For those that are interested in Christian history and/or Christian understanding of wealth and economics this new book by Peter Brown is well worth paying attention to. It is long, but detailed look at the late Roman Empire. There are several places where Brown is going against the common understanding of that time period, but I think he well documents them.
The narration is fine, although there are so many foreign words (ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, etc) and some of them are not pronounced the way I think is right. I may be wrong, but it was a bit irritating. But the reading was good and the book was worth reading.
The Martian is another example of why we need to encourage independent authors. Andy Weir wrote and released this himself, eventually releasing it on kindle and then having it picked up by a mainstream publisher and re-releasing it and eventually earning himself a place on the New York Times best seller list.
The story is straight forward. During a dust storm on Mars, Mark Watney and the rest of the crew attempted to evacuate Mars before their ship is tipped over in the storm. Watney gets lost in the storm, and because his suit readings show that he is dead, the rest of the crew takes off without him.
Luckily Watney is the engineer and botanist of the group and starts working to keep himself alive. It is a couple months later that Earth figures out that he is not death and from that point it become a two part story, Watney’s Robinson Crusoe life trying to figure out how to feed himself and survive a planet that keeps trying to kill him. And the Earth side that is trying to figure out how to save him despite the cost and time involved.
I mostly listened to this on audiobook and I was kept on the edge of my seat. (Because the kindle edition is on sale and the audiobook is discounted with purchase of the kindle book, you can get both the kindle book and the audiobook for less than just the audiobook and just over half of the cost of the paperback.) There were a couple places where I needed to switch to the kindle edition when they were talking about computer code or long radio transmissions, but that is just a limitation of audio as a format. The audiobook was very well done.
There are four parts to this book and even in the introduction Yancey says that this is essentially four different books. I just wish he had tried to do less.
The first part is all about the vanishing of grace from the message of the church. This part is five stars and I would like virtually all Christians to read it. He calls on Christians to not only recover grace as the central message of Christ and the church, but also to remember that the method of the message has to be in love. I really don’t think that basic message can be emphasized too much in Christianity because the natural temptation of Christians is to change the message of the gospel to one that is about earning our salvation through moralism or tradition. After all, a gospel of moralism or tradition is easy for Christians who tend to be already familiar with tradition and fairly good at presenting a moral facade to the world around them. But that changing of the gospel away from grace fundamentally changes the message of the gospel.
Part two of the book is also good. Because we are in a post-Christian world, there are some people that can speak to the world more effectively than others. Yancey talks about the effectiveness of Pilgrims, Activists and Artists to communicate the mystery and beauty of Christianity. Traditional apologetics or door to door witnessing, while occasionally still effective, are less effective when there is not a shared cultural language. So evangelism needs to be more about longer term relationships and the communication of our art or deeds.
Part three was a miss for me. After a wonderful introduction about the need for grace and communication of the mystery of Christianity in part three Yancey wants to lay out a personal theology of evangelism and mission. But for some reason he returns to standard focus on apologetics and against complete relativism. This general apologetic did not work for me and maybe it is just me. (I might have been more receptive to part 3 if I had not read Unapologetic, which I think does everything that Yancey wants to do in setting out a personal theology, but better.)
Part three is build around the question ‘Does Faith Matter?’ which Yancey splits into three parts, Is there another way to God?, What is our Purpose? and How should we Live? This basic idea could have worked, but the underlying assumption of part three is that the world is getting worse and needs to be changed by the words and work of the gospel. And of course I do believe that the world needs to be changed by the gospel. The problem is what that means. I think by focusing on the problems of the world, Yancey misses that the world needs to be changed regardless of whether things happen to be getting better or worse at any particular time or in any particular place.
In many ways the world is not getting worse and Yancey’s point in the third part really fails if his assumption fails. Crime is near 50 year lows. Yes, out of wedlock births are up, but abortions are lower than in 1973, divorce is way down among most populations, rates of education is up (despite what you may have understood from the news), life expectancies continue to rise, world-wide absolute poverty is the lowest in history, and in spite of threats of global terrorism and problems of Syria and other hotspots, deaths from violence and war are lower in the last 20 years than nearly any time in the last 150 years and by some estimations the rates of death by violence may be the lowest in human history.
So the basic assumptions of this section seem to be wrong, if the reader believes as I do, that while the world could be a lot better, it is not on a fundamentally downward slide. (On the other hand, if you are someone that believes that the world really is on a downward slide then this section maybe your favorite part, as it was for at least one Amazon reviewer.)
What is right about this section is that we do need to listen to others. God does want us to flourish and a complete relativism is not a valid method of approaching the world (although outside of Yancey’s reading group example I really don’t hear many people calling for complete relativism.) I think the book as a whole would have been better without the third section. In a book written to Christians about recovering the message of Grace, I felt like this section was more about evangelizing me as a reader than laying out a personal theology of evangelism and mission. Maybe there are readers that need evangelism, but not every Christian book needs to evangelize the reader. Sometimes it is ok to just assume that the reader is evangelized already. (This point is somewhat ironic because Yancey makes basically the same point in part four about the general weakness of Christian books.)
Part four is back to the general message of part one, but focused on how Christians can better interact with the world than we have recently. And he is back to the method of part two by focusing on the advantages of the Artist, Activist and Pilgrim. Much of part four is giving specific examples of how Artist, Activist and Pilgrim are actually already doing a good job of interacting with the world.
On the whole, this is a book worth reading. If I were Yancey’s editor, I would have pushed back hard on part three. I think the idea of part three is valid and could have been a real contribution to the book, but the execution of it was problematic, although maybe more for me than the average Evangelical reader. That being said, I would be thrilled if more books being written for a Christian audience were focused on pushing the church toward being a church for the world as this one is, instead of what is is often (as Christian Smith coined the phrase) a church focused on convoluted gospel of ‘therapeutic, moralistic, deism’.
The resurgence of awareness of the early Church Fathers, not only in the more traditional liturgical church settings but in the Evangelical world has given rise to a number of good books about early Church history and the actual writings of those early Christians.
After reading John Michael Talbot’s mostly memoir-ish look at the early Church fathers I decided that I wanted a more history oriented book, but still introduction level. I have read fairly in depth about the early Church Fathers on the trinity, but not on much else. (Although I have read several other than Christian history survey books that cover the era.)
When the Church Was Young fits the bill well. D’Ambrosia is Catholic and writing this in part to encourage Catholics, but this is not an exclusively Catholic view of the early church. After all, at this point it was just the Church, the major splits were yet to come, although there were certainly lots of little splits. There were a few places where I think that D’Ambrosia made too much of a leap from ancient to current Catholic and I think he started referring to all Christians as Catholic earlier than the history warrants, but with those caveats, D’Ambrosia does a good job of giving context and history to the various Church Fathers and enough of a sense of their writing to feel like you are getting more than just survey history.
I have decided that it is going to take me a number of repeated reading to really get my history and understanding of the era down. This is probably my fourth quick survey of the era and each time I get more, but the historical names and theological terms and philosophical concepts do not roll right off the tongue, especially when there are a number of similarly named Fathers.
D’Ambrosia is not giving any controversial readings here. This is standard history that is supportive of Catholic doctrine. I think he, and Catholics in general, are mostly right especially on the importance of the eucharist, the trinity, and early church authority. But there are other areas where I am just not sure. Especially about the Eucharist, there was new insights and information. Much of the early church had a semblance of the Eucharist every day, if not in a full church gathering, then the members would take home portions and have them daily as a household. The full doctrine of Transubstantiation had not been developed by 600 when this book ends, but there was a sense of the ‘real presence of Christ’ that would be acceptable to most Christians today that was present in this era. As I have said on a few other occasions, I do think the lack of participation in the Eucharist is a weakness of the mega-church world that I attend. I understand why it is not done, but I still disagree with it.
D’Ambrosia ends with a helpful postscript about the fact that these Early Church Fathers are fallen humans, just as we are. Several of them wrote doctrine that was later defined as heresy, but I agree with him that it is important to understand where we are coming from. If you have read a fair bit of theology, then much of the rough concepts will be familiar as well as a number of famous quotes that have entered general culture, like the famous ‘When in Rome’.
Because I am still a Protestant, I am going to have to think more about how to think about the progression of theology. Much of what is here is the root of our current faith, including early church worship and the creeds, but some is fairly foreign and it is clear that we have moved away from what the early church thought on a number of issues. Still this is an introduction that is worth reading if you are interested in the subject.
I am working my way back through Susan Howatch’s Church of England series. This six book series is about four different Church of England clergy told from five different main characters (one is told from the perspective of a mistress) over 30 year period.
Glamorous Powers was probably my least or second least favorite of the series on the first reading. But I discovered a lot more depth on a second reading. The first time I read this on kindle, this time I switched to audiobook.
As with all of Howatch’s writing, I think there is too much melodrama. But the melodrama makes a lot of sense to the story here. Jon Darrow is an Anglian monk. He is Abbot of one of the houses of the Fordite order (the order is fictional, but according to Wikipedia there are about 2400 Anglican Monks or Nuns around today.)
Darrow is the spiritual director from Glittering Images, the first book in the series. In the first book, Darrow was a near perfect figure, always knowing what to do, in near perfect communion with God and using his psychic abilities for spiritual direction. But several years after the first book he receives a vision that he interprets is a sign from God to leave the order and re-enter the world.
Earlier in his life, Darrow was married, had two children and after his wife died and his kids moved from home, he entered the monastic life and for 17 years followed his calling there. The first quarter of the book is about Darrow receiving the vision and then receiving spiritual direction from his superior (and long term competitor). This is a very different view of spiritual direction from the first book and I think useful to give a different perspective on what spiritual direction can be.
(Some spoilers from here on)
Darrow ends up leaving the order, messes up his reunion with his kids, meets the woman of his dreams, gets married too soon, tries to do too much to bring about this calling that he feels God has for him, avoids lots of good advice and counsel, inappropriately tries to shield those around him, while riding roughshod over them.
This is a great book to illustrate how clergy (or others) can ignore family and basic spiritual requirements of kindness and love to do what they see as their greater calling. In other words, quite often, those that feel called by God for a particular task seem to forget the more general callings of love and kindness and basic decency that we are all called to do.
Howatch also seems to have issues with fathers and marriage because again, this is a book that revolves around father figures and bad marriages. This could be cliché in the hands of a bad writer, especially since there are so many similar themes from the first book, but instead to me this feels even more insightful because of the overlapping themes from the first book.
We are often blind to reality in the heat of our passions, but God can redeem our blindness and the results of our sin for his own glory. There is no perfection in this book. Darrow, while at times being a goody, goody, shows the trap of spiritual work and the trap of trying to protect those around us instead of being vulnerable to allowing others to minister to us just as we seek to minister to those around us.
I am going to take a little time off of Howatch and catch up on some other things, but I will start the third book in the near future.
Many people have a lot of respect for Rowan Williams. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury for 10 years before retiring 3 years ago. He is still fairly young (64) and he is still publishing a ton. So I keep meaning to read some of his books. This one I picked up free with some promotional credit from Audible.
Being Christian was originally a series of Holy Week lectures that was adapted into a short book. The focus is on four pretty much universal practices among Christians, regardless of theological stream or denomination.
Considering the short length and the ubiquitousness of the practices, it would have been easy to be filled with clichés. But Williams both stayed true to the essence of the practices and brought unique presentation to them so the book did not feel stale.
The chapter on prayer seems to be the one that is most mentioned in other reviews that I read. As with several other books I have read this year, Williams spent some time talking about three of the early church fathers and how they thought about prayer.
Modern Evangelicals seem to be praise focused spontaneous prayer times and more liturgically focused Christians can tend to talk about the form or beauty of prayer. But Williams encourages us to think more about prayer as our center contact with God and as such it should be frequent and brief. And when we inevitably get distracted by life, saying, ‘O God, make speed to save me’ is part of long Christian practice. Because of his look at prayer historically he does not get wrapped up with any tension between written or spontaneous prayer. We should make short spontaneous prayer part of our daily (if not hourly) existence and keep the historic prayer (especially the Lord’s Prayer) on our lips as part of a way to give us words when we do not have words to pray.
With both the baptism and eucharist chapters, the focus was on being a part of the universal body of Christ, the joining in the body with Baptism and the on going membership in the body with Eucharist.
The bible chapter is about hearing from God. Williams encourages us to hear the whole of God’s story, hear it with community and with the focus of Christ at the center of the story. That doesn’t sound unique as I write it, but that is part of the balance of books like this. The presentation has to be a bit unique with different illustrations and ways of approaching the topic, but in the end the message is what many others will say throughout Christian history.
I think it would be a good book to read again. So I may pick it up again later.
I really appreciate Rodney Stark’s desire to fight back against biased history. This is my third book by Stark. God’s Battalions told the story of Crusades and the Triumph of Christianity used sociology and history to explore how Christianity grew.
In How The West Won, Stark is fighting against a pendulum that has swung too far and now can be anti-western. Earlier, pride in Western achievements was easy to see, but also easy to see was how that Western bias lead to racism and blind spots about the negatives of some of the West’s bad points.
Stark, fairly briefly attempts to re-balance the academy’s view of Western triumph. The components of how the West Won are fairly simple. Christianity had a rational worldview and a God that created and ordered the world. That orderly world gave rise to science and innovation. Christianity valued education in order to better understand the world. In addition, Capitalism and European political disunity (which kept countries vying for power and innovating in technology), while maintaining Latin for communication across Europe further developed Western strengths. (This is, of course, over simplifying Stark, his argument is rich in detail and very readable.)
Contrary to some pro-western historians, Stark repeatedly argues that Empire, especially Roman, was bad for innovation (and therefore a drain on the rise of the west) because it relied on military power for strength instead of empowering the general populace through economic and political means.
Stark also compared different parts of Europe. The political liberty of England, the geographic exploration of Vikings, the creative capitalism in Italy and later in England, are all helpful areas of comparison. Stark has no problem highlighting negatives, Spain’s colonialism was more about wealth for the monarchy and building the strength of their Spanish army than building the country’s economy or helping empower the citizens of Spain. So Spain did not fall so much as it lost the income that propped up the monarchy and overspent its resources.
More than just a positive argument for the west, Stark also makes a negative arguments against China, Islam and the Native Americans of the Western Hemisphere. China is often cited as having first discovered a number of innovations. But China often discouraged the use of those innovations, while in general the West developed the innovations. (It is impossible to know in many cases, but Stark suggests that in many cases innovators independently came up with similar solutions in different places without influence.)
Most of my complaint comes from the comparisons of Western and Eastern cultures. Necessarily because of the briefness of the book, Stark has to make generalizations and he is countering other broad generalizations. But Stark goes too far in much the same way that he charges that others go too far. For instance, he mentions Muslims that believe that natural disasters are caused by God’s judgement as reason that real science failed to develop under Islam, but fails to mentions that many Christians believed the same thing (then and now).
He gives context to slavery, genocide and human rights and shows that in context it is likely that human rights were more valued in the West and slavery ended earlier than in the Middle East or Eastern Asia, but tends to dismiss legitimate criticism of the West at the same time.
I really do recommend this both as well written and researched history and corrective to some of the over-correction in social science and the academy. But just because I think this is a helpful corrective, does not mean that I do not see that at times Stark is going too far himself.
The main point of the book is that the modern understanding of Scripture as rule book or guide-book or science book actually changes scripture to something that is different from what early Christians understood and how the writers seem to have intended.
After a few years of reading about Hermeneutics (theory of how we interpret) and being frustrated by Enns and Christian Smith and others, I have come to an equilibrium on the matter. But these ideas are often disconcerting to those that are coming to them for the first time. Most Christians know that the bible was written by humans. Some believe that it was directly (word for word) inspired by God. Others believe that the biblical authors were inspired by God, but God gave them freedom to do the writing on their own. (And some don’t believe that the bible was inspired at all.)
Enns’ main metaphor in Inspiration and Incarnation was that we should think of scripture like we think of Jesus’ incarnation. Jesus is fully human and fully God. Similarly scripture is from God but still human written.
When we think of scripture as primarily from God and not written by humans with a particular point then it is easy to have our faith shaken by any threat to scripture. This is why creation is so important for many. Many believe (and I have frequently been told) that if a 7 day literal creation did not occur or the entire world was not covered by water in Noah’s flood, or Jonah was not literally swallowed by a fish then we can’t trust scripture and we can’t trust God.
But John Walton has (to me at least) successfully demonstrated that the original author and readers were not talking about the physical creation in Genesis 1 and 2 but the functional creation. The original readers were more interested in why than how. And Walton says they would have all understood Genesis 1 as a temple dedication ceremony where God was creating the earth as a temple for himself so that we as humans could act as his priests and worship him.
Enns builds on this type of idea and suggests that Genesis and many other parts of the bible that we usually read as history had other intentions. Not because the biblical authors were attempting to trick us as readers, but because they were writing in a different time and culture with different literary conventions that allowed for the molding of a story in ways that were not primarily focused on the history but on the narrative being told.
So much of the Old Testament was probably compiled during either David/Solomon’s time or during the Babylonian exile. Genesis and Exodus, Judges, etc. were about creating a national identity (or reminding the people of their identity) more than being a modern conception of history.
One point that Enns did not pick up here that I think is important, is that this line of thought is not primarily about minimizing the supernatural as some critics contend. Walton, and I think also Enns, are not against God working supernaturally in the type of ways that are being show in scripture. Instead they think the miracles are about showing God’s power over other deities or the ability to care for Israel more than about the ability to be supernatural.
The real strength of the book is Enns’ literary biblical insights. We modern Christians are so used to thinking of scripture as a string of historical narrative that we forget that there are literary allusions throughout scripture. So Matthew has a ton of literary allusions comparing Jesus to Moses (only greater). And there are a number of other subtle allusions to Noah and Creation or the Exodus scattered throughout scripture. These types of insights can only come from biblical scholars that have enough time to study and are a significant reason why we as Christians need to read the bible, but also read about the bible.
There are a couple other points that will be controversial to some. First, the New Testament authors use the Old Testament in ways that would have surprised the original authors (and readers) of the OT. Quotes are taken out of context and sometimes altered to support a point. No modern pastor would be allowed to do Biblical interpretation like some of the authors of the NT do and be credible. But Enns suggests (and others scholars agree) that this was a common method in the 1st Century Jewish culture.
A second controversial point is that Enns thinks that we should stop trying to harmonize scripture and allow the cacophony of voices to carry through. Not only the different stories of the Gospels or the alternate history of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Chronicle or the alternate creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 but also the different tones and approaches to God. The pessimistic philosophy of Ecclesiastes does not really mesh well with much of the adoration of Psalms for instance.
A third controversial point is Enns’ handling of the genocide of Canaanites. This is over simplifying, but essentially Enns does not believe that the Israelites were told by God to kill everyone. Israel of the time was a tribal community with insiders and outsiders and outsiders were dangerous and to be avoided. So whether the genocide of Canaanites happened or not, Enns is pretty sure that they were not told by God to kill everyone. He is more comfortable with the concept of the taking of the land being Nationalistic myth and not having happened (or not completely in the way described) than a God that calls for genocide.
For Enns scripture is not about finding a rule of faith or a model to live by, but designed to give us insight into God, which leads us to a relationship with Jesus.
My main complaint is that I wish Enns had specifically spent time on building a case for the role of the Holy Spirit in both the writing of scripture and the interpretation of scripture. That is understood in the background, but not explicit enough.
I do not really think that The Bible Tells Me So is for everyone. If you are comfortable with your understanding of scripture, maybe you should skip this. Not because Enns is wrong, but because there is no reason to seek out a crisis of faith. (I am reading a good biography of Jonathan Swift that makes this point, sometimes we don’t need to push ourselves beyond where we are right now.) But if you have been frustrated by either scripture or Christianity as a whole, I think this is a good book that can help you re-imaging what faith can be like and give you a new view of the wonder of scripture. Christianity as a whole and the bible in particular are much bigger and messier than what many modern Christians seem to want to make them.
Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes I think will become my new recommendation for the place to start when thinking about how we read and understand scripture.
I have made a pretty concerted effort as a lay person to understand hermeneutics (the science and art of reading and understanding scripture) over the past half dozen years. Much of what I have read is oriented toward the academic, the theologian or the pastor. And I am glad I have read it. But books like that are not easy to recommend to an average reader that wants an overview, and doesn’t have a good background in theology, biblical languages or history or linguistics.
Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes is an introduction to cultural anthropology as much as it is an introduction to scripture. And this is really important. Some conservative Christians in their reaction against liberal cultural values also react against understanding different cultures and perspectives as ‘post-modern’. This often occurs not only in an attempt to uphold Christian values, but because some conservatives are also somewhat insular and have only been exposed to US American Culture.
Because of that lack of exposure, we have fights about bible translations but most of us don’t actually know another language or the basics of what it means to translate from one language to another. We have disagreements about what constitutes as sin, but we do not understand how activities within recent memory have shifted (within the church) from a status of ‘sinful’ to ‘personal freedom’ (think card playing, going to movies and drinking.)
The authors of Misreading Scripture have written an easy to read introduction to how we as Western Christians look at scripture (and culture more broadly) differently from those that are different from us (Eastern Christians today, Biblical era Christians, etc.)
There are nine different areas (each a chapter) divided into three sections. This is really just an introduction, but this would make a very good book to work through in a small group or a high school or college group.
Part one looks at the biggies of money, sex and food as illustrations of ways that we look differently at Mores. The second chapter looks at race and ethnicity (with a bit of geography). The third chapter looks very briefly at language and translation issues.
Part two explores collectivist and individualistic cultures, honor/shame and right/wrong cultures and time.
Part three focuses on rules and relationships, then virtue and vice and finally God’s will.
This is a fairly light book. I read all of it in two days. But it is not a light weight book. The subject matter is serious and handled well. But the tone is light, full of stories and illustrations, practical and rooted in the bible. It is also clear that Western is not wrong and Eastern is not inherently right. The issue instead is that we need to understand our own culture so we can see how scripture can speak to it. The authors quote the famous CS Lewis line about reading old books. But too often when we hear that line quoted, the point is missed. We don’t read old books because old books are better. We read old books because the authors of those old books had different cultures and assumptions from our own. The different ways those old books look at the world or at scripture or at culture help us to better understand our own time, culture and theology.
The problem with books like this is that we can become lost in the enormity of the task of reading scripture. We will never fully understand all of the nuances and cultural and linguistic issues. And so some people will simply say, there is no reason to read the bible for ourselves. But that is not the point of this book. The point is that scripture is important and should be read both individually and communally with our church. But we should not just read the surface, we should seek out the deeper meanings of scripture and see where we have become blind to the meaning of the text because we are reading the bible with underlying assumptions.
We all have those assumptions and this book makes a good start at showing the reader where some of those cultural reading have actually inverted the meaning of scripture. As a person that wants to take seriously scripture, not just read the surface words, I think books like this are essential.
If you are interested in learning more, I think this is the book to start with. Then NT Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God, then Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So, then John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One (links are to earlier Bookwi.se Reviews). From there there are lots of directions to go. But the four books together will illustrate:
-how we need cultural and historic awareness,
-how we need to place scriptural authority not in the words on the page and our understanding of those words, but in God,
-how we need to rely on biblical scholarship
-how scripture is a big, diverse story of God working through people, events and time to accomplish his purposes
-and how we need to see the interpretation of scripture as tentative and not fixed.
For some this list will show that I am no longer Evangelical, but I believe at this point, with tools that I have been given by a variety of authors, and by reading scripture in communication with historic tradition and a community of faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit, I think I am investing much more weight in the power of scripture to change and guide than I ever have before.
I will update later but I think everyone should read this book. It should also be a standard textbook for pastors, chaplains, and social workers. Death is inevitable. We need to learn how to do it better.
NT Wright is an author that many are excited about and many are frustrated by. There is good reason for both. NT Wright is a serious scholar and he has helped reinvigorate serious scholarship about the New Testament that is focused on orthodox Christianity.
The main theological frustration, especially for a particular group of Reformed, is that he has focused on Paul and interpreted Paul as not being primarily focused on Jesus' Penal Substitution. He has not ignored Penal Substitution, or said it is not a real part of Christianity, but he has said the focus of Paul is not on Jesus' penal substitution, but on Jesus as King and restorer.
That major focus on Wright's work is front and center in Simply Good News. Wright does fairly well writing either to an academic audience (as his 1700 pages opus on Paul) or a popular audience. Simply Good News (like Simply Jesus, Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope) is popularly focused and has few footnotes or academic references. And it is one of Wright's shortest books.
NT Wright is in one way imminently readable. He tells stories and builds a case that can be followed. But in another ways Wright is almost always frustrating because he usually seems to complicate even small matters. Nothing by Wright is unrelated to the whole story because the nature of Wright's project pulls together parts of the Christian story which some minimize or over simplify.
Wright cannot talk about the Good News without talking about Jesus and his project (obviously) or the broader concept of covenant (which Jesus is coming to fulfil), or the work of the church (doing our part in reconciling the world to Christ), or the end times (which should drive our understanding of what our reconciliation should be focused on), or the history of Israel (to which Jesus came as Messiah) or a whole host of other issues that are interrelated and connected. Anyone that has read Wright before always feels the repetition that is necessarily a part of Wright's method of presenting the story.
NT Wright wrote the introduction to Scot McKnight's 2011 The King Jesus Gospel. In many ways Simply Good News is Wright's version of McKnight's earlier book. I read Simply Good News looking for how it is different from King Jesus Gospel. I think the main difference is that King Jesus Gospel was written theologically (primarily to clergy) to help change people's theology of the gospel from one focused on sin to one focused on kingdom. McKnight's general point is the main point of Simply Good News as well, but Wright has more of a pastoral focus and tone and is more oriented toward lay people.
The end of the book looks practically at the Lord's Prayer to illustrate how moving from a focus on individual sin to a corporate submission to Christ's kingship changes our understanding of Christianity. Wright suggests that individual sin focus leads us to do the Lord's Prayer backwards, help me, forgive me my sins, give me what I need and because you have done those things you are great. But instead the Lord's Prayer has a particular order that Wright thinks better illustrates the point of the Gospel, Lord you are Hallowed, we ask that your kingdom come now on earth as it is in heaven so that all things may be reconciled to you and submit to you, and so that your will as King be done both on earth as it is in heaven. And as King, give us our needs, forgive us our sin and help us to forgive (and act rightly toward) those around us. And keep us from temptations and evil that we cannot endure.
While I think Simply Good News is probably going to be my suggestion for the best entry point for Wright, none of Wright's books are perfect. He has a tendency to over state his case a bit and while that is less here than most books, it is still here. I think while his point is to complicate the story and make it richer, more meaningful and more whole, there are times when he needs more summary to make sure everyone is following along.
There is also one point where he talks about myth as a false story, which while I know he is writing to a popular audience, I wish he would not have done. Because Wright has often done a good job at using the richer understanding of myth as origin story (not false story) as he did in this video.
Overall if you are new to NT Wright, this is a great place to start. If you are familiar with NT Wright and have read Scot McKnight's King Jesus Gospel, you will not find much new material here, but this is a good summary of why Wright's project is important, not only for Pauline studies or New Testament studies but for the basic theology and practice of the church.
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