When I was a newly minted Christian in my 20s, just as green as a gourd, somebody introduced me to the writings of the late C.S. Lewis, the great British literary scholar who wrote extensively about faith.
Soon I was devouring every book of his I could get my grubby hands on -- "Mere Christianity," "The Screwtape Letters," "A Grief Observed" and a stack of others.
By helping me perceive God, myself and others in new ways, his works changed the trajectory of my life, and later my ministry. Lewis possessed a genius for making esoteric theological concepts accessible -- and entertaining -- to spiritual newts such as I.
Now, decades later, I may have found the C.S. Lewis of my latter years: N.T. "Tom" Wright.
He, like Lewis, is a Brit, a former bishop of Durham in the Church of England and a renowned New Testament scholar presently affiliated with Oxford University.
On Nov. 14, he was in central Kentucky. A half-dozen of my parishioners and I attended his discussion of his newest book, "Broken Signposts: How Christianity Makes Sense of the World," at the Lewis House in Lexington. We were part of an overflow crowd. Wright was also scheduled to speak at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore.
Candidly, I've read but a fraction -- a tiny fraction -- of his scores of books, some of which are massive tomes of the doorstop variety. And -- forgive me, please, Wright fans -- I don't find his writing style terribly fluid. Lewis was better in that department.
But he's an eloquent, witty, even mesmerizing speaker. Since I first happened across him online during the pandemic, I've listened to him on podcasts, watched him on YouTube and taken his inexpensive Bible courses on ntwrightonline.org.
For me, the linchpin of his scholarship is his unusual theory about what Jesus was actually doing here 2,000 years ago. Wright's radical (at least to me) view is that Jesus wasn't primarily concerned about taking his followers to heaven.
Instead, Wright says, Jesus meant to bring heaven to Earth, to fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish traditions by uniting the two domains -- heaven and Earth -- into one kingdom. God was to take up residence here alongside and within us.
For instance, when Jesus told his disciples to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven," he wasn't blathering platitudes.
He was proclaiming that right then, right there, heaven's kingdom was about to invade the earthly realm. He wanted his followers to participate. Being lug heads, they'd need divine help, so they should ask for it.
By learning to live God's way, by getting their minds changed (that's the literal meaning of "repenting"), the disciples could eventually help push back darkness until the whole Earth was overtaken by heaven's joyous, wondrous light. A wounded world would be healed by the Lord's presence.
In Wright's view, this invasion is still ongoing. It isn't and never was meant to be a violent military-style war. Exactly the opposite. The kingdom of heaven that has come to Earth is characterized instead by love, truth, justice, care for the weak, humility. It's unlike any kingdom we've previously known.
Wright's new book, "Broken Signposts," holds that this present world is filled with signposts pointing us toward God. Religious and nonreligious people seem born with inexplicable impulses that reflect the Creator of heaven and Earth. Among those signposts are, say, our desire for justice and our attraction to beauty.
Using an example made earlier by my old guide Lewis, Wright mentioned the other night in Lexington how even a child on a playground possesses an innate sense of justice. With no education, a toddler will cry out when her toy is stolen, "That's not fair!"
How does she even know what "fair" means? A recognition of justice comes baked into us, courtesy of the Almighty.
People of all creeds or no creed feel a visceral pull to write poetry or paint magnificent pictures. In doing so, they, too, reflect the Creator of sunsets and mountain vistas.
The problem, Wright says, is that the signposts have long since gotten broken. We've historically ignored, misunderstood or warped the glorious freedom and grace inherent in God's kingdom and embraced pessimism, darkness and meanness.
The job of Jesus' present-day followers is to go about every day gently pushing back against that brokenness, that darkness, that meanness, by reflecting heaven's light.
When war and infighting rule the day, we're to speak peace. When those we meet scowl, we're to smile in return. Where we see inequity, we're to advocate fairness. Rather than asserting our own haughty correctness, we're to remain ever humble.
This is how the kingdom of heaven will ultimately conquer the world: as the people who claim to know Jesus actually start doing what he said.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. You can email him at