Bishop N.T. “Tom” Wright interview on true character—”After You Believe”

This week, we’re providing you a host of cool resources for starting small groups in your congregation with the latest books (and videos) from the Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright—among the most popular Christian writers in the world.
Monday, we shared an excerpt.
Tuesday, video clips.
Today, our weekly interview focuses on Tom’s newest book, “After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.” Among the fascinating insights today: Did you know there’s an entirely different version of this book in the UK? With a different title and opening? Why do you suppose Tom’s publishers did that?
These weekly interviews we publish are both intriguing and inspiring on their own. But, they also are extremely helpful in organizing small groups. We encourage you to share these interviews to build awareness and start discussions. (We do ask that you credit and encourage you to ask more people to come read the online magazine, as well.)


DAVID: We’re doing this interview via telephone, but it’s so good to actually see you again in the new video series for “Surprised by Hope.”

TOM: A crew came here last summer and filmed me for a day talking about the book, walking around the grounds and meditating on this and that. It’s an attempt to set out in a visual format the book’s key ideas so they are more accessible for study groups.

DAVID: You’re also on the road quite a lot this year. Most of our readers live in the U.S. so we’re going to link to your schedule page. That autumn tour of the U.S. and Canada looks pretty crazy, though: from Texas to Vancouver and then back to the American South again?

TOM: (chuckles) Yes, that’s very silly in November, but it’s the way it happened. I promised two old friends that I would speak for them—and I hadn’t fully worked out how all of that would happen geographically. When we finally put the diary together for that trip, it just became, well, crazy.

DAVID: It’s a tribute to your popularity around the world.

Back when I was working in newspapers, I was among the journalists chronicling your rise to prominence over here. For a while, it looked like you’d focus in a single area: defending traditional biblical scholarship. But, now, you’re writing these wide-ranging books about the challenges of the mature Christian life—“character” and “virtues” in this new book, “After You Believe.”

TOM: The new book really is about virtue, but we didn’t want to put that in the American title because Harper reasoned that in the American context, it might put people off. The English title of this same book is “Virtue Reborn,” because the English publisher thought that “After You Believe” wouldn’t do well as a title in England.

DAVID: I can understand that. Participation in organized religion has waned in the UK. So, I’m guessing there aren’t as many mature believers over there eager to pick up books for group study, right?

TOM: Yes, I’m very much aware that the American Christian culture and the English Christian culture are radically different. We don’t have the megachurches you have—or the televangelists you have. We don’t have towns like some of yours where most people go to church. So, in planning for this book in England, we think that people might be more interested if we focus on moral questions first.

The first two chapters of the book are slightly different in the English and American editions. In the American edition, we start with situations of people who are muddled in their Christian thinking about what they’re to do, now. I write about this person, James, who has become a Christian and is quite keen on it. But the church he’s attending seems to be saying just: “You want to go to Haven. Now that you’re saved, you just have to keep your nose clean and do a little evangelism on the side.”

In the English edition of the book, we start out right away with the story from the Bible about the rich young ruler—and we ask, with him: What must I do?

I enjoyed writing the book very much, but I was a bit frustrated by pulling it this way and that way to satisfy both of my editors.

DAVID: There is a big trans-Atlantic difference in cultures when it comes to religion. In America, the term “virtues” was associated for a while with some politically conservative causes. For example, back in the early 1990s, the conservative political activist William Bennett got a lot of nostalgic attention from readers by publishing, “The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.”

There seems to be a much more lively tradition of exploring “virtues” and also things like “deadly sins” and the associated “virtues” in English literary culture. For example, we published a whole book about Ian Fleming’s way of wrestling with these issues in the James Bond novels.

So, I want to make it clear to readers that when they hear words from you like “virtues” and “character”—that you’re not part of some conservative political vanguard. Your new book seems to echo themes we’re reading from Brian McLaren and Rob Bell and folks like that, these days.

TOM: My editors were no doubt wise in steering me on the titles and the opening chapters.

I’m using the word “virtue” in the technical sense that this is part of building our strength of character. The word virtue comes from Latin and means “strength”—in the sense of an acquired strength. If you want to play the piano you need to learn the virtues of reading music, controlling your hands and all the rest. However musical you may feel inside of you, you can’t simply sit down and play a Bach piece or splendid jazz right off the top. You have to learn how to do it and develop your strength.

DAVID: What led you to do so much work on these ideas?

TOM: I got involved in a series of lectures on virtues and realized that these ideas tie up very well with some of my earlier books, like “Surprised by Hope,” where I talk about resurrection. I began to realize that this classic tradition of moral thinking, which calls itself “virtues,” has to do with perceiving the goal—asking: Where are we supposed to be getting to in life?

If you want to be a good footballer you have to train in ball control, you have to train your muscles and eye-foot coordination in order that eventually you will attain this goal. The same is true in our faith.

Intellectually I’m fascinated by these ideas and pastorally as well. So the first question is: What ultimately is our goal? What is this idea of becoming a “royal priesthood” that we talk about as Christians? How can we get there?

DAVID: American Christians are going to be surprised by this book. Most American Christians haven’t thought about their life’s vocation in quite this way. Plus, many of them still tend to associate your name with straight Bible scholarship or Christian apologetics.

TOM: I am basically a pastor. I do more pastoral work than apologetics. I do write apologetics, but mostly I’m spending my time with people—helping people in their struggles and vocations and temptations. For most of my life, that’s been my day job. I’m very interested in the struggles people have in terms of Christian behavior and in listening to what God is calling them to do and be with their lives.

This book is trying to slice through the confusion with this deeply biblical way of looking at these questions in daily life.

DAVID: One thing I really appreciate about this new book is that it’s not a rule book. Nor is it Tom Wright’s Top 10 Things To Make You a Perfect Christian. Rather, you’re advising people that life is a long and challenging journey—and we need to realize that we need to work on our “character” every day.

TOM: It’s fascinating to me that somehow the Christian dialogue in the U.S. has been sidetracked into debates over what might have been Jesus’ rule book: Would this belief be right or wrong in Jesus view? Would this policy be right or wrong? What’s the rule from Jesus?

And, in the U.S., when people talk about Jesus’ approach to life, we tend to limit the questions to Jesus’ principles for success. What are Jesus’ principles for making my marriage better? Jesus’ principles for my daily survival? Jesus’ principles for my stress reduction?

It tends to get reduced to: Me. My. Mine.

I don’t walk into many churches where I hear much about Jesus’ big picture on how we’re to live together. What are we to do externally to knit the world together? What virtues are we to pursue generally?

If I give you a rule, you may obey it. But, a virtue is what happens when you have trained yourself to behave in a certain way. If you do this, over time, these things can seem to be happening almost automatically in your life.

One of the classic virtues is courage. Imagine a warrior who takes a strong drink, then charges off into battle spraying bullets everywhere and hollering. That’s not true courage.

As a virtue, courage is when you’ve gone through a thousand occasions already in your life in which you’ve put others before yourself. Then, on occasion number 1,001, you see a grenade tossed into a schoolyard. At that moment, you automatically race in and try to toss the grenade away, even if you do not survive this act. That kind of automatic courage actually is the result of years of training.

Think about the airplane that landed in the Hudson River in New York City. The men controlling that plane didn’t have time to think, but their actions were formed by years of training. Yes, they “instinctively” did the right thing, but it wasn’t an instinct they were born with. It’s something they acquired through years of hard work.

DAVID: This whole idea sounds so simple, but it gets “muddled” in a lot of churches.

TOM: The culture pushes us in two different directions. There are many people looking for rules they can pin up on the wall. A lot of Christians insist we’re justified by grace, not works—yet they’re some of the people shouting loudest for a list of rules!

Then, there are those who say life is all about being authentic and spontaneous. Things should come from the heart, they say. There are other approaches to these questions about life, but generally people go toward either rules or toward trying to be spontaneous and authentic.

I’m saying: Jesus does give us a way of living that eventually comes from our hearts and seems spontaneous to us. But you can’t just start there. There are some important things Jesus wants us to do—and not to do.

DAVID: I very much appreciate your whole approach to the Bible in this book. You’re continuing your overall argument about scripture that says: You can’t pick it apart into a thousand tiny proof texts. We have to see the far larger picture of God’s narrative in the world. By the way, this is another point you share with Brian McLaren’s writing.

TOM: Consider Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: They are all about the kingdom of God and Jesus launching this whole new way of being human. You can sit down and make a list of all the things involved in this new way of life—but, if you start by making a list, you’ll never get where Jesus wants us to go. You can’t just start with spontaneous movements of the heart, either, because that on its own won’t take you where Jesus wants us to go, either.

Jesus wants individuals to be transformed from within—and eventually to be living in this spontaneous and authentic way, but that’s only because their characters have been sufficiently transformed.

What I’m saying is that the vision in the gospels is a much bigger and more challenging vision than most people have realized in the Western world. This model of character and virtue I’m describing in this new book is one part of the gospels’ larger vision.

We need to remind congregations that there is a great narrative here running throughout the Bible. Scripture is a huge, great, sprawling story. You can’t read the whole thing every week because it takes about 4 days and nights to read the whole thing out loud. But we need to keep reminding people that whatever bits we hear from the Bible are just small peeks through tiny windows at the whole thing.

DAVID: Here’s an example you give in the middle of your book: You write about the need to open up our understanding of Jesus’ Beatitudes. These are the famous “Blessed are …” passages. You write that this isn’t just some laundry list of blessings Jesus rattled off. No, there’s a dramatically larger picture here.

You write: “They are announcing a new state of affairs, a new reality which is in the process of bursting into the world.”

TOM: Right, I think a lot of Western Christians find the Beatitudes puzzling. They aren’t a list of rules—and they come at a place where we almost expect a list of rules. This is the Sermon on the Mount! We expect rules!

But these are actually about different kinds of character. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers—people of this sort.

Jesus is saying: Here is the character of a kingdom person. The larger sense of what Jesus is saying here remains opaque to many people today. Jesus is saying: The world is upside down, but if you’re a part of my people from here on out we’re going to be living in this new way with the right characters and values put right side up.

You’ve got to live in the light of turning the world the right way up. This is not only good news to many Christians—it’s total news to many Christians.

DAVID: I do hope that you generate lots and lots of conversation across thousands of small groups on the nature of Christian character. I hope we see both of these terms—virtues and character—arise in a whole different context in this new decade.

TOM: You know the word character really is a word from printing. It’s when something is stamped onto a piece of paper—and once it’s stamped it becomes indelible. It makes an indentation on that paper. That paper is marked forever.

The exciting thing about Christian character is that you can be marked in that indelible, transformative way as a certain type of person, a Jesus type of person. You can become someone whose character is forged by Jesus. This is a transformative process much larger than just waking up and trying to choose, every day, what you think Jesus’ rules might be.

This is something that actually can happen in our lives and it’s really exciting—and it is within reach of all ages of people. It’s within reach of the 6 year old who takes discipleship seriously and it’s within reach of the 80 year old. No one should think they’re too young or too old.

Some of the most formed people in terms of Christian character are quite young or quite old and so it is attainable for everyone. It is hard work but it is within reach—for all of us.

Looking for more N.T. Wright books?

OTHER N.T. WRIGHT BOOKS are described in our Wright Small Group Resources page.
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