Let’s Try to Keep the China on the Table – Interview with N.T. Wright
This interview was from the March-April 2007 Issue of Homiletics
The Bishop of Durham in England, N.T. (Tom) Wright, was formerly Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey and Dean of Litchfield Cathedral. He has taught New Testament studies for 20 years at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford Universities. His Jesus and the Victory of God, The New Testament and the People of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God are three volumes in a projected six-volume series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God. He has also written The Original Jesus, What Saint Paul Really Said, The Challenge of Jesus, Simply Christian and The Climax of the Covenant. He has also collaborated with Jesus Seminar scholar, Marcus Borg, to write The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. (To read our interview with Borg, see the July/August 2006 issue of Homiletics.) He is also working on a 12-volume For Everyone series, in which Wright provides a translation and commentary for new Bible students. Dr. Wright is a member of the International Anglican Doctrinal and Theological Commission, and was also a part of the Lambeth Commission that wrote The Windsor Report.
We met with Wright while he was at Harvard University as the 2006 William Belden Noble lecturer in late October. His evening addresses were delivered in the Memorial Church and the theme for the three-day event was “The Gospel and Culture.” His appearance came only weeks after his latest book, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus was released.
HOMILETICS: Let’s start with the resurrection. You say in one of your books that there really hasn’t been any new evidence in the past generation or two to dispel the notion that when people die, they stay dead. So what accounts for the increased levels of discussion concerning the resurrection?
WRIGHT: The word “resurrection” has commonly been used by Christians for many years now to mean effectively, “life after death.” So that when people read the Easter story they think, “Isn’t that wonderful? Jesus died, then he was raised, then he went to heaven; well, we’ll die, we’ll go to heaven and that’s pretty much the same thing. And they miss the whole point of the bodily resurrection, which has to do with “new creation,” because most Christians — and indeed many Jews in the modern world as John Levison has argued in his new book — don’t actually have in their minds a picture of what resurrection really is, which is: a new bodily life after a period of being bodily dead.
In other words, resurrection is not life after death, it’s life after, life after death. We’re talking about a two-stage post-mortem reality. A time of being bodily dead, and then — if you want to talk about going to heaven, then that’s what’s going on at that point. But then, the new heavens and new earth that were promised will form the theatre or stage within which we’ll be given new bodies to live within God’s new world.
To me, the almost amusing thing is that this was absolutely common coinage in Christianity until probably the early 18th century in Western Europe, at least. You can see it on tombstones and the way that people wrote about their future hope on tombstones.
Somewhere in the late 18th and particularly through the 19th century, this got completely overtaken by a platonic hope for simply going to heaven, and the word “resurrection” simply became a metaphor for that hope of going to heaven — which now is all that most Christians think about.
HOMILETICS: But it was also the Jewish understanding of resurrection in the ancient world.
WRIGHT: Absolutely, but not just a Jewish understanding, because the meaning of “resurrection” was clear. In the ancient pagan world, the Greco-Roman world, if someone mentioned “resurrection” — anastasis in Greek — people knew that that meant someone who is already well and truly dead coming back into a bodily life of some sort, and they knew that that didn’t happen.
HOMILETICS: So when you say that the resurrection is a “historical” problem or issue, is this what you mean? Getting back to an understanding of the word itself?
WRIGHT: Well, yes. If you say “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” and then suggest that that means, “Is Jesus still around spiritually somehow having left his body behind in the tomb?” — that’s a notion that one can understand; the ancients would have words for that — ancient Jews, ancient Hebrews, ancient Greeks would have had a word for that. But they wouldn’t have used the word “resurrection.”
HOMILETICS: So if you want to describe that position, fine. Just don’t use the word “resurrection.”
WRIGHT: Exactly. If what you mean is that you “sense his presence still with you,” “His call continues,” whatever. Exactly. Say, then, that “His call continues and I sense his presence with me.” We’ve got language to say that. The word “resurrection” does not mean that in the ancient world.
So it’s quite clear what the early Christian claim was. The early Christian claim was that Jesus was well and truly bodily alive again after a short period of being well and truly bodily dead and that they knew that this totally broke the mold. Many Jews in that day did believe in resurrection, but they didn’t believe that one person was going to be raised before all the rest. That’s a totally radical innovation. Nobody was expecting that.
HOMILETICS: One of the things that was going on early on, were varieties of the Gnostic experience. Yet one can make a case that Gnosticism is still alive and well. It seems paradoxical to find strains of Gnosticism — “we know something” — thriving in a postmodern, in many ways, agnostic — “we don’t know anything” — world.
WRIGHT: There are all sorts of paradoxes which slosh around as soon as you get into Gnosticism, because there are different types and varieties. It’s a very slippery thing. But the constant is the dualism. And within post-modernity the dualism begets this conspiracy theory, or conspiracy quest: What you see isn’t actually as real as it may appear and we’re going to tell you the story which enables you to get around the back and find out what’s really going on. That’s very post modern, but it’s also very gnostic.
HOMILETICS: But also, what’s very postmodern is that there’s no meta-narrative and there’s no sense of absolutes; questions, no answers. Yet in Gnosticism there is a meta-narrative and knowledge and the acquisition thereof is that toward which we should aspire.
WRIGHT: That’s absolutely right and one of the features of postmodernity is that people pick and choose bits of everything, and a lot of people today within postmodernity are given permission to have a bit of this and a bit of that. So at key moral points, for instance, they might actually pick up some of the gnostic rhetoric because it happens to fit with the other things they’re going after.
But yes, you’re absolutely right. Any serious postmodernist faced with a serious Gnostic would say: “What do you mean a spark of light deep within your self? I can deconstruct that just as well as I can deconstruct anything else!” So there is an uneasy juxtaposition of contemporary Gnosticism and postmodernity, although, in a sense, where they both meet is that both of them sustain empire, or at least, ironically, can’t critique empire.
HOMILETICS: When you talk about Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, clearly that strikes a chord because you can see how Gnosticism is at work in the culture.
HOMILETICS: Did you see the movie?
WRIGHT: Oh yes, I did. I did. Pity about all the gratuitous violence. But also, it shows only too clearly what a silly string of conspiracy theories and secrets-to-be-pierced it is, you know. You just run from one to the next, to the next, to the next, and it becomes more and more fanciful. And in the end, what have we discovered? Are we talking about the Holy Grail? Have we found the blood line of Mary Magdalene? What are we talking about? It wasn’t clear in the book and it wasn’t terribly clear in the film.
HOMILETICS: Speaking of what are you talking about … [laughs] could you explain what you mean when you refer to the “Gnosticism” of the religious right?
WRIGHT: Oh yes! Like all varieties of Gnosticism, it doesn’t press all the buttons, but it certainly presses some. The religious right has routinely lived with quite a radical dualism of “this world is not my home, we’re just a-passin’ through,” we got to get to heaven, that’s what it’s all about. If you believe in heaven and hell, you’re a real Christian; if you don’t, you’re not. They believe in salvation by grace, which is not a Gnostic belief because the Gnostic believes that he or she is a spark of light as they are in the present, and they don’t need grace for that, so that’s a major disjunction.
But then, there is this idea that the world is just really so much rubbish, this is just a silly old world, God is going to throw in the trash can. We’re going to be raptured up to heaven and then there will be a great Armageddon and the sooner the better.
HOMILETICS: So eschatology is a big part of this?
WRIGHT: Eschatology is a very big part of it.
HOMILETICS: Very popular.
WRIGHT: Very popular, but it’s an eschatology of the wrong kind of judgment. It’s a judgment of smash, bang, you’re finished. As opposed to the judgment you find in the Bible, where, if you read the Psalms, the animals and the trees of the fields are going to clap their hands because Yahweh is coming to judge the world. In other words, Yahweh is coming to sort it out!
HOMILETICS: So when you use the word “judgment,” you’re reminding us that judgment is really the good news.
WRIGHT: Judgment is part of the good news. Judgment is the other end of the story that begins with the good creation. Then the “putting to right” of creation in the New Creation. That’s absolutely critical. It’s possible for people to think they’re orthodox because they’ve ticked the right boxes. Creation: Yeah, I’m a creationist. Judgment: Yeah, I believe all those guys are going to get their comeuppance, et cetera. And they tick the right boxes but they mean the wrong things by them.
If you join up those boxes in a more biblical way, you get a strong view of creation, a strong view of judgment as putting creation to rights, and resurrection as where those two things meet in the middle. The resurrection of Jesus is the advance “putting to rights” of the cosmos.
HOMILETICS: Let’s go to your latest book. The title is Judas and the Gospel of Jesus.
WRIGHT: Well, we played around with different titles. It could have been called Jesus and the Gospel of Judas. But the publishers pointed out to me that what I was actually doing was hinting at the gospel of Judas, which is what the book is about, of course, but really, when you understand the gospel of Jesus — the genuine gospel of Jesus — this puts the gospel of Judas in its place in the shade, and shows up the posturing of those who would have us believe it’s the next greatest thing.
HOMILETICS: And yet it is being proclaimed as the latest great thing. Why do we jump over this sort of thing?
WRIGHT: That’s the question I am trying to answer in the book. That’s really why I read the gospel of Judas. When I first saw this gospel of Judas I thought, “Oh, another of these gospels” — just like the gospel of Thomas and all the rest, with slight variations but not particularly interesting. But then I was more interested in why people like
Marvin Meyer and Bart Ehrman got so excited about it and were trying to make out — and are still trying to make out — that the gospel of Judas will really help us address and solve some key issues within early Christianity.
For instance, the question of whether Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. Erhmann and Meyer have said that in this gospel, Judas is the loyal disciple who does what Jesus wants. This will enable us to erase the slur that Judas is the wicked Jew who caused Jesus to be killed.
And that is just complete rubbish! Jewish scholars have “rubbished” it already. But the thing is that, as with the Western world in general at the moment where everyone is happy to have some kind of religion as long it’s not Christianity, people are happy to have the gospels as long as they’re not Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, because the church has domesticated and flattened down Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and people don’t realize just how exciting and dramatic and extraordinary they are.
So people go for this kind of crazy document which basically says “This world is a stupid, dark place and the sooner we can get out, the better, and you, Judas, will be the one who sacrifices me, Jesus, and that will help me to attain my immortal bliss.” And that is just the complete antithesis of “Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.”
HOMILETICS: Not good news at all.
WRIGHT: Not good news at all. No. So you can only make it into good news by appealing to a kind of late modern or postmodern world in which this world is so dark and messy and gloomy that here is an escapist spirituality that will enable you to feel good about yourself in the present and have a glorious future in the long term.
HOMILETICS: In your lecture last night, you referenced C.S. Lewis, and in any event, I was going to ask you about Lewis. Two part question. I would like you to comment about Lewis’ contribution to his own time — an enduring contribution, I’m sure, and I’d also like you to respond to those who have said that what Lewis did for his own generation, N.T. Wright is doing for his.
WRIGHT: Lewis was an extraordinary man is his own day because Oxford where he lived and worked for most of his adult life — he only went to Cambridge in the last few years — was pretty cynical, pretty skeptical, pretty anti-Christian, or at least Christianity was all right as long as it stayed in the college chapel and you didn’t jump up and down and frighten the horses about it.
In other words, you could go and have these nice old-fashioned prayers and sing a few hymns and the music would be jolly good, but don’t actually allow it to infect anything else in the world.
And Lewis clearly wasn’t satisfied with that. Having himself been a skeptic and then becoming converted, he realized that the Jesus he was following was either the Lord of Everything or he wasn’t the Lord at all. He has that famous line that “every square inch of space and every split second of time is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” In other words, there’s no neutral territory.
So Lewis found himself compelled to accept invitations to go on the radio, to write these books of apologetics, even though his colleagues at Oxford sneered at him and scorned him and were jealous of his literary success — he was a brilliant writer. They were jealous to the point where when the relevant chair came up at Oxford (in Oxford only the very senior people have professorships) and he was the natural candidate for it, he was passed over. “He’s been talking about God on the radio; that will never do.” There was a sort of social stigma as well as an ideological stigma. It was as though he had used the wrong fork for the fish or something like that. You could see all the people on High Table looking down their nose saying, “Oh dear, poor chap, he doesn’t know his manners. What a shame!” That was the attitude.
So I have enormous respect for Lewis. He was a man of great courage who with a small group of friends whom he needed — he was a bachelor for most of his life — he had the courage to go on doing what he did.
At the same time, some elements of his apologetics seem to me simply not to work. He wasn’t a first-century historian. He could have been. He was a voracious reader. He knew an enormous amount of material. He had a photographic memory — I’m hugely jealous of that myself. But when he’s writing about Jesus, he really doesn’t understand what was going on in first-century Judaism, he doesn’t understand what the real issues were around the kingdom of God, and I think that although he is robust is his belief in the bodily resurrection, I think he still thinks in terms of a heaven/hell polarization, although he was pushing the boundaries in The Great Divorce where heaven is more real and more solid and more like what I would call the new heaven and new earth. But I don’t think he’d fully worked all that out and there is a kind of residual dualism within Lewis which I think was not fully resolved.
There’s the line at the end of one of the children’s stories, there’s the old professor says, “It’s all in Plato, it’s all in Plato. What do they teach them in these schools?” And I think, “Well, it is and it isn’t, actually.” There’s stuff in the New Testament that would horrify a good Platonist.
HOMILETICS: But his work made a lot of sense to those who were trying to make sense of their faith.
WRIGHT: Oh yes, and still does. His book, Miracles, is the only book I knew when I was an undergraduate, which actually took seriously what it means to think of the miraculous. Many of his Christian friends would say, “Well, if you believe in God, then God can do anything, so of course miracles happen.” Lewis wouldn’t be content with that. He’s actually wrestling with the issue. “What’s going on here?” And especially his treatment of the resurrection, I found very profound.
HOMILETICS: So what about N.T. Wright?
WRIGHT: I had a godfather who died nearly two years ago — God rest his soul. He was a priest and he often used to say to me, “We need someone else to do the apologetics task.” He’d read my stuff on the New Testament, but he was saying that we need someone to doubt the doubter, question the questioners, out skeptic the skeptics and show that it can be done.
HOMILETICS: And it seems that your collaboration with Marcus Borg achieves this.
WRIGHT: I have an odd “bits and pieces” background. I’ve got a lot of friends across the spectrum in the church and in the wider world. I’ve taught in universities where I’ve been rubbing shoulders with a lot of people who aren’t Christians at all. So I’m used to mixing it up with folks from all kinds of backgrounds. I used to run a group called Agnostics Anonymous when I was a college chaplain, which was wonderful. Some of those guys became Christians; some didn’t. But we had a great time wrestling with the issues. So that’s always been a part of who I am.
I am not quite sure about apologetics as a genre, because some apologetics tend to pull itself into the box that says, “We are going to prove that Christianity is true according to the canons and criteria that the people of the world out there are expecting.” Actually you can’t do that with integrity.
HOMILETICS: But I think that what was happening in Lewis’ time — and perhaps in our own time — is that there was this feeling that Christianity wasn’t an intellectually defensible position to adopt. Christians want to feel that taking a faith position is a reasonable choice.
WRIGHT: It all depends on what you mean. If you mean, “Will it stand up to certain criteria set up by Hume and his anti-miraculous treatises or by Voltaire or some of the other Enlightenment thinkers?” The answer is “No, it won’t fit into that box.” But, too bad for that box.
Christianity actually claims to trump those boxes and to say that it is the genuine reason and that it will stretch the human mind and human reason to the right shape. That’s always kind of a big argument that you have to live within and see what it does. I’ve been accused of this with my book on the resurrection. Some people have said, “You’ve just tried to prove the resurrection according to the canons of Enlightenment historiography.” I say, “No, what I’ve done is use the canons of Enlightenment historiography to disprove all the alternative theories that arise from time to time as to how Christianity got going, but where you’re left then is the same place as Thomas, thinking, “Is this a ghost I see before me, or what?”
HOMILETICS: How did your collaboration with Borg begin?
WRIGHT: He had studied with George Caird, though we never met during that period. We were actually at Oxford at the same time, I was an undergraduate and he was a post-graduate. Then, when in 1984 I think it was, he published his dissertation about a dozen years too late (he’d got the degree ages before), it was right on the button for what I was working on at the time (this was his first book on Jesus). And I grabbed it and devoured it and thought “This is just amazing!”
I don’t remember if I wrote to him or met him at the Society of Biblical Literature the next year, but I sought him out and said, “This is so exciting!” Of course he was saying this and this and this — which really helped me in my own thinking about Jesus, all except for the last chapter of the book where he goes into Jesus the Sage, and I remember thinking, “Too bad about that last chapter!” But the rest of the book was terrific; good historical research.
Of course, tragically — from my point of view — it was the last chapter which became the basis of all the other stuff he subsequently did, which was a little odd.
We just hit it off. We met at SBL, and the Jesus Seminar had just got going and he was obviously part of it. And Marcus was kind of on the right wing of the Jesus Seminar because he was one of the few in the Jesus Seminar who would actually put his hand up and say he was a practicing Christian — which is his self-description. Whereas most of them come out of fundamentalist backgrounds and hate the church and religion and everything to do with it.
So Marcus would see himself on the right wing of that movement. But naturally he and I disagreed about a lot and we had got in various debates at SBL and elsewhere and then we were together in Oxford once — he comes over to Oxford a certain amount — and we were having a drink and he said, “Why don’t we do a dialogue book?” It seemed like a good idea. So a bit later he came over again and we spent a week and mapped it out, and then we wrote our chapters and sent them to each other and that’s how that happened.
HOMILETICS: I think people enjoy that, because these days the rhetoric is hot.
WRIGHT: We realized that we needed to model how to have the conversation for a church that often doesn’t know how to have a conversation. In America, you don’t know how to have the conversation. In Britain, we don’t know that there’s a conversation to be had. Most people in our churches are unaware that there are issues like this, and if they’re aware of issues, they quickly dismiss them. “We know we’re right, so bang! That’s it. The other lot must be crazy.”
I’ve often said in my diocese, “I believe in the authority of Scripture. I also believe in the authority of reason. Not autonomous reason. But if you don’t have reason on the table, the whole thing degenerates into what T.S. Eliot calls “undisciplined squads of emotion,” people lashing out at each other.
And that’s postmodernity, where the only moral high ground, the only intellectual high ground, is the scream of the victim. “I’m a victim, I’m a bigger victim than you. So you’ve got to listen to me. So I must be right.” It’s a pretty stupid way to do ethics.
HOMILETICS: When you and your church buddies back in the U.K. meet to lift up a pint and talk about the American church, what do you say?
WRIGHT: I say all sorts of things. I love coming to America. There’s so much energy and relentless cheerfulness about so much compared to the rather gloomy and often cynical English worldview, but that relent-less energy drives people into very polarized camps. In America you have an extreme right/left polarization; In England, if it isn’t too paradoxical, we have a strong center/center polarization with Tony Blair and David Cameron each trying to inch on to the center ground and elbow the other off of it because they’re both frightened about getting out any way to the traditional right and left because the newspapers will make mincemeat of anyone that goes there. So we’re very different in that way.
When I look at the American church, I see all this energy. I see people who say to themselves, “If I’m a Christian, then it’s up to me to make sure that I know what’s going on about Christ and culture. What are the top 10 books? Let’s look them up on Amazon and order them up, I’ll read them up this next month, and then I’ll have some hard questions.” I know a lot of people in America who live their lives like that. I know virtually no people in England who live their lives like that. I’m jealous of that — that relentless, questing energy. Takes a lot of people into some strange places, but it has to be better to be open in the mind and reading this stuff.
At the same time, your culture wars in America, your extreme right and left polarization which really has divided you — and the more I’ve come to America the more I’ve seen that. This polarization, of course, both does and doesn’t correspond to your north and south; the Mason-Dixon line has a lot to answer for and in some ways that answers to right and left but not entirely. But in some ways, you’re still playing out both your own Civil War and your War of Independence from Britain. I feel both of those in the America culture.
The result is that, for instance, it’s very, very hard for someone who basically sits to the left of center on several other issues, suddenly to say: “Oh, by the way, I believe in the bodily resurrection,” because that is perceived to be the position of a right-wing fundamentalist. You’re one of those guys who believe in the rapture, hell and all that rubbish. We’ve now grown up, and we’re the modern ones and we don’t believe all that.
On the other hand, if you basically sit on the right politically, it’s hard to have a critique of the Republican party because then you’re perceived to be a part of the liberal left.
So, the polarization in the culture has led to a polarization in the church. When I look at my own church in America [Episcopal], I grieve, because it’s really, really in bad shape. These polarizations have inflicted themselves on the church because for whatever reason they want to be out of the right, just cannot take anything from the left, and vice versa, and that’s no way to do a healthy church.
HOMILETICS: What about this proposal in the Anglican community for a “church within a church”?
WRIGHT: We don’t have a proposal for a “church within a church.” That’s one of the possible unfortunate results that might happen if the proposals that are on the table don’t work.
The proposal is for an Anglican covenant. The bizarre thing is that we’re in covenant with the Methodists, and we’re in ecumenical covenant with all sorts of people, but we should be able to be in covenant with ourselves. The point is this: What happened three years ago with the election and consecration of Gene Robinson, to everyone’s surprise in America but to no one’s surprise in the rest of the world, tore the fabric of communion at the deepest level. The Anglican primates said that in a meeting in October of 2003. The result of this was that we had a very expensive, long, drawn-out year in 2004 when the Lambeth Commission met and produced the Windsor Report. That cost a lot of money to get 20 theologians together from around the world three times to discuss everything. It ate up the budget for several other things that should have been going on. But we couldn’t not do it because we had to have some way of addressing the issue.
But we can’t afford to do that again every two or three years whenever something like this happens. So we have to have some way of setting up ground rules of how we can live together as a communion. The covenant is a minimalist proposal for ground rules to enable us to explore, to push the boundaries if we want to, but to do so without throwing all the china off the table — as has happened.
The question of how you know which issues are “china-off-the-table” issues and which ones aren’t is the critical thing. In other words, the real issue is: How do you tell which issues make a difference and which issues don’t make a difference? The example I’ve often used is: If someone says, “We have flowers on the altar at our church and you don’t.” Well, come on. Get used to it. Grow up. This is not a communion-breaking issue. It’s a local option.
If someone says, “You read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in your services and we always read the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Judas and the gospel of Mary.” Well then you say, “Not sure we’re talking about the same religion here. Are we really in fellowship with you guys or not?” In other words, that would be a communion-breaking issue.
The question is: On that scale, where do you locate the other issues that are in front of us? Lay presidency of the Eucharist being an obvious one. Some want to do it; most say you shouldn’t. Ordaining practicing homosexuals as priests and bishops. It’s happened in some quarters; it would be unthinkable in other quarters.
So the question is: How do you tell? The covenant is not a way of saying, “Let’s have a church within a church.” The covenant is a way of saying, “We want to be a church where we can have these discussions without the china getting tossed off the table.”
If in the process someone says, “We know that, covenant or no covenant, we’re going to have to push ahead and do this, because we’re going to be prophetic and we know we’re right,” then the rest of the communion might say, “That’s horrible because you are actually thereby breaking the covenant that the rest of us think we have with each other.” And if that then creates a church within a church, or a church outside the church, that is tragic. It’s not the aim.
We haven’t got there yet, and I pray God we won’t.