First in a series
Shortly after reading a review of N.T. Wright’s new book, “Broken Symbols: How Christianity Makes Sense of the World” (New York: HarperOne, 2021, pp. 128, $27.00), I knew I had to get a copy. Looking at my bookcases, I tend to think that the last thing I need at this point in my life is a new book. In recent years I have given away hundreds of books. Right now, in my bookcases, books are packed on top of books. Often if I try to find a book that I know I own, the search becomes an adventure. Adding a new book can seem self-defeating. Still, I knew that it was important that I read Broken Symbols.
N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is one of the world’s leading Biblical scholars. Years ago, I read one of his books with a priest discussion group. When I began to read Broken Symbols, my expectations were high. Reading the book, I was not disappointed. It is not just Wright’s insights into scripture that are so good. He is an excellent stylist. I suspect he was an outstanding teacher in a classroom.
Wright explores seven topics that he claims are inherent to humanity and which any worldview must explain. The topics, which he calls “signposts”, are the following: justice, spirituality, love, beauty, freedom, truth, and power. If people do not live up to these ideals, Wright claims that both individual lives and societies will suffer. Wright argues that these signposts in the contemporary world are broken. Hence the title of his book. In commenting on these signposts, Wright explains why they are broken and then brilliantly uses the Gospel of St. John to show not only why these signposts are broken but also how they can be healed. The healing will lead to more integrated lives.
Emphasizing the importance of these signposts, Wright claims the following: “…these seven signposts name realities that all human cultures value as well as pointing beyond themselves to the meaning of life, to the meaning of the world. They indicate, in fact, how we ought to ‘make sense’ of the world — how we ought to understand how the world is and the challenge of being human within it. The fact that we care about them and are puzzled by them is itself telling us something about the deep ‘sense’ of the world.” (p.v111)
Wright suggests that the fact that they all let us down indicates that they are broken, but their very brokenness can help us understand what they really mean. In one way or another, most cultures try to incorporate these signposts into the lives of people. The Gospel of St. John, Wright believes, can provide us with unique insights into the seven broken signposts that can enable us to understand the broader world we live in. The Christian mission that Wright is proposing is in no way escapist. Instead, he claims that John’s gospel is calling us to transform ourselves and, in the process, transform the world.
Wright stresses how deep our desire for justice is. We want things to turn out right. I was once in a discussion with friends about the film, “The Shawshank Redemption,” an exceptionally popular film. I never spoke with anyone who did not like it. Through the discussion, I became aware that one reason the story is so popular is that justice triumphs in the end. The film’s creators powerfully depict injustice through much of the film, but at the end, the bad guys lose, and the good guys win. If we read John’s gospel with the desire for justice as the light under which we read, God’s desire for justice will be clear. Because God will not allow injustice to be the last word about the world and human persons, we can be certain that God wants a happy ending. Wright writes the following:
“John’s gospel, then, depicts a God Who cares deeply about justice. This point is fundamental: although we humans have within ourselves a strong echo of this longing for justice; in God himself that longing is complete and perfected. Part of the hope the Christian faith offers is the knowledge that God will not allow injustice to be the last word. That is a central element in the good news of the gospel.
“It is vital, then, to remember that John’s Gospel is a book about how the whole world is being put right at last. It is a book about justice.” (p. 15-16)
God’s desire for justice should not lead to complacency. Rather the opposite. It’s like a call to arms. We are not alone: We have the Holy Spirit animating our faith, hope, and love.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.