Pastor Tom Wright

This review first appeared in the latest edition of the MB Herald:

Besides offering an example of discipleship himself within academia, N.T. Wright isn’t typically known for his work on the topic of discipleship. Yet in his recently updated book, Following Jesus, we get insight into Wright’s pastoral side, an area often overshadowed by his scholarly accomplishments, but one I would say is no less important. Yes, Wright is a formidable New Testament scholar, but his years as a chaplain, bishop and a preacher provide a ministry context for his work that is worth sharing. Following Jesus is the fruit of such ministry, showing that discipleship and theology belong together.

Discipleship needs the church

Following Jesus is composed of several of Wright’s sermons from a variety of ministry contexts, giving glimpses into his view for theological discipleship. But the book isn’t an abstract presentation on a theology or model for discipleship (although it is deeply theological while also highly accessible). Rather, Following Jesus offers a window into how Wright sees discipleship occurring within the context of local worshipping communities.
These sermons reflect the day-to-day journey of discipleship within a church. And while at times they don’t fit together as seamlessly as many of Wright’s other books, the accessibility of his sermons more than makes up for any disconnection from chapter to chapter.

King Jesus makes the difference

Part one contains a collection of sermons from 1994. Naturally, some of the cultural references are dated, but these still contribute to Wright’s ability to connect theology and discipleship to the real world.
Each sermon in this section provides a summary of a biblical book from the lens of following Jesus. Highlights include an engaging and continually relevant sermon on Colossians that challenges disciples to recognize Christ’s kingship over all things. Contrary to the world’s way of leading by force, discipleship is about allegiance to the suffering king.
The reader should also note Wright’s sermon on Revelation both for his insightful treatment of the text itself and for the hope Revelation offers. To be the people of the King is to offer the tangible hope of the resurrection in the world.
In this whole section, Wright’s preaching and teaching acumen is on full display. He’s an example
to preachers in all contexts of how to deal concisely and clearly with vast information, without overloading the listener or simply skimming the content.

Following the God of resurrection

Part two has more variety as the sermons come from several contexts within Wright’s preaching ministry. Yet in multiple ways, all the sermons contribute to a broader task of offering a biblical model of discipleship.
The theme of resurrection continues in this section, with the sermon “The God Who Raises the Dead” setting an important tone for how we define discipleship: it’s God’s work in the midst of our failures and struggles that inspires our faithfulness.
Here Wright shows his pastoral heart, guiding the reader to accept that, while we live with much failure, we follow a God of resurrection.
The sermon on hell offers brief but challenging commentary on justice, humanness and theological priorities. Wright points out how what we believe about hell will impact how we live as Christians.
Finally, the book concludes with “New Life, New World”) connecting discipleship to Wright’s later popular themes around heaven (e.g., Surprised By Hope). It’s interesting to see these concepts percolating in Wright’s mind long before his wide publication of them.
Overall, in Following Jesus, Wright proves that discipleship and theology can go together. In fact, they belong together.
Discipleship without theology risks mirroring the legalism of ages past, and theology without discipleship risks becoming mere belief that creates an illusion of faithfulness. Together, however, theology and discipleship reveal the path of following Jesus to be about our whole selves, individually and together, as we seek to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength in all that we encounter in the world.


Presence and Place

I continue to be intrigued by the connection between the places we live and the people we are. Whether we know it or not, the places we inhabit shape the people we are becoming. And so I find it helpful to pay attention to various cultural shifts in how people and place relate. To this end, this quote from James Davison Hunter describes well current shifts in presence and place:

For millennia of human history, body and location were inextricably connected to experience. The worship of God, the cultivation of friendship, the conduct of business, and the expression of anger and hostility, the pursuit of romantic affection, the experience of the natural world all presupposed physical presence. The expressions on the face, the gestures of the hands, the body's mien, touch itself--by their nature, worked together to limit, expand, and shape communication and relationship. Place mattered no less. The towering reaches of a cathedral, the foreboding form of a fortress, the warmth and intimacy of a home or hostel, the beauty and power of the ocean or landscape, for example, were all inwoven with the experience within these places.

Both physical presence and place continue to matter to us, but neither matter as much as they once did. We are, of course, present in time, but less and less present by virtue of our physical presence. For example, when one can communicate with anyone at anytime from anywhere--whether through a cell phone, the Internet, or some other technology--presence and place simply matter less. They matter less to the cultivation and maintenance of relationships and less to the work we do. We are in a sense, released from the gravitational pull that presence and place once necessitated for both relationship and labor.

What is more, when the physical places we inhabit--whether homes, offices, gyms, shopping malls, interstate highways, airports, parking lots, cities--look alike, place seems to matter even less. What was distinctive about a place etiolates into space and we end up with what James Kunstler has called "a geography of nowhere"--where every place looks like no place in particular.

The development of new technologies of information and communication are clearly one of the sources of this cultural change. In a time such as ours, more and more of us inhabit our relationship to the world--at least increasingly so--through these technologies. Whether work, friendship, romance, rivalry, hostility, the natural world, or specific places in the world--all can be and indeed are increasingly mediated through programming. Consciousness, experience, identity, physical presence, and the landscape around us, in short, are disembodied through these technologies.

The weakening significance of presence and place is but one way in which what we take as reality has dissolved. Like most things in the world, there is ambivalence about this turn of circumstances. There are ways that the technological changes that brought this about can be and are liberating and empowering. But they are not with cost, for in their net cultural effect, they can also be profoundly disorienting and, in ways, deeply incapacitating. As it bears on faith, the weakening significance of presence and place brought about by the broken trust between word and world cuts to the very core of what it means to believe--the reality of what we believe and the implication of our belief for how engage the world we live in.
Hunter, To Change the World, 238-239
  • How does your physical space shape your values and actions?
  • How do you shape your physical space?
  • How do you experience cultural shifts as liberating or disorienting?

Hope in a summer of loss

It’s been a difficult summer around the world and in the lives of many individuals.


And I feel at a loss for how to respond.

Two of my favorite songs have been on my mind at various points as I’ve encountered news of yet more loss in one form or another. Music has a way of illuminating our feelings in many situations, particularly in times of hopelessness. Coldplay’s, “Fix You” and R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” are two classics that poignantly identify our despair:
...tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can't replace...

...When your day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough…

Tears are streaming. Our world has indeed had enough!

Yet there exists an honest hopefulness in these songs that doesn’t gloss over the deep hurt and pain of our lives in this world, but also doesn’t stay in the place of despair. That “light will guide you home” and the reality we can “hold on” knowing that we are not alone - “everybody hurts” -  speaks to a hope in the universal experience of death. To me, these songs have offered a hope in a summer of loss. And for that I’m grateful.