Review by Imbi Medri-Kinnon. In North America, the book is known as After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. (Rylan Kinnon brought the book home for his parents, from the U.K.)
Tom Wright's – Virtue Reborn – is a book that should turn our heads. From the past and present swirling conversations and (re)alignments, and the positioning that we find ourselves in at this time – as Christians in the church – to the point that we should be focused on; the future hope and glory of the Kingdom of God, through our present reality within the life of Christ.
Bishop N.T. Wright does a masterful sweep of ethics and its various roots and streams, calling us back to working at Christian virtue – identifying and then avoiding the extremes of grace and works – those two polarizing positions of Christian history. In fact, the book gives us a broad enough and thoroughly orthodox way forward – to begin to become who we already are, in Christ – doing so framed within the church, communally, for the sake of the world, missionally.
The fundamental answer we shall explore in this book is that what we are "here for" is to become genuine human beings, reflecting the God in whose image we are made, and doing so in worship on the one hand and in mission, in its full and large sense, on the other; and that we do this not least by "following Jesus." The way this works out is that it produces, through the work of the Holy Spirit, a transformation of character which functions as the Christian version of what philosophers have called "virtue." This transformation will mean that we do indeed "keep the rules" – though not out of a sense of externally imposed "duty," but out of the character that has been formed within us. And it will mean that we do include "follow our hearts" and live "authentically" – but only when, with that transformed character fully operative – like an airline pilot with a lifetime's experience – the hard work up front bears fruit in spontaneous decisions and actions that reflect what has been formed deep within. And, in the wider world, the challenge we face is to grow and develop a fresh generation of leaders, in all walks of life, whose character has been formed in wisdom and public service, not greed for money or power.
The heart of it – the central thing that is supposed to happen after you believe, the thing we call a virtue in a new, reborn sense – is thus the transformation of character. (Virtue Reborn, Page 24) [emphasis added]
Bishop Wright calls us to action at many levels – to become who Christ says we are/will be, that is sanctified, and like Him. And to do so in a context that displays the virtues of the Kingdom – that is within the church community so that the world is "compelled" to ask us about the hope of glory they see through how we choose to act, to love, and to grow deeper into Christ-likeness. So that when this age has passed, we are ready to rule and reign with Christ in His kingdom, as his priests and kings. This dual capacity orients us both to the world and to God.
…a glad and unworried trust in the Creator God, whose kingdom is now at last starting to arrive, leading to a glad and generous heart toward other people, even those who are technically "enemies." Faith, hope, and love: here they are again. They are the language of life, the sign in the present of green shoots growing through the concrete of this sad old world, the indication that the Creator God is on the move, and that Jesus' hearers and followers can be part of what he's now doing. (Virtue Reborn Pg 94)
This is a serious call to look to the future and to begin to do the character formation work required of us as individuals (not because we are not already saved by grace, but simply because in the words of the Apostle John, "we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.") There are decisions to be made in character development, that lead to us becoming virtuous. It does not happen magically, nor does it happen overnight. The Apostle Paul speaks of "pressing on" towards the goal.
This book gives us a rational way forward, growing in character, which leads to virtue that behaves as it is meant to – loving communally -, because we are doing the work and the spiritual growth necessary that will, by what it produces, cause the world to stand up and take notice. It clarifies and recenters all of us to the way of discipleship that Eugene Peterson years ago called" A Long Obedience in the Same Direction" – a title that sums up what Bishop Wright is drawing together for us out of the many threads, indeed the tapestry that makes up the holy catholic church.
Interestingly, Wright extends his conversation with ethics and character beyond just the church audience to include anyone in the western world grappling with ethics – he believes that Christian ethics and virtue are not an end on to themselves – allowing me to become proud of what I have accomplished, in the manner of Aristotle. But rather, Virtue Reborn is always directed towards the good of the body of Christ, and the good of fellow man – we are, after all, alive in the Christ who gave up everything for each of us. Are we the people that will know how to rule and reign as a royal priesthood in Christ's Kingdom, because we have been willing to grow up into all that He means for us to be? Does the world "know we are Christians by our love?"
The Christian walk is often portrayed as a journey. What Wright does with this book is suggest that just like the barricades on sides of highways which keep us from falling into ditches or crossing into oncoming traffic, grace and works act as safety barriers. As proficient drivers, we steer a clear course on the road, not careening off one side or the other. Neither do we stand in the ditches (or in the side aisles) and lob stones at each other, or indeed at the traffic going by. But, on this journey, we are going somewhere, and preparing to "be perfect" . Of course, each of us is at different places – the key being that we are actually meant to be on the journey.
I watched the winning goal in the men's final hockey game at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics where we won the Gold in "our game" – speaking as a Canadian, of course – as I was finishing Virtue Reborn. In explaining what happened afterwards, the sports commentator mentioned having waited and watched for better playing from Crosby and then said something to the effect of "and we got it when we needed it."
Crosby had prepared for that moment for years – and he took the shot because that was what he had been training for. The "luck" involved was in the thousands upon thousand of hours of practice in preparation. So that it had "become natural" to know what to do when it counted. Nobody was expecting it at that point in the Olympics, and yet his prep work snuck it in …
When asked about it, Crosby spoke of not even knowing at first that it had been his goal. "I was given chances and eventually it was going to go in……… !"
What a call for each of us as the church – to work at this life of character building – leading to virtues that will cause us to do the right thing, when the moment comes, as it will for each of us. Where and when only God knows, but when it truly matters will we know it in our bones, marrow, hearts and brains – and do the right thing, make the right decision, becoming Christ-like in our character. Are we the signposts and beachheads of God's future kingdom in this current world? It is not just a matter of "luck" (grace) but rather preparation and work and decision-making so that doing the right thing becomes automatic.
COURAGE: One last Olympic moment; an example from the selection of a winner of the Terry Fox Award. There were so many examples of grace under fire – and examples of the cost and preparation to be an Olympic athlete. Such a wealth of stories to encourage us to develop, to work at being who we already are – so that we might be ready to rule and reign with Christ. More importantly, that people ask us about the hope that we have, and the love that we function out of.
I leave you with the words of the Slovenian cross-country skier, Petra Majdic, who fell down a hillside and had to be helped out, obviously injured. She finished her race, winning the bronze! And then discovered that she had several broken ribs – and had probably further injured herself in continuing the race – talk about character, talk about perseverance.
Christie Blatchford, Bill's favourite columnist in the Globe and Mail, quoted her as follows:
"If you make your best", as she put it in her absolutely lyrical English, "it will be worth it."
And that, friends, says it all.