Conservative Christian scholar N.T. Wright's "Simply Good News" amounts to a plea to his fellow Christians: Stop distorting the teachings of Jesus into a narrow, selfish agenda.
Wright is not waging a polemic against the prosperity gospel, the New Age gospel, the self-esteem movement or some modern flimflam. His book takes aim at pious church-going Christians who cling to a naive but persistent belief - that Jesus' teaching is all about getting your caboose into Heaven.
The preoccupation with personal salvation is so widespread in Christendom, Wright says, that the authentic message of Jesus is still "news" to a great many of his followers. When presented with the real deal, some Christians simply refuse to believe it.
"The good news, in other words, is not all about me," he writes. "More than once, when I have preached or written about Jesus and his death in one of the many other ways the Bible explains it, I have been accused of not preaching the gospel."
If Wright's plaint sounds familiar, it's because he and other Christian historians have been writing and publicly speaking about the historical Jesus for several decades. Yet their message is rejected in certain churches as a liberal or humanistic attack on faith, a modern blasphemy.
Wright is a giant among conservative Christian thinkers, often compared to C.S. Lewis in stature and influence. His voluminous output includes an 800-plus page tome setting out to prove the historic authenticity of the resurrection of Jesus. More recently, he capped his distinguished career with his magnum opus, a 1,658-page study of Paul the Apostle.
But Wright wears his erudition lightly in "Simply Good News," a thin volume dashed off in a nonthreatening tone for the goodly folk who are at home with daily devotionals but who are strangers to intellectual inquiry. The book is largely a rehash of Wright's scholarship from the past few decades, lacking the originality and energy of his best work.
Still, it bears noting that the historical Jesus is alive and well at mainstream seminaries and divinity schools, and sprouting like the proverbial mustard seed in many Protestant and Catholic congregations.
The problem with getting Jesus wrong, Wright says, is that it leads to a misplaced emphasis on assuming a privileged status because of one's "personal relationship" with Jesus; on getting whipped up into an emotional frenzy on worship day; or insisting on a legalistic adherence to biblical literalness as a theological litmus test.
"Jesus himself didn't actually say much about heaven in the sense we normally mean it," Wright says. "When he spoke of heaven's kingdom, he wasn't talking about a place called heaven to which people might or might not go after they die."
Instead, Jesus of Nazareth expounded on the first-century Jewish expectation that the messianic age was imminent, that God would restore his Creation to an uncorrupted state right here on Planet Earth, clothing his chosen people in eternal bodies to populate a new paradise.
"The resurrection of Jesus is the launching of God's new world," Wright explains.
An ethereal afterlife in a celestial realm was tacked on in the Middle Ages, a paganism that would have seemed alien to Jesus and other Jews circa A.D. 30. Thus the good news is about liberating slaves, about aiding the poor, about reconciling warring factions, about looking after the world we live in, Wright insists.
"And if anyone tries to say that the good news is not about all these things," Wright says, "but instead is only about coming to faith in the present and going to heaven in the future, then we must reply that something has gone very, very wrong in their thinking."