Review & Reflection: The Last Word by N.T. Wright

The first theology-type book that I ever read was The Last Word by N.T. Wright, a British priest (now retired) and New Testament scholar.  After at least six bitter months of heavy doubting, I finally decided that if my doubts weren’t going away any time soon, I might as well think about them, and if I was going to think about them, I might as well see what people who are smarter than me have to say about them.  I browsed the Religion section of my college’s library for weeks.  Eventually I checked out The Last Word because it seemed to address many of the topics on my mind at that time, including postmodernism, homosexuality, and the Bible.

(If you search for “The Last Word by N.T. Wright,” you might have trouble finding it.  Turns out, it was re-published with a different title a few years after its original publication.)

I returned my library copy years ago, but last summer I picked up my own copy of The Last Word at a used books store.  Recently, I’ve spent some time flipping through the pages of The Last Word.  I also re-discovered the giant “report” that I made for this book when I first read it, back in 2013.  Somehow I managed to write down 44 pages’ worth of summaries and reflections on a book that was only 146 pages long.  To say that I read this book carefully on my first go would be an understatement.

Looking back through my old notes, I’m struck by how much The Last Word resonated with me when I first read it.  Right around that time, I was discovering intellectuals who were a part of the type of Christianity that I grew up with (Evangelical Christianity).  They challenged me to think about my faith in a more complicated and sophisticated way than I had as a kid/teenager.

N.T. Wright became very meaningful to me in this context.  On the one hand, Wright reminded me of the Christianity that I grew up with: he emphasized Biblical Authority, a life of faith, individual morality, and the centrality of Jesus.  I was encouraged to find a combination of Evangelical Christian flavor and thoughtfulness without the threatening, dismissive, and defensive tone of many vocal American Evangelicals.  Reading his book gave me the hope that maybe my doubts wouldn’t necessarily destroy the beautiful and meaningful parts of my childhood faith.

On the other hand, Wright’s careful thought and articulation was able to point out problems with Evangelical Christianity (especially the American version).  I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one who felt like my childhood beliefs needed some sort of upgrade. At that time, postmodern philosophy was the main boogie-man spooking my faith, so Wright’s commitment to go “through” postmodernism “and out the other side,” rather than defensively dismiss it without much thought (like so many loud American Evangelicals) confirmed my own sense that my doubt would not be “fixed” until after I had really taken postmodernism seriously.

In particular, I appreciated how biblical Wright’s description of the Bible seemed to be.  Many conservative Evangelicals vehemently insist that the Bible must be described using the language of “inerrancy” and/or “objective truth,” despite the absence of such language in the Bible.  By contrast, Wright’s description of the Bible uses language and themes that can be found within the Bible itself.  He seems to care enough about the Bible to describe the Bible on its own terms.

For Wright, the Bible is an extension of the kingdom of God, bringing all of Creation under God’s creative and redeeming rule.  God uses the Bible to empower, heal, and guide the Church, especially by giving us stories to read and live within.  The Bible isn’t a dead set of handy facts; it’s a living and active Word from God that change lives.

Wright’s take on the Bible isn’t antithetical to the “Biblical inerrancy” model that is so popular in conservative Evangelical circles.  Like American Evangelicals (and unlike many progressive/liberal Christians), Wright says that we can’t criticize or disagree with what the Bible says.  Although Wright isn’t satisfied with the paradigm of inerrancy, he certainly isn’t arguing that the Bible does have errors.  At the end of the day, N.T. Wright’s description of the Bible comes off as a more substantial and biblical version of inerrancy.

Since reading The Last Word, I’ve read nine more books by N.T. Wright.  Yet none of these books really resolved all of the questions that I had hoped they would.  Quite the opposite: today, some of my favorite thinkers are the people who Wright was writing against.  Even so, skimming back through the Last Word has reminded me that N.T. Wright was a crucial help to me along one leg of my journey of faith and thought.  N.T. Wright’s writing helped me to imagine a peaceful relationship between my faith and critical thinking without resorting to the anxious and defensive attitude of my seemingly doubt-free church friends.

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