A friend of a friend once shared that, moments after his baptism, a church leader admonished him: “Well, Jesus has done his part. The rest is up to you.” For this individual, Christian character was a duty by which we get the rest of the way to heaven after the initial “boost” from Jesus.
A woman, after reading a portion of the Sermon on the Mount with me, once asked me “How do you do that?” She shared that she had tried to put into practice what Jesus taught in his Sermon. But she found it impossible. So she gave up. For this individual, Christian character was a demand set so high it guaranteed failure.
Finally, a church member, after hearing one sermon of mine, accused me of legalism: “If I have to do anything in my relationship with God, then I’m earning salvation! I’ve been set free from that!” For this individual, any call to Christian character was a yoke from which Christ has liberated us.
It may seem that a book on Christian character is not needed. But as these three vignettes show, there is much confusion about character and ethics. N. T. Wright seeks to clear up this confusion in his recent book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (Harper One, 2010).
Wright offers this book as part-three in a set which includes Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense and Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
In Simply Christian Wright established a vision for what Christianity is all about—God’s fulfillment of our deepest longings for justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty. In Surprised by Hope Wright showed the central role the resurrection plays in God’s effort to restore justice, spirituality, relationships and beauty. In After You Believe Wright tackles Christian character, demonstrating how issues of morality and ethics are best understood in light of the larger themes raised in the previous two books.
Here, Wright suggests there are three fundamentals to character: “First, you have to aim at the right goal. Second, you have to figure out the steps you need to take to get to that goal. Third, those steps have to become habitual, a matter of second nature.”
What then is the goal? The goal is not merely “to get to heaven” but to participate with God in the restoration of the cosmos—the “coming kingdom” of God. What are the right steps toward that goal? The right steps are a “renewed mind” which leads to the practice of “the three virtues” (faith, hope and love) and “the nine varieties of fruit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), practiced together in the community of the “one body.” How do those steps become habitual? This takes place through what Wright calls “The Virtuous Circle”—a lifestyle consisting of five elements: reading Scripture, receiving inspiration through stories of Christian character, being informed by examples of Christian character, living in community with other Christians committed to character, and participating in communal practices such as eating Communion, baptism, the giving of money, and listening to Scripture.
The first four chapters of Wright’s book are deeply theological and philosophical, laying the groundwork for the more “practical” final four chapters in which he takes up specific character traits and sketches what Christian character looks like. As a whole, the book provides an uncommon approach to understanding what Christian character is, why it matters, and how it can be pursued by individuals and congregations.
Perhaps the greatest gift a Christian or a church can give the world around is a life and a community steeped deeply in the character of Jesus. Wright’s book provides the tools to make that very gift more of a reality.