Heavy Theological Dude Mistakenly Talks to Us12/17/2007
The Wittenburg Door Interview: N.T. “Tom” Wright
By Becky Garrison
N.T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham, England—the home of one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world.
He’s also the rare sort of theologian who attracts respect from both conservatives and liberals. Among his forty plus books include such provocative titles as Simply Christian, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, The Last Word, Paul, and Evil and the Justice of God. He taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford universities.
Wright became Bishop of Durham in 2003, and served on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Commission on Communion. (For our non-Anglican readers, this group crafted the Windsor Report, which is a document designed to help the Anglican Communion resolve its conflicts about homosexuality, ordination and pastoral blessings for gay couples.)
In short, Tom Wright is a big hitter in a big league. We grabbed him at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) in Washington, D.C., where we were selling souvenir palm-buzzers in the lobby.
WITTENBURG DOOR: What does it mean for us to be living in the fifth act: the time of the church?
N.T. WRIGHT: In The Last Word, I explain that we can understand the Bible best if we read it as a five-act play, the five acts being Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and Church. We are not living in an unfallen creation; or in a fallen world without promise; or in the time of Israel BC; or, indeed, in the time of Jesus himself. We are living in the fifth act, and have to improvise, under the guidance of the Spirit, in such a way as to bring this narrative—not some other one!—to its appointed and proper conclusion. In other words, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thus to anticipate the promise of new heavens and new earth.
DOOR: Why do we need the Bible?
WRIGHT: The Bible is here to equip God’s people to carry forward His purposes of new covenant and new creation. It is there to enable people to work for justice, to sustain their spirituality as they do so, to create and enhance relationships at every level, and to produce that new creation which will have something of the beauty of God himself. The Bible isn’t like an accurate description of how a car is made. It’s more like the mechanic who helps you fix it, the garage attendant who refuels it, and the guide who tells you how to get where you’re going. And where you’re going is to make God’s new creation happen in his world, not simply to find your own way unscathed through the old creation.
DOOR: So, how do we balance the experience of the church with the authority of scripture?
WRIGHT: Um, this is starting to sound like an oral exam.
DOOR: Sorry, but you did write a lot of books. There’s a lot of theological turf to cover here.
WRIGHT: As we read scripture, we struggle to understand what God is doing through the world and through us. The phrase “authority of scripture” can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for “the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.” When we examine what the authority of scripture means we’re talking about God’s authority which is invested in Jesus himself, who says “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18, NRSV)
DOOR: Of course, this “authority” phrase is one of the many scripture quotes that have been misused throughout history by those religious leaders who want to justify their stance on a given socio-political position.
WRIGHT: In Christian theology, such phrases regularly act as “portable stories”—that is, ways of packing up longer narratives about God, Jesus, the Church and the world, folding them away into convenient suitcases, and then carrying them about with us. Shorthands enable us to pick up lots of complicated things and carry them around all together. But we should never forget that the point in doing so, like the point of carrying belongings in a suitcase, is that what has been packed away can then be unpacked and put to use in the new location. Too much debate about scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases. It is time to unpack our shorthand doctrines, to lay them out and inspect them. Long years in a suitcase may have made some of the contents go moldy. They will benefit from fresh air, and perhaps a hot iron.
DOOR: How do you respond to those who interpret scripture using the lens of personal experience?
WRIGHT: Experience is a slippery slope philosophically and spiritually. It’s a fog in which all sorts of worlds can bump together. Now, no one wants to go to extremes. Some lines are drawn in the sand. For example, no one in their right mind would endorse mass murder. But we need to follow a path of wisdom and have standards.
When you come into the life of the Church, there is a way of life followed there. There are codes of conduct. It’s like when you come into someone’s home. You take off your muddy boots when you enter the house.
You don’t take tea and pour it down someone’s back. There are standards in how we live together. Experience needs to be affirmed, redirected, and rebuked by God’s authority. Because of our propensity to self-deception, we constantly need to check against scripture, whether we are allowing the word of God’s grace in the gospel, and God’s reaffirmation of us as made in his image, to validate what is in fact an idolatrous and distorted form of humanness. When, through letting scripture be the vehicle of God’s judging and healing authority in our communities and individual lives, we really do “experience” God’s affirmation, then we shall know as we are known.
DOOR: That means that there are the inherent dangers in viewing, say, the Letters of Paul through the lens of contemporary culture.
WRIGHT: There are massive anachronisms when one makes assumptions about the things going on in this world that weren’t in his world. This requires that we read Paul faithfully and go between these two worlds. As I hinted earlier, the fifth act, in which the Church is called to live and work, is characterized by two things. First, it has firm and fixed foundations, including a definite closing scene which is already sketched in Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, Colossians 1 and Revelation 21 and 22.
Second, it has the command, under the spirit, to improvise through the unscripted period between the opening scenes and the closing one. No musician would ever suppose that improvising means playing out of tune or time. On the contrary, it means knowing extremely well whether one is in the implicit structure, and listening intently to the other players so that what we all do together, however, spontaneously, makes sense as a whole. That is the kind of hermeneutic I envisage as I read, and preach from, Paul’s letters today.
DOOR: Is that why you once described relationship between Jesus and Paul as that of composer and conductor, medical researcher and doctor, and architect and builder?
WRIGHT: The composer writers the music. If the conductor decides to write some on his own account, that would be a way of saying he didn’t want to play that composer’s music, but some of his own instead. His job is to play the music the original composer has written. The doctor takes the results of the research and applies them to the patient. Her job is not to do more research on the topic, or, if she thinks it is, it isn’t because she’s is being loyal to the original researcher but because she is being disloyal. The builder takes the plans drawn up by the architect and builds to that design. It isn’t his task to draw a new building; or, if he does, it’s not because he is filled with the admiration for the original design but because he isn’t.
DOOR: Got it. On the other extreme, how can stuff like The Gospel of Judas and The Da Vinci Code inform the Christian faith?
WRIGHT: What we can see in this current passion for Gnosticism is a hunger for spirituality and purpose. We have to ask why our culture is so hungry for different kinds of spirituality.
Also, the appeal of second century Gnosticism is that people in our culture are eager to find anything to rebuke or replace traditional Christianity. This myth—what I call “the new myth of Christian origins,” according to which Jesus was just an ordinary person who taught a new type of spirituality, that He didn’t die for our sins or rise again—is what’s lurking behind the Jesus Seminar. Many people in our culture don’t like traditional Christianity and are eager to find anything else at all to go with instead.
DOOR: You call the Jesus Seminar a “fantasyland.”
WRIGHT: They want to liberate the Bible from poor, oppressed fundamentalists. The Seminar has had to reinvent itself after the death of Robert Funk. Its new project is to tackle the origins of Christianity. But most scholars who have written about Jesus—whether they are Jewish, Christian, agnostic or whatever—never signed on to the Jesus Seminar in the first place. Most have held aloof, rightly seeing it as a wacky distraction from serious scholarship. Only a few great minds, like Dom Crossan, Marcus Borg and Walter Wink have stuck with it in the hopes of making something good out of it.
DOOR: Bless their little hearts. Moving on to your book Evil and the Justice of God, why do you say we’re facing a “new problem of evil?”
WRIGHT: We ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face. Second, we are surprised by evil when it does, so, we then react in immature and dangerous ways as a result. For example, Western politicians knew perfectly well that Al-Qaeda was a force to be reckoned with; but nobody really wanted to take it too seriously until it was too late. But then the astonishing naiveté which decreed that the United States as a whole was a pure, innocent victim, so that the world could be neatly divided into evil people (particularly Arabs) and good people (particularly Americans and Israelis), and that the latter had a responsibility now to punish the former, is a large-scale example of what I’m talking about—just as it is immature and naïve to suggest the mirror image of this view, namely that the Western world is guilty on all respects, and that that protesters and terrorist are therefore completely justified in what they do.
DOOR: How do you balance these two extremes?
WRIGHT: We need to acknowledge that there are evil people out there who kill. People sometimes try to engage in “dialogue” as though nothing bad has really happened. But justice without forgiveness is revenge. And forgiveness without justice is appeasement.
DOOR: Please elaborate on the statement you made in this book that “the Gospels tell the story of how evil in the world reached its height and how God’s long term plan for Israel finally came to its glory?”
WRIGHT: The Gospels tell the story of the political powers of the world reaching their full, arrogant height. All early readers of the Gospels knew perfectly well that the word “gospel” itself—never mind any teaching about “God’s kingdom”—was a direct confrontation with the regime of Caesar, the news of whose rule was referred to in his empire as “good news.” Also, the Gospels tell the story of corruption within Israel itself, as the people who bear the solution have themselves become a central part of the problem. The Gospels then tell the story of the deeper, darker forces which operate at a suprapersonal level, forces for which the language of the demonic, despite all its problems, is still at the least inadequate. And the story the Gospels tell is a story about the downward spiral of evil.
These five points lead us to say that the story the Gospels are trying to tell us is the story of how the death of Jesus is the point at which evil in all its forms has come rushing together. Here I refer to the Christus Victor theory of the atonement, the belief that on the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil.
DOOR: Is that why you write that “the call of the Gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love?”
WRIGHT: The cross is not just an example to be followed; it is an achievement to be worked out, put into practice. But it is an example nonetheless, because it is the exemplar—the template, the model for what God now wants to do by his Spirit in the world, through his people. It is the start of the process of redemption, in which suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won.
DOOR: So where does forgiveness fit in?
WRIGHT: Some people believe that when it comes to forgiveness, you just draw a line and forget it even though it’s tough and messy. But this is too simple. In Miroslav Volf’s excellent book Exclusion and Embrace, his basic argument is this: Whether we are dealing with international relations or one-on-one personal relations, evil must be named and confronted. There must be no sliding around it, no attempt—whether for the sake of an easy life or in search of a quick fix—to present it as if it wasn’t so bad after all. Only when that has been done, when both the evil and the evil doer have been identified as what and who they are—this is what Volf means by “exclusion”—can there be the second move towards the “embrace” of the one who has deeply hurt and wounded us or me.
If I have named the evil, and done my best to offer genuine forgiveness and reconciliation, then I am free to love the person even if they don’t want to respond.
DOOR: Any examples of putting this into action?
WRIGHT: Two examples here. The first is Desmond Tutu and his work on the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. I have no hesitation in saying that the fact of such a body even existing, let alone doing the work it has done, is the most extraordinary sign of the power of the Christian gospel in the world in my lifetime. We only have to think for a moment of how unthinkable such a thing would have been 25 years ago, or indeed how unthinkable such a thing would still be in Beirut, Belfast or—God help us—Jerusalem to see that something truly remarkable has taken place for which we should thank God in fear and trembling.
The second example is the killing of the Amish school children. The families of the girls who were killed extended forgiveness to the man and comforted the family. Also, these families insisted that some of the money raised by the Mennonites to support them be given to support the family of the shooter, who killed himself. These countercultural examples show how the Christian community can react.
DOOR: Finally, how do we reach people for whom church is not part of their vocabulary?
WRIGHT: All human beings are made in God’s image, and it is this image which is the bridgehead to God. People know this in their bones even if they don’t consider themselves to be religious. And let’s not forget that church wasn’t in people’s vocabulary when Christianity first started.
DOOR: Hmm. This doesn’t really fit with the majority of evangelicals who say that once you become a Christian, “the big issue” has been taken care of. Meaning, of course, that you’re assured a spot up in heaven and nothing else really matters.
WRIGHT: This is unfaithful to the Lord’s Prayer which states, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The point of following Jesus isn’t simply so that we can be sure of going to a better place than this after we die. Our future beyond death is enormously important, but the nature of the Christian hope is such that it plays back into the present life. We’re called, here and now, to be instruments of God’s new creation, the world-put-to-rights, which has already been launched in Jesus and of which Jesus’ followers are supposed to be not simply beneficiaries but also agents.