’ kingdom “project” but the surprising and subversive means by which the kingdom is established and expanded.
Overall, then, I cannot praise Simply Jesus highly enough. It is simply magnificent.
In conclusion, however, I offer two words of warning:
– Those who are accustomed to easy Christian reading that goes down without swallowing and is full of catchy sound bites but light on depth may find Wright’s prose somewhat more challenging than they are used to. This is a popular book written in an accessible, down-to-earth style; but it is also a serious work by a serious biblical historian and theologian. If you want a quick shot of inspiration, look elsewhere; if you’re willing to concentrate and think as you read, you’ll be richly rewarded.
– Those who are entirely comfortable and happy with Jesus as their “personal saviour” and Christianity as a club that entitles them to church membership and a ticket to heaven are advised not to read this book. If, on the other hand, your soul longs to get beyond the safe, one-dimensional Jesus lite that is peddled by many churches and teachers today, and to discover Jesus as he really was, and hence as he really is, this book is most definitely for you.