I’m not inclined to dislike NT Wright. He’s so brilliant that it makes your head hurt, and he’s a genuinely nice man. I was at an island conference several years ago where he was as affable and ordinary as your Uncle Chuck– he insisted on being called ‘Tom’ (though folks generally added a ‘Bishop’ for good measure) and chatted up anyone who would stand still. Whilst there, he threw himself fully into whatever was going on. Indeed, one of my enduring memories was of diving down to investigate a coral reef. I looked up, and there was the silhouette of The Bishop of Durham snorkeling over me. Had I any air to breath, the sight would have taken my breath away.
So it was with great expectation that I picked up another of his many books. I’ve loved Surprised by Hope, and appreciated the little bites I’ve taken of his trilogy, and so I expected Evil and the Justice of God to be an insightful look at the problem of evil. It wasn’t.
In this thin volume, NT goes out of his way to denounce a caricature of post-modern philosophy/theology, and takes the reader on a meandering review of his politics. Even worse, he tries mightily and unsuccessfully to convey a sense of outrage and sadness over specific examples of mass human suffering which have taken place in the last few years. With the remove of a politician, he surveys the problem only on a global scale and seems all too eager to get back to his philosophizing. In so doing, he misses the intent of his readers altogether: we read this book because we’re looking for answers, but Wright waits until the very end of the last chapter to explain that we don’t know why God allows suffering (and we couldn’t understand it if we were told). So why write the book, and why read it? There is no heart here, no soul, no lament or outrage. The Bishop seems to be going through the motions, and in a holy space where that seems offensive. One can safely phone in a book about many topics, but theodicy isn’t one of them.
Wright at least goes to great lengths to commend Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, a book that balances heart and soul and pain and ethos with careful theology and a global scope. In fact, I found myself wishing that Wright’s book would have included a redemption coupon for the purchase of Exclusion and Embrace. Because evil will not be overcome on a large scale from some safe remove, but one act at a time by people willing to lead with their hearts and wrestle with all their might.