God in Public: How the Bible speaks truth to power today
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
TOM WRIGHT prefaces this collection of lectures and sermons, all broadly on the theme of Christian public engagement, with a candid admission: “much of my early training and formation had taken it for granted that . . . the only thing to say to the ‘outside world’ would be a summons to repent and believe in Jesus.”
The pages that follow offer sustained reflection on the complexity of the task facing the Christian wanting to engage the wider public with more than such a summons. In both episcopal and scholarly contexts, Wright examines how the Church might effectively represent itself with credibility and attractiveness.
Crucial to this challenge, for Wright, is the articulation of a firm theological foundation: in particular, it requires a theology of the Kingdom which gives a convincing answer to the apparent powerlessness or reluctance of God to intervene when faced with global tragedy. One of the most attractive features of the book is the way in which such questions are faced directly, and in language with an immediacy that can reach a wide audience.
Speaking in New Zealand in 1999, Wright said: “No one can deny that the Christian story is hard to believe. The world is still full of murder and mayhem. We still face disaster and death on a large scale. But that isn’t the point — as the early Christians had to reassure one another. Something has changed. Jesus has been raised from the dead and the new creation has begun — and the Spirit has been poured out so that real transformation is possible, for human beings and for the wider society and world.”
This Christian hope for the world is held alongside a sometimes biting critique of the reality of contemporary life. We live in “difficult and dangerous days”; the future is “dangerous and confusing”; and the Church faces broad hostility. He notes that the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson “used the word ‘theology’ in a contemptuous fashion, to mean ‘irrelevant theory’.” Wright’s concern is to show that careful reflection on the Bible can yield, “if not exact and complete answers, at least wisdom by which to take matters forward”.
Wright demonstrates his broad and clear thinking on a range of subjects, including peace and war, the new atheists, and Christian engagement with themes of truth and power. But there are occasional sweeping statements that perhaps demand qualification, such as “I have a sense that most Western Christians have yet to wake up to what the resurrection means in practice: those who believe in it don’t understand it, and those who don’t believe in it don’t want it.”
Of particular concern to this reader is Wright’s sweeping and rather generalised critique of the media — which implies that all journalists are part of the secularist attempt to remove God from public life. The work and potential contribution of Christian journalists gets no mention, while the media comes in for some blanket criticisms: “the papers only report the odd and the scandalous, allowing sneering outsiders to assume that the Church is collapsing in to a little heap of squabbling factions. Mostly it isn’t.” Of course there is truth in these observations, but it is not the whole truth.
God in Public is a compelling read, and offers an interesting insight into how a leading scholar-priest tailors his material to diverse audiences. But the issues raised are urgent, and I hope that Wright may yet return to them in a more sustained and systematic form, not least to give a more nuanced account of the part that the media can play in Christian public engagement. If it really is the case that “we have all forgotten how to talk about God in public,” the media, in all its current and complex forms, will offer many of the platforms by which this conversation can begin — or continue.
The Revd Christopher Landau is Assistant Curate of St Luke’s, West Kilburn, and Emmanuel, Harrow Road, in the diocese of London, and is a former reporter for BBC Radio 4’s World at One and PM.