I am a big fan of N.T. Wright. I find his writing engaging and thought-provoking and it has had a big impact on how I approach my faith. So it is appropriate that we kick off Theology Month here at CM with one of his books For All the Saints: Remembering the Christians Departed. I happened to stumble on this short work while trying out Oyster (a sort of Netflix for books). As luck would have it, it was a very topical choice as we are coming to the end of the liturgical season Wright is dealing with (Hallowmas) in the book and today is All Souls Day.
“We have been drifting into a muddle and a mess, putting together bits and pieces of traditions, ideas and practices in the hope that they will make sense. They don’t. There may be times when a typical Anglican fudge is a pleasant, chewy sort of thing, but this isn’t one of them. It’s time to think and speak clearly and act decisively.”
With these robust words Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, throws down a challenge to current liturgy and practice surrounding All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, and sets out to clarify our thinking about what happens to people after they die. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, what it means to pray for the dead, what (and who) are the saints, are all addressed in this invigorating and rigorously argued book.
It is an interesting, if very brief and somewhat limited, book.
The first thing to note is that it will have more impact and meaning if you are a practicing Anglican, particularly in Europe. But there are some insights into how we approach issues surrounding the afterlife, the church calendar and liturgy no matter your denominational background. Chapter three, which deals with liturgical and calendar changes within Anglicanism, in particular will not have a lot of impact for those not in touch with that tradition.
It is also worth noting that Wright’s more academic work (The Resurrection of the Son of God is mentioned frequently) goes into far greater detail and his later largely popular works more completely address these issues. As a result this book is best seen as a kind of teaser for books like Surprised by Hope and The Challenge of Jesus (and then Simply Jesus).
But Wright at the time was attempting to address a movement within Anglicanism that seemed to be rearranging the liturgy and the church calendar for popular reasons but in ways that muddied their theological utility. This is a part of Wright’s larger work of pushing back on what he sees as un-biblical but popular conceptions and attempt to repair our understanding of the Kingdom of God, the resurrection and other eschatological issues.
Wright feels like not only do popular conceptions of holidays like All Saints Day contribute to misconceptions about heaven but undermine the arc of the Christian calendar and the story it tells. In this way Anglicans offer a hodgepodge of holidays in an attempt to address issues surrounding tragedy and death but via a liberalism that avoids the hard questions and an adopted “tradition” that weakens the coherence that such traditions once brought.
Wright argues for conditional mortality (humans are not naturally immortal souls rather eternal life is a gift from God) and for an intermediate state after death prior to a general resurrection that leads to judgement and then to a new heaven and a new earth. He takes a decidedly Protestant view in seeing all believers as Saints rather than as special Christians with special access to God or authority. Instead of going to heaven (in the sense of a place or destination) when we die, Wright argues that believers enter a paradisiacal intermediate state where they are in the presence of Christ until Christ’s return.
This is a complex issue and one that I have neither the time nor the inclination to hash out here. And Wright offers little more than a brief introduction to his arguments. But for those who have not thought deeply about these issues it is a useful introduction.
As noted above, this book offers a foretaste of much of Wright’s subsequent, and ongoing, career. In Wright’s view, and mine as well, far too many Christians have views on heaven and hell that are really more folk religion than biblical theology. They imbibe deeply from Western dualistic notions of spirit and body and from artistic and literary depictions rather than scripture. Sadly, liturgy and hymnody contribute to these misconceptions and so Wright is trying to push for more clarity and scriptural understanding. Not an easy task but one he handles deftly here in anticipation of even stronger works to come.
For All the Saints is a useful discussion in truncated form. Those looking for more depth will want to read Wright’s other books but this might be an easy introduction for those unfamiliar with these issues looking for a short read to start.
We will be reviewing some of his recent work as Theology Month continues so be sure to check back.