I’ve been doing some ongoing reading to help root my leadership and response as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. N.T. Wright is a widely respected, Anglican theologian from the United Kingdom. This summer, I picked up his short response to the pandemic from last year, entitled, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath (Zondervan, 2020). Initially, I listened to the audio version on my drive to MennoCon this summer in July, but I also bought a hard copy for further investigation.
N. T. Wright is a helpful guide in this time. The short book began through a provocation from Time magazine for a response to the pandemic. At only 76 pages, it’s a quick read, and at only five hours, a quick listen as well.
Wright is not an easily moved character. He’s deeply rooted in both the history of the church and Biblical narrative. I appreciate his steadiness in the face of conspiracy, polarity, and emotion. Wright reminds us that pandemics and plagues happen. They are part of our human story and experience. He invites us to both intentional lament and response that takes the time seriously, to extend the witness of Christ.
In the past, the church has responded to plague and pandemic with care for the most vulnerable. This is the consistent invitation of Jesus toward those of us who follow in the Way. This is not a disconnect. The church’s history of care is retold in the book.
Wright also suggests that much of the Western healthcare concept began within the care of the church. This is important to remember when we consider our faithful response. The church collectively, and Christians individually, are invited to be part of the healing of the world in physical, spiritual, psychological and social realms. Wright urges us to not cede this space of healing to institutions outside of the church itself in the day of state-sponsored healthcare like in the UK, or in our context of large, corporate, non-profit and for-profit structures. The church is about healing, and caring for the most vulnerable.
“The call to Jesus’ followers, then, as they confront their own doubts and those of the world through tears and from behind locked doors, is to be sign-producers for God’s kingdom.” -N.T. Wright, God and the Pandemic, pg. 64.
A second observation of caution is the possibility of increased privatization of religious practice through our move to online worshipping communities. While some of this critique may be generational (Wright is 72 years old), I find resonance in his invitation to maintain a faithful, real-time presence. The virtual world is a realm where the proclamation of Christ is necessary too. Contemporary technology allows us to extend into more spaces and places than we could have imagined, even pre-pandemic. At the same time, there’s something sacred in the real time gathering of faithful people face-to-face. This is a both/and – not an either/or – for our future.
Wright gives us a helpful charge and grounding with this book. Though already dated, as it was published in 2020 and the pandemic has persisted beyond what the writer had gauged, I appreciate the reflection that Wright offers and the space it helps hold open for the church to respond in ways that extend the faithful witness of Christ into a tumultuous time.
This will not be the last pandemic in the human story. We clearly are not yet through this variation of plague and pandemonium. The challenge remains for us to continue in faith, hope, and love in the way of Christ, empowered by the Spirit to extend peace in our worship and witness, in our healing and steadiness in times of trial and turmoil.
A study guide accompanies Wright’s book, to use with small groups or your congregation.