Review of Tom Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel in News and What Makes it Good (SPCK, 2015).
A new Tom Wright book is often a treat, but I confess to being a little under-inspired by the title of this one. Perhaps it sounded like just another book on the Gospels and their historical basis. I was wrong, this book has lots to say and is more than another history of Jesus.
In fact this is a book about evangelism, about the practice of commending Christian faith to those who are outside the church. What Wright does really well is to use his knowledge of history to explain what telling the gospel meant in the New Testament and what the implications of that are for today.
He starts from the (hardly controversial) observation that the gospel is good news. That is simply what the Greek work euangelion (gospel) means. It was used to announce the births, successions and victories of Roman emperors. Rather brilliantly, Wright distinguishes between this original sense of good news and the way in which this has been adapted in the practice of the church to become ‘good advice’. “The whole point of advice is to make you do something to get a desired result … News is an announcement that something significant has happened” (p. 4). This shift from news to advice has distorted the good news that the church has told.
Through accounts of both Paul and Jesus, Wright offers his version of the Good News. “The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world … all this has happened in and through Jesus; that one day it will happen, completely and utterly, to all creation; and that we humans, every single one of us, whoever we are, can be caught up in that transformation here and now. This is the Christian gospel. Do not allow yourself to be fobbed off with anything less” (p. 55).
The church has got much of this wrong. There are those parts of the church who have forgotten that the gospel is news. Rationalists want to commend Christianity as making sense and romantics want to emphasise the personal experience of God’s presence. But both try to collect the fruit without the roots of the happening at the start of Christianity. I suppose the implication is that either rationalist or romantic Christianity could manage without Jesus. On the other hand, there are those who forget that the gospel is good news and tell stories of an angry God, sinful humanity and the sacrifice of Jesus to spare us from God’s wrath. Wright points out that this misses the role of creation in the Bible and downplays the love of God. In doing so, this approach distorts the gospel, and usually ends up in offering advice rather than news. Of course all of this has elements of a caricature, but like a great cartoonist Wright highlights parts of our life that need correcting. That someone of Wright’s stature is lampooning the ‘two ways to live’ approach to evangelism is significant.
In its place, Wright offers a gospel that has implications for the whole of creation and for individuals; a gospel that is rooted in the history of Jesus and that impacts on life today. This is a gospel that challenges the old ‘go to heaven when you die’ approach, and makes demands on all of us to be committed to new ways of life. In his final chapter, Wright offers an account of how this gospel is prayed through the Lord’s Prayer. Praying this prayer makes us into good-news people, people who are able “not only to know and believe the good news but to become part of it ourselves” (p. 169).
There is more to say about this excellent little book. I found it excited me in a way I hadn’t expected it to. If nothing else, it offers a very helpful twofold test to prevent the good news becoming good advice: does what it say constitute news? and is it good?