THE seven signposts are ideals by and with which we aim to build a civilised and even Christian society. They are considered as broken, because somehow they do not succeed in leading us to this goal, as though someone had maliciously twisted the signposts round to point in the wrong direction. In another typically Tom Wright metaphor, aiming to live by them turns out to be like assembling a piece of furniture from a flat-pack and finding that the pieces just refuse to fit together into the grand design.
In fact, in modern life and usage, these seven basic values are all more or less distorted and misunderstood. The names on the signposts are justice, love, spirituality, beauty, freedom, truth, and power. Each of them earns a chapter in which it is considered in the light of St John’s Gospel. These chapters are divided by six “interludes”, slightly more technical reflections on the Gospel itself.
To look more closely at one of the broken signposts, “spirituality” has come to mean self-discovery, safely inoculated from any tinge of Christian influence. For John, however, the self is indelibly marked as the creation of God, without whom it does not make sense. In Israel, God was to be found most intimately in the Temple; for Christians the presence of God is to be found in Christ. This pervades the Gospel of John, in the parable of the vine and the branches, in the foot-washing at the Supper, and, most of all, in the discourse after that meal, in which John is setting out the programme for Christ’s future followers.
As always, Wright writes with engaging and inspiring vigour. This is definitely a “Tom Wright” book rather than a research work of “N. T. Wright”, the episcopal research professor, enmeshed like Laocoön in the rich density of Pauline thought. He presents his case with verve and obvious enjoyment, so that he communicates to the reader his joy in playing the keyboard with glee. So John is a great book to snack on, but readers are encouraged to treat themselves to a sit-down, full-on, five-courses-and-wine reading of the whole.
He is never afraid of broad and punchy summaries: Leviticus gives the health-and-safety rules for sacrifice. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s Yes to the whole created order; the Good Shepherd image sums up the whole history of Israel. No less than the explanation, the very text of the translation/paraphrase of the Gospel is bouncy and positive, so that “Amen, amen, I say to you” comes out as “I’m telling you the solemn truth” (the “solemn” is a slightly infelicitous borrowing from Alexander Jones in the 1966 Jerusalem Bible).
This book does sterling work in straightening out those signposts.
Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
Broken Signposts: How Christianity makes sense of the world
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