Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $24.99
Dr. Tom Wright is a prolific author of both popular and scholarly works about the historical origins of Christianity, focusing especially on the Gospels and the Pauline writings. We spoke to Dr. Wright from his home in Scotland about his new book, Simply Jesus.
Your work has been tremendously helpful. I think because some of us were just so frustrated, sort of being car salesmen for the church, trying to simply get people into the pews, and then after about five or six years of that you begin to wonder, “Why am I doing this? What’s this for?”
Yes. Yes, that’s absolutely right. And of course a lot of folk in the church have simply said, “Well, it’s basically the more people we get in the pews the more people we get to heaven at the end of the day.” And, though obviously, as you know from some of my other works, the whole question of the long-term future and the new world and the new creation and resurrection is absolutely vital—you can’t do without that hope, but that plays back into the present life precisely because of the resurrection of Jesus. God has actually started this new creation project right now and when somebody becomes a Christian and starts to worship God in Christ, and join with others in doing so in the power of the Spirit, then things are supposed to be happening both in that community and through that community, in and for the world all around them. Of course the church has always basically done this and if you go back into the second and third centuries and so on, that’s the reputation that the church had, “Who are these funny people who go around being kind to everybody even though they don’t need to be?” And that’s how Christianity spread, rather than just the communication of great ideas or whatever, though they matter too. So I think the church at its best has always done this, it’s just that in the Western world we have forgotten the rationale for it.
When I picked up Simply Jesus my first question before I even opened it was, “How is this going to be different than The Challenge of Jesus?” So, is there new material here, and also maybe more importantly, what is the audience for this book? There’s a part of me that just can’t help but be curious if you had kind of an evangelistic intent about the book, given that it’s published by a very popular publishing house? Who is this for and what is your hope for it and how is it different than The Challenge of Jesus?
The Challenge of Jesus grew out of a conference at which I was speaking to last-year fellowship graduates twelve years ago, I think it was in Chicago. And as the last two chapters of that book bear witness to the fact that it’s very much aimed at the kind of the bright young graduate market who are thinking, “What difference does my faith make to my computer science, to my music theory, to my this, to my that?” And I know it had quite an impact in those circles, but perhaps those chapters particularly may have also got into a much wider circle.
I think what’s happened is, that over the twelve years between the two books, I have—well, scholarship has moved on and I have moved on because I spent most of the twelve years, of course, working in the Church of England as a bishop, and when you go around and actually work with ordinary church communities, in my case in a very impoverished area of the country, all sorts of questions about how you actually preach from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, what you say about Jesus to folk in those communities—they have become really second nature to me and so I decided that I wouldn’t actually go back and even re-read The Challenge of Jesus, but I would sit down and map out what I most wanted to say about Jesus right now. And I think one of the things which is most clear to me is the close integration between Jesus preaching of the Kingdom and Jesus himself as the surprising, shocking presence of the living God, honored and amongst his people. And I think the sense of the Jewish people—of the time waiting for God to come back and then getting Jesus as the one who arrived. . .
Well you know, one chuckles because it sounds like a trick, but actually, that is what Mark and the others are saying in their gospels, that, you know, “Prepare the way of the Lord” etc, and in Isaiah and Malachi—those quotes are not about the coming of the Messiah, they’re about the living God. And the evangelists point that out as being about Jesus himself. So I think something has happened christologically. It’s hard to describe the sort of shift there and we’re becoming much more explicit, I think that you can only do this with the full works of the Jewish context—of how people were seeing it. But then as well, and this comes out in the last chapter but it’s there all the way through, really for those who have eyes to see it, the big debate as to what difference this makes here and now.
And the last chapter of the book I’m really in an intrinsic debate with James Davison Hunter whose new book To Change the World came out just as I was starting to work on that last chapter, and I devoured it and I thought that it was very good but it doesn’t go far enough. And I actually had to have a conversation with James himself, who’s very gracious to converse with me on it. And so the book has grown out of my sense that yes, everything that I’ve said before I still want to endorse, but I now see certain themes more clearly—they stand out perhaps more sharply, and particularly they raise the question more sharply for me, “How can ordinary Christian communities make this a reality in their daily and weekly life?” And from that point of view I think it is evangelistic, not in the sense that I’m simply taking people by the throat and saying, “you’ve got to believe in this Jesus right now,” but in that I’m holding before people a vision which says, “This is actually what Jesus’ project looks like, and when you look hard at this Jesus you’ll discover that he is summoning you to come and join in, which is going to mean a total transformation of your life by God working to transform that bit of the world that your life touches.” And I think that’s a very, very exciting way to do evangelism.
You talk in the book about asking the wrong questions or asking the right questions and I think that’s something that we really struggle with here in the church in America. What are some of the questions that we’ve been asking that might put us on the wrong track and ones that we could be asking and why does it matter what kinds of questions we’re asking?
I think that is a huge question and I have to say you’ve probably seen from Harper that I’ve got a follow-up book to this, which is about the gospels, called How God Became King, which is coming out God-willing in March.
Some of those questions I address more directly in that book. It’s really a two-part project: let’s look historically at Jesus and then look at the gospels tell the story. So I’m talking about misreadings and proper readings in both of the books. But just to say it now, I think for many ordinary Christians in the Western world it would have been quite sufficient if Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin and died on a cross some years later and never done anything at all, except probably lived a blameless life, in between whiles. So if that is so, and I think that does describes the faith of many people I know, then there’s a big vacuum in the middle, and you look at Matthew and Mark, Luke and John and you think, “Well, if that is so why did they bother to say all that stuff?” And then people say, “Oh, well Jesus was just teaching us about how to go to heaven” or “He was just teaching us the true moral code” or “He was giving us a great example of how we should live our lives” or something like that. And I want to say, those in a sense are alright as far as they go, but they’re just scratching the surface, or to change the metaphor, they’re just wandering around in the foothills when there’s an enormous great mountain to be climbed and the mountain is the Kingdom of God.
That Jesus is launching this project, which God has had up his sleeve all these years – to rescue and renew the whole world and human beings with it. And unless we read the gospels like that, then we are just missing out what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are trying to tell us. The joke about this is that some of the people who got this most wrong are the people who proclaim loudly that they are the “biblical” ones. And yet here are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and they’ve often almost entirely ignored them. So many people have come to the New Testament looking for theories about how we get saved and so naturally they go to Paul—Hebrews or whatever. Now, in a sense that’s fine, but if your theories about how we get saved manage to ignore the great bulk of the four gospels then clearly, as a biblical theologian, something has gone very radically wrong. But on the positive side this is a project about learning to look hard at the Jesus that the Bible actually gives us as opposed to the rather thin and shrunken Jesus that many of our traditions, including sadly, those that call themselves biblical, have given us.
That really makes me think about Advent. Here we are in Advent and I’ve been preaching the Isaiah passages during Advent, and Isaiah was basically saying what you’re saying, which is that God is about the renewal of Israel, yes, but also about the renewal of the whole world and all of God’s creation. And he’s preaching that message, it seems to me, in the most unlikely of situations where the lived experience of people is that of exile and abandonment. And that’s not so different from our own experience in the sense that, I feel as a preacher, that I’m standing up and saying that God is the King of the whole world, and the whole world is changing right before our eyes. I guess the question is, as I do that year after year, how do we maintain hope when so much of the visual evidence is that God isn’t becoming King and Jesus isn’t in charge, or that across the board things don’t seem to be improving?
Well, that’s always been the case, of course. I mean, as a Pauline scholar I’m always struck about that fact that some of Paul’s biggest, most remarkable visionary moments when he’s talking about the sovereignty of Jesus over the whole of creation come in books like Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians which he’s writing from prison. And, you know, you might have thought that this was exactly the sign that God had not actually become King yet, that Jesus wasn’t really in charge if Paul is still in prison.
So clearly this is not a new problem for us, nor is it a new problem that you’d think of in the second and third centuries when they went around the world announcing the kingdom of God, and in the book of Acts it’s the same. And indeed, I think Acts is part of the answer to the question. Because in Acts, of course, the disciples are being persecuted, they’re being beaten up, they’re being killed, they’re being put in prison and yet, as Luke says again and again, the Word of God went on and did its work and communities get transformed and churches get built up and the news gets out. So that within a hundred years of the death of Jesus, the ambassador of northern Turkey, Pliny, is writing back to Caesar in Rome saying, “What should I do about these Christians, because we don’t seem to be able to stamp them out and they’re changing the face of our society?” And so it’s the vision really, which is there in the book of Revelation and the book of 1 Peter, that it’s actually paradoxically by the suffering and the current failure of the church that often it really advances.
Now, our trouble is we’ve often got too little suffering and too much actual failure in that we have colluded in the Western church with the Enlightenment sentiment, which says that religion is all about kind of a spiritual upstairs reality, and, “We will run the downstairs reality, thank you very much.” Whereas, in Matthew 28, Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on Earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples.” So I think part of our difficulty is that we have completely forgotten in the Western church this part of our vocation—that we are to bear witness to, and implement the rule of Jesus on earth as in heaven. That, after all, is what we’re supposed to be praying for everyday in the Lord’s Prayer. But I think most Christians have simply privatized that.
But it isn’t simply a matter of, “let’s see if we can change this bit of our politics” or whatever. So much of what we have to do happens below the radar or on a different plane altogether. I think of the hospice movement; I think I mentioned that in one of the books anyway. Nobody, until sixty years ago, had dreamt that we could have actual hospices to care for people who were terminally ill. The doctors didn’t want it, the state wasn’t going to provide it, but Christians got together and said – in my country, happily – and said, “We need to do this.” And now that movement has gone around the world and completely changed the way that everybody looks at end-of-life issues. There are all sorts of things like that, which have the fingerprints of the gospel on them, which really have made a difference. And then you look at South Africa, of course, and see how Desmond Tutu and his work just transformed things and so on and so on. So yes, there are many discouragements—we all face those—but they are also many, many, many signs of hope on the ground in ordinary lives in Christian communities.
One of the things that I’m aware of is that this message of “God is becoming King” in the ears of a lot of our postmodern folks these days sounds very totalizing and it doesn’t sound like good news that anyone is becoming king, let alone of all people, everywhere, at all times. It makes me wonder why Jesus chose to talk about what God was doing using the same power narratives that had been used for ill for so long–you know, narratives about kingdoms and rulers.
Well, yes. I mean, it’s a very interesting question the way you asked that because, of course, we in the West are all dyed-in-the-wool social democrats to a lesser or greater extent, and we look at the tyrannies in old Eastern Europe or in some parts of the Middle East to this day and we shudder. We say, “We really don’t want to be like that.” At the same time, of course, it has to be said that the great western democratic experiment has left a lot of people scratching their heads. I have read newspapers in America, and in my own country, which talk openly about the failure of our democracy and the crisis in our democracy and the fact that our democracy isn’t actually delivering the real choice and the real influence for ordinary people that it ought to. So I think more and more people are realizing that actually, maybe the way we have done stuff isn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
But at the same time, of course, the theme of God becoming King is one of the greatest themes of the Old Testament, right through Isaiah, right through the Psalms, right through many other passages going back as far as the Song of Moses in Exodus 15. And the idea of the true God becoming King is precisely the antidote to a false God becoming king. I have met this pastorally in another context when people say, “You talk about God as father where there are a lot of the people we work with are people who have a lot of very damaged family relationships for whom the word ‘father’ simply means horrible man who comes home drunk every once in a while and beats everybody up and then disappears again. So how can we possibly use the word ‘father’ in that setting?” And I’ve struggled with that in real life pastoral situations. But for me, the word “father” is too good a word to abandon, and I would always say we need to work, in this pastoral case, towards recovering the good meaning of the word “father” even though for some people it may be very difficult. In the same way, it may be difficult for some people to recover the word “king,” I think a lot of people find it really quite refreshing, especially when they’re scratching their heads and puzzled at the apparent failure, or at least hitting-the-doldrums mode of a lot of our present institutions. By the way, I should say, a lot of Americans say, “We can’t understand this language about ‘king’ because we don’t have kings and queens like you Brits do,” and my answer to that always is, “Actually, your president right now corresponds much more closely to a first-century king than anything we’ve had in Britain for at least a hundred years.” So. . .
Yeah. That’s a good perspective.
One of the things you wrestle with in the beginning of the book especially, but throughout the book—and which you say is autobiographical—is the way that the church in certain periods of history has kept the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith from every meeting one another, and your personal journey to try to bridge that. I just wonder if you would speak to that a bit more. How do we, as pastors, effectively keep these things together in a way that doesn’t confuse our members with a lot of academic stuff but at the same time doesn’t dumb down the message of Jesus and just make it about having a nice day or being a better employee?
I think it’s an ongoing challenge and I think actually each generation has had to approach this in its own way. I mean, in a sense, the sixteenth century reformers were doing their best to get back to the original historic meaning of the gospels and the epistles after layer upon layer of stuff that had been stuck on the top during the Middle Ages. But in a sense this is what every generation has tried to do—to go back to the sources and go, “Wait a minute, what did this mean at the time, and hence, what does it mean for us now?” And often, I find that you need to put some critical distance between yourself and your immediate predecessors in your own tradition, and do it in the full consciousness that this process will go on and that in the next generation people will be looking back and at me and saying, “Well, Tom Wright got some things right but he probably got some things wrong and now let’s move on and find out what else we need to say.” That’s fine. We should expect that that process will continue.
But I think part of the difficulty isn’t just people getting bogged down with academic puzzles and problems, but it’s as much with the popularized stuff wherein the media every Christmas, every Easter—whether it’s TIME Magazine or Newsweek or whatever—somebody’s going to do a feature on: “Was Mary really a virgin? Were there really three wise men? Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” What you then get is a really popularized version of whichever particular bits of semi-scholarship the person writing the article happens to have got a hold of, and because of our news media still having so heavily bought into the post-Enlightenment rhetoric of this “either/or” you get the polarization either Jesus was this, kind of, feet-off-the-ground docetic, divine son of God flying around in mid-air somewhere rescuing us from hell, or he was just a good Galilean chap who would have been horrified to think of a church being founded in his honor or any such thing. And so the press has thrived on this “either/or” because it’s there in our popular culture, and we in the church have to challenge that popular “either/or” culture and the best way is actually by living it. Because when you—as I say in Surprised By Hope—are actually working for justice and beauty; when a church is doing the stuff which speaks about God’s rescue of the present world and his making of new creation, then it makes far more sense to talk about Jesus, and it’s far easier to talk about a non-polarized Jesus, a Jesus who is both the embodiment of the living God, and the one who transforms all of reality by establishing His kingdom through His death and resurrection. That holistic vision makes much more sense when the church is actually doing it.
Absolutely. I love that section of Surprised By Hope and I’ve used it repeatedly.
Oh have you? (Laugh)
Just on a personal note to close, we know you’ve recently moved again from being a churchman full-time as the Bishop of Durham to now back in the academy at St. Andrews. What’s that been like for you, and what are you hoping for in the next few years?
It’s been a wonderful move for me, and this is not the first time this has happened in my life. I love working in the church, I love working as part of a team with ordinary local folk trying to make the gospel happen on the ground. That’s really very much part of who I am. But the trouble is that doing that grows, and grows, and grows, and leaves me less and less time for doing the writing and research. And I have seen other people get towards the end of their careers and not actually complete the big books that they said many years ago that they were going to complete.
And so, after I had my sabbatical in Princeton, which was two years ago, I realized that I was just not going to finish my big book on Paul, let alone any of the others if I stayed much longer in Durham. And I would have loved to stay longer in Durham. And now if I go through Durham on the train as I have to do from time to time, I can hardly bare to look out of the window because I still absolutely love that place and I miss the people, and the work, and so on very, very much. I’m happy to say they’ve got an excellent new bishop to take my place. I’m very, very glad with who they’ve got, and so I’m very happy about that. I would have been fairly devastated if I hadn’t had full confidence in my successor, but I do.
But, so St. Andrews is great. I teach one undergraduate course, which this term has been on the letters to Philippians and the last session of that is tomorrow, and I teach PhD students in New Testament and I’ve got some very good, bright people. I’m hoping to take some more as well next year, and I have a good deal of time to write, which is why I’ve been able to write not only Simply Jesus and How God Became King but also the two final volumes for the Everyone series of commentaries over this first year. So I have every hope that I will be able to finish the big book on Paul and then move on to a couple of other big projects that I’ve got in mind.