N. T. Wright, current bishop of Durham, England, and former professor of New Testament Studies at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford Universities, has written a compelling book. The subject of evil itself is intriguing, and Bishop Wright keeps our eyes riveted on it. Let me tell you what this book is not, then what it is.
This is not a book which attempts to explain or theorize why there is evil. The author admits that evil’s origin is unknown to us, and leaves it at that. This book is not a theodicy. In fact, if anything, it is a dismissal of theodicies as useless enterprises. He says: “. . . much of the agonizing over evil as a problem in philosophy or theology is exposed as displacement activity, as moaning over spilled milk instead of mopping it up.” Wright is not interested “so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God’s new world to birth on the basis of Jesus’ death and in the power of his Spirit, even in the midst of the present evil age.”
Rather, this book is a call to act a certain way in the face of evil (9/11); a call to live a certain way in a world in which evil is a reality (Katrina and its aftermath); and an exhortation to make one’s own the victory of Christ over evil by living the central value Jesus proclaimed: mercy.
Wright makes the case that evil isn’t just a philosophical problem. It is real and powerful. The Enlightenment tradition, he says, stands convicted of culpable arrogance in thinking that it could understand evil and demonstrates its immature response to it when it is “surprised” by it. Postmodernism, on the other hand, offers no solutions to the problem of evil because of its suspicion of any meta-narrative (like the doctrine of the Fall), and by claiming that humans have no fixed “identity,” hence they have no fixed responsibility to bear the blame for the way things are. Besides, there is nothing in postmodernism that allows for redemption.
Wright examines the classical biblical approach to evil, pointing out that the Old Testament tells the story of Israel as the deeply ambiguous proposal (plan?) by the Creator God himself to deal with evil by getting involved in the world he has made, and by calling a people (Israel) through whom the problem will be addressed and dealt with. He then argues that the four canonical gospels wrote the story of Jesus and his death in their various ways in order to highlight that event as the climax of the story of Israel, and hence as the point where political and cosmic evil met together and burned themselves out by killing the son of God.
To the chagrin of the left-wing, Wright says that evil will not be conquered by belief in “progress.’ No matter how steady our march toward freedom, inclusion and justice, the lesson of history is that evil still endures—in our structures used to fight evil, in nature itself, and in each of us. And, to the disappointment of the right-wing, Wright says that trying to impose western-style democracies around the world, or trusting in the free market, or bombing enemies into the Stone Age are not remedies for evil either.
To the embarrassment of both, I imagine, Wright even speaks of the role of “the Satan” in the evil of this world. He affirms the Gospels’ pointing to “the deeper, darker forces which operate at a suprapersonal level” (emphasis his) for which the language of the demonic, despite all its problems, is still in the end, all we have at our disposal. The Satan is no less real for being difficult to describe, he says. This quasi-personal force, a nonhuman being opposed to humanity, Israel, and Jesus, while not the source of evil, and not at the root of every moral catastrophe in human history, is a mysterious factor that, while contained by the Creator God, is not “locked up” by him.
All this is prelude to the heart of the matter: what God calls us to do as a people who share in the victory of Christ. As Christians we pray: “Deliver us from evil.” This is accomplished by forgiving ourselves and others. The deliverance from evil comes when we practice forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance. It doesn’t mean that the evil done didn’t really matter, nor does it mean that it didn’t really happen. It means, naming it, confronting it, and then embracing the offender. Wright suggests the best paradigm is South Africa’s post-apartheid Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. That is what forgiveness looks like. That is how we are delivered from evil.
Wright’s own homage to the Commission’s work is worth noting:
It is obvious that Christ’s victory over evil is yet to be realized, and that one can easily loose heart and cry with the psalmist “how long, oh God? How long?” The answer to that question depends, according to Wright, on our willingness to be the merciful master of Matthew 18.
This book’s treasures are accessible to any serious reader. There is little in the way of scholarly or critical apparatus, jargon, or references to obscure theologians to put one off. Quite the contrary, it reads like an informal speech, given by a knowledgeable individual speaking out of his hard won insights into a most vexing human and theological problem. If I had one criticism of the book it is just this: the wonderful exposition of his themes are sometimes packaged in homiletic raptures. While his theology is far from triumphalistic, at times his rhetoric can be. Other than that I warmly recommend it.