Book Review: God and the Pandemic by N.T. Wright

I received an eARC of this book through the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. God and the Pandemic is on sale now.

This short book grew out of an essay by N.T. Wright, expanded into his thoughts and beliefs, based on Biblical study, surrounding Christians and the coronavirus. I’ve read one book by N.T. Wright before – Simply Christian – and found his work to be scholarly and thoughtful so I was immediately curious about what he might have to say about the current global pandemic. Obviously a book like this has a quick turnaround from conception to publication so overall it has a more casual tone than Simply Christian. That said, it still reads well and thoughtfully and is grounded in Biblical study.

Wright speaks very boldly to Christians, rebuking those who might attempt to use the coronavirus for political or even religious purposes. He writes, “We sometimes have the impression that the coronavirus is providing people with a megaphone with which to say, more loudly, what they were wanting to say anyway.” There are Christians (and non-Christians too) who will see this virus as a warning sign, a lightning bolt from heaven. There are people who will say it is a punishment on our secular society, a plague sent to us from the godless nation of China. Wright unequivocally rejects these ideas and I loved reading his Biblically-grounded statements against them.

He does this by pointing the reader back to Jesus and what the gospels (and indeed the entire Bible) tell us about him. “Any claim to tell from world events when the ‘second coming’ will occur is a claim to know more than Jesus himself. Wright goes on to make the point that world events don’t exist to tell us to repent and turn to God. That was Jesus. Jesus was God come to earth, who lived as a man, died as a criminal, and was resurrected from the dead. Wright says, “The resurrection is the launch of God’s new creation, of his sovereign saving rule on earth – starting with the physical body of Jesus himself. Those events are now the summons to repent and the clue to what God is doing in the world.” In other words, we shouldn’t need tsunamis and pandemics to point us to God because we’ve already been given Jesus.

Wright also references one of my favourite stories of Jesus. When he heals a man born blind, his followers ask him, “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” They believe, as many people still do, that any ailment (or world catastrophe) must be the result of sin. “Neither,” replies Jesus. “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed.”

Wright also addresses the practicalities of catastrophe and how Christians should respond. He refers back to a New Testament story found in Acts where the church in Antioch learns that there will be a great famine. Rather than react with judgement toward sinners or expecting it to be a sign of Christ’s imminent return, the church mobilizes to provide aid to the church in Judea, knowing they would be hard hit. Wright puts their response this way:

They ask three simple questions: Who is going to be at special res when this happens? What can we do to help? And who shall we send?

This very simple response is entirely applicable in our own situation today. Who needs help? What can we do? Who can do it? And in many cases and places, the church has done that and it has been wonderful to see the global Church mobilized in such a way. In many other ways, the church has failed, putting selfish desires and pride first and even endangering the lives of those around them. From the very beginning of the church, Christians have been called to step into the centre of the pain. This is a place Jesus himself never shied away from. Whether he was weeping at Lazarus’ tomb, asking a Samaritan woman for a drink, or laying down his life on the cross, he never stepped back from pain. Wright reminds the reader of Paul’s letter to the Romans where he writes of “groanings too deep for words”.

That is our vocation: to be in prayer, perhaps wordless prayer, at the point where the world is in pain.

– N.T. Wright, God and the Pandemic

Which isn’t to say that we are called to passive acceptance. Wright quickly pushes back against this idea, refusing to let Christians shrug off the ills of the world with an “Oh well, God will work it out.” Instead, Wright calls Christians to action, to mobilize like the church in Antioch, like the church has at many other points in history. One famous example I’ve heard frequently in recent months is that during incidences of the Black Plague, Christians remained behind to care for the sick while others fled the illness. For us today, care for others can look as simple as staying home, wearing a mask, grocery shopping for someone more vulnerable. Or it may require greater risk to ourselves, a larger step out of our comfort zone. We are still called to do it.

…God does send thunderbolts – human ones. He sends in the poor in Spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people. They are the way God wants to act in his world.

– N.T. Wright, God and the Pandemic.

For a small book, I got a lot out of this. While it’s written for a very specific time, there is also a lot here that is vastly applicable for Christians in all scenarios. How do we, as followers of Jesus Christ, respond to pain and suffering? Who needs help? What can we do?

5 thoughts on “Book Review: God and the Pandemic by N.T. Wright”

  1. Sometimes, wanting to help feels useless because things are so big. How can I (italicized) help?? But guidance about tangible ways to be off service to each other is always a beautiful lesson. Tiny sea creatures clean the teeth of giant whales; we needn’t wear a cape to do something important for our communities.

    1. Yes, I find it can be easy to feel stuck in that despondency that says small actions don’t make a difference so why bother. But I do believe it’s important to take those small actions. Sometimes they turn into bigger actions, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you just have to hope that lots of other people are also taking small actions in the right direction.

  2. Oh, I love that example from Acts. A number of evangelicals here are going either the ‘end times’ route or the ‘sin’ route or even the ‘thank God I’m not the one with the virus’ route, but very few are actually asking what can be done to help. And I think those three questions that Wright posed would be very useful for me to ask of myself too! Great review 🙂

    1. Thanks! I thought they were such great questions too – loving and practical. I’ve seen that same attitude among Christians here too and it’s so sad and frustrating. I’ve seen churches that are very eager to embrace the “end times” narrative so I especially appreciated the way Wright dismantled that.

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