A review of NT (Tom) Wright’s 2017 book Spiritual and Religious.
Do modern people worship Gaia, the goddess of the Earth? How about Mars, the god of war? Do you even know who Mammon is, let alone dream about serving him? While some do in name, NT Wright argues that a lot of people, even Christians!, do in practice. In Spiritual and Religious, Wright shows his readers how modern ideologies and ancient forms of paganism parallel each other, and how we may not be as unspiritual as we think in modern times.
So, first: how do modern people serve ancient pagan gods and goddesses? Modern people would never, if they were in control of their facilities, bend the knee to an idol of Mars. But every time we channel more funds into the war machine rather than fixing our educational systems, or solving hunger, or giving Flint, Michigan working pipes, we are serving Mars and his goals. When we revert to forms of pantheism, wherein the world is divine and we must simply tap into it, and even some of the most well-intentioned eco-activists, can act more like pagans than Christians.
Wright has two solutions for our accidental(?) paganism: the life of Jesus, as he embodies the story of Israel, and the life of the Church in the Spirit. The book is split into two parts to reflect this twofold response. In the first half, Wright uses a story of a young Jew who protested a Russian conference to tell them about the judgment that God is bringing upon the Russian people. Wright notes that this young man had verve, but he didn’t use the name of his God: who is bringing this judgment? He applies this to the church context: when we protest the world, and prophetically speak the gospel to power, do we know the God of whom we speak? To make sure that we do, Wright reminds us of the story of Jesus in the Gospels. Specifically, he reminds us how Jesus embodies the stories of Israel.
One of the biggest concerns I had about dedicating a whole year to reading NT Wright is that there would be a lot of repeated material. This has already been the case, as readers familiar with Wright will track with all of his theological beats in the first half. Now, that isn’t to say that it’s bad material, nor that the material shouldn’t be repeated. As the story of Jesus is the story of the Gospels, the content of the sermons in Acts, and the basis for the New Testament, it’s fundamental. Slipping into the story of Jesus should be familiar to us, like finding the butt-grooves in our couches.
The second half of the book looks at how the church can confront paganism. He names and defines these modern forms of paganism in two chapters, making sure that we aren’t dedicated to stopping a nameless and faceless enemy. By defining these forms of modern paganism, Wright gives us two blessings. First, he helps open our eyes to the ways in which we personally serve these pagan gods. When our eyes are opened to these worship styles, we can more quickly repent and adjust in light of the news. Second, by specifically naming and defining these pagan ideologies, he is more able to address how the church can combat them. When we learn the contours of pagan ideologies, and are familiar with the story of Jesus, the avenues for dismantling those thoughts foreign to Christ’s kingdom are expanded infinitely.
Look for blog posts based on the book over the next couple of weeks by following the blog, either by subscribing via email, or on social media (ChrisWerms on Facebook and Twitter). In the end, I would say that this is a helpful book, but I would recommend at least a dozen NT Wright books before I would recommend this one. The hope is, the more conversant we are in the New Testament and the People of God series, or in Surprised by Hope, or How God Became King, we can almost formulate this book ourselves, intimately familiar with Wright’s thoughts and Jesus’ story. Maybe the greatest boon this book gives to the church is that it is an example of how we can use the gospel story more specifically and incisively in our culture. We know the story, but do we know how to apply it?