Book Review: God and the Pandemic

God and the Pandemic Tom Wright

Of the making of books about the Coronavirus Crisis, readers could be forgiven for saying that there is no end. We’ve had a short book from John Lennox, a slightly longer book from John Piper, a very long book with lots of helpful angles from a range of great people, and now another short book, from Tom Wright. Wright caused a bit of a kerfuffle with an article for TIME magazine, and this book represents something of an expansion of that, but to say this little book (around 88 pages) is *just* that would be to do it a disservice.

For regular readers of Wright there will not be much to surprise here, yet at the same time some of his readers will be forced to confront the fact that Wright really believes in Jesus.

What do I mean by that?

Well, this short book is a sort of brilliant presentation of the difference that understanding Jesus as King in light of the whole Bible makes.

Wright repeatedly and beautifully points to Jesus:

Jesus is pointing forwards to a new world, a world in which he himself will be the one true sign: pointing – like Jonah’s symbolic ‘death and resurrection’ – to the worldwide call to repent. When he does talk of wars, famines, earthquakes and the like he doesn’t say ‘So when these things happen you must think carefully about what you and your society should be repenting of’. He says ‘Don’t be disturbed; the end is not yet’ (Matt. 24.6). If people had paid attention to that, we should have had less alarmist teaching about ‘the End-Times’, whether the Hal Lindsay variety, the LaHaye and Jenkins kind, or the present new wave. Conspiracy theories were thriving in the first century, just as they are today. Jesus pushes them aside. Stay calm, he says, and trust in me.

Amen!

There is a huge amount of dangerous and foolish eschatology and conspiracy theory about – and Wright’s book metaphorically grabs those involved in that by the scruff of the neck and says firmly, ‘Look at Jesus’.

And the looking at Jesus in this book is biblically grounded and ultimately radical because it is so faithful. Wright is inviting readers to follow Jesus, not merely to hold correct opinions about him: “Being kingdom-people and being penitence-people comes with the turf. That’s part of what following Jesus is all about“. Indeed, as other authors and leaders have pondered that the present pandemic is an opportunity to lean into prayer, Wright unpacks this: “In a sense, learning to follow Jesus is simply learning to pray the Lord’s Prayer. If we really do that, we will be delivered from the false ‘explanations’ that imagine that the kingdom will come with sudden signs (despite the fact that Jesus said it wouldn’t), or that a new event, after the time of Jesus, will be a global call to repent (despite the fact that Jesus saw his own death and resurrection as the once-for-all summons).”

This is the crux, pun intended, on which this book turns. As Wright writes, “God is calling all people everywhere to repent through the events concerning Jesus”. It is very easy to be so distracted by what is going on around us that we forget what is ultimately true. Indeed, Wright is quick to remind us that our focus is often on the wrong part of history: “Unless we are prepared to see these events – the Jesus-events, the messianic moment – as the ultimate call to penitence, because they are the ultimate announcement of the arrival of God’s kingdom, we will be bound to over-interpret other events to compensate.” Amen!

There will be readers who struggle with the lack of clear answers that Wright offers – though I suggest that the passionate portrait of Christ he paints is compelling in a way that an ‘answer’ cannot be – and there are moves throughout the book to acknowledge wider theological conversation. As someone thinking through the practice and teaching of theology in the life of the local church, I appreciated Wright’s observation that “We in the modern West have split apart the doctrines of providence (God’s overall supervision of everything that happens) and atonement (God’s forgiveness of our sins through the death of Jesus). The New Testament refuses to do that. Jesus himself refused to do that.

This is a book that is enamoured with Jesus, because it is committed to reading the Scriptures carefully and looking at what that might mean for us living through the Coronavirus pandemic. There is a stunningly moving section on Romans 8 and the way that we are caught up in God’s embrace. And from this place, in lament and grief, we look to Jesus. The application of this to the thorny question of closed church buildings is fascinating – but you’ll have to read the book to see what Wright says!

So what does this book do that others don’t? Unlike Healthy Faith and the Coronavirus Crisis, Wright doesn’t offer practical support – but he doesn’t intend to! This is a book that could be given to an earnest sceptic – and I think it would be good for that. It is also a book to drive Christians back to the Bible, to consider afresh whether what we are thinking about is shaped by the Scriptures or the culture we find ourselves in. I  found this book refreshing and encouraging – and would recommend it widely.

 


If some of the ideas in this review seem new to you, then I’d encourage you to check out the following resources

  • Tom’s own Surprised by Hope and How God Became King  – two books where Wright unpacks these ideas in more detail.
  • As N. T. Wright, History and Eschatology offers further and deeper reading, as well as (With Michael Bird) The New Testament in it’s World.
  • Matthew Bates’ Gospel Allegiance – a good introduction to how to understand the Gospel of Jesus the King.

It should be noted that I work for IVP, which is part of SPCK, who are the publisher of this book. I didn’t have to like it, however!

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