Summary: Christianity is not just about the salvation event, it is also (or maybe primarily) about the life we live after the salvation event.
Maybe it is my approaching middle age, but how we live as Christians is increasingly important to me. After reading seven Susan Howatch novels in the last 4 months, all of them concerned more about how Christians grow and live as Christians (none of them really even touch on anyone becoming a Christian), I decided to give Afer You Believe another try.
I have previously picked up After You Believe at least two times. Both times I got about 1/3 of the way before putting it down. This time, like my previous experiences with Wright, I listened instead of read.
The initial illustration is of Captain Sullenberger, the airline pilot who was able to safely land his plane in the Hudson River and get all of the passengers off safely. Wright says that Sullenberger did not become a hero because of random chance. Sullenberger had spent years flying planes. He had made thousands of small decisions that prepared him for his quick decisions that day. He had practiced so that what would be impossible for most of us was possible for him. The landing of the plane was less a miracle than a natural result of a well lived life. (Wright does not dismiss the landing as miraculous, but thinks only thinking about it as miraculous minimizes how God works through us as Christians.)
Wright wants us as Christians to think of the development of our Christian life, our character and virtue, to be something we think about in a similar way. Character comes about by ongoing small decisions and habits that are formed over time. The virtuous Christians does not become virtuous by accident any more than a master violinist become a master by accident.
Intellectually, I think most Christians can agree to this, but at least I have a hard time with the issues of desiring to do the work that leads to the character.
The rough outline of the book is fairly similar to several other books on spiritual growth or spiritual formation or character development that I have read. We both need the grace of God to allow us to have desire to work on the fruits of the spirit, but also we have to work in our own limited human power as well.
The beginning of the book presents the argument that character matters and then how Christian character is different from other conceptions of character. The fourth chapter is about how Christianity is particularly Kingdom oriented and other centered, which seems particularly NT Wright type of insight.
The next three chapters are about what Character is all about. First, character is about the transformation of the person, not by instinct, but by the renewal of mind. Then there is a chapter on the fruits of the spirit and Christian community before a chapter on examples of virtue in action.
The final chapter, at last, is about what it takes to actually develop character, prayer, saturation in scripture, participation in the community of faith, etc.
This was a very helpful book for me, once I actually got past the opening third of the book. But like many other books on the subject, I wish it was oriented a bit less on the background or structure of character (the first 7 chapters) and more on the practical development of character (the last chapter).
The response by Wright to that critique, I think, would be that we develop character, not by reading about it, but by doing it. Of course that is right, but still, it seems that if you are writing a book advocating the importance of developing character, the practical aspects of the matter deserve more than the last 28 pages. He also expressly says that character development is highly individualized. We all have particular things that need worked on based on our personality, gifts, culture and community. But again, it feels like more could be said.
There were a one insight that I found especially helpful. Wright talks about how we should be imitating Jesus. He thinks the orientation to thinking about ‘What would Jesus do’ is not that helpful. Instead Wright believes that we should concentrate on Jesus as an example of how power is used. Jesus is our model, not so much in his sinless life (his perfection is impossible to obtain), but in the way he sacrifices himself for others. Jesus is powerful, not by using his power on behalf of others (so get as much power and influence as you can so you can help more people), but by his death. Jesus is the example of the power of weakness that runs throughout the Christian story.