Renowned New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, talks writing, church issues and his new book, How God became King.
1. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m trying to finish the big book on Paul called Paul and the Faithfulness of God. It’s the book I’ve wanted to write since I did my doctorate in my late 20s. It’s sitting on the computer three quarters finished. Hopefully I’ll be done with that by late summer and it should come out maybe spring or summer 2013.
2. Apparently some people think that NT Wright and Tom Wright are two different people?
That has been a stock joke for quite a while. A friend of mine who used to be a librarian at a college in Massachusetts once had a student come to him with an NT Wright book and said: ‘I like this writer, he’s much better than Tom Wright, who I don’t think is very sound.’ We had a good laugh about it.
In America they tend to like the initials. The American book buying public, even at a popular level, like to think, 'this is a serious chap I’m reading'. In the UK we have a different mood. We’re quite an anti-intellectual culture. It was felt that [using] my given name was a way of saying, 'this is quite a user-friendly chap, he’s the sort of bloke you might meet down at the pub'. I think that’s the idea, whether it works or not, I don’t know!
3. So many books have been written about Jesus already, what led you to write Simply Jesus?
People have very odd ideas about Jesus as though Christianity teaches that Jesus was a spaceman who arrived one day, did wild and wacky things to show he was from a different planet, then something very nasty happened to him but he went away again anyway. That’s the guide to Jesus that many people live with in their heads.
I was aware of having to go back deeper and explain what was really going on: The world of Jewish hopes, the world of Roman imperial aspirations and the world of God’s own purpose and how they all collide exactly where Jesus is.
4. Tell us about your new book How God Became King [due out in April 2012].
The Creeds make a lot of affirmations which I’m happy to make. But there’s a big hole in the middle because they jump straight from the birth of Jesus to his death. ‘Born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate’ The launching of the Kingdom of God comes in-between those two clauses.
The book gives you a crash course of how to read the gospels for all their worth and for how not to hear them as a string of isolated stories about interesting things that Jesus did, but as a very sharp and firm statement that this, to everyone’s surprise, is how the living God reclaimed his sovereignty over the world.
When I’ve lectured about this in various places, you see people looking puzzled then gradually light dawning. I have a sense that this is quite revolutionary.
5. It has been said that you write faster than most people speak! You’ve authored over 50 books so you must enjoy writing?
I do enjoy writing. The advent of computers is extraordinary. When I started, you would do everything longhand and everything took such a long time! Now I can write an academic article, tidy it up, send it on email to friends, get their comments back in no time and send it to a publication to be printed very quickly. Young people today don’t realise how cumbersome and complicated the whole business of getting anything written 30 or 40 years ago was.
6. You’ve argued strongly that Jesus physically rose from the dead as a historical event. Do you have to believe this teaching in order to be a Christian?
Anyone who is in any sense a Christian cannot with any consistency believe that Jesus stayed dead. I have friends and colleagues who I know to be praying Christians who worship regularly and lead lives of practical Christian love and service but who really struggle with the bodily resurrection. I would say that looks like a muddled Christian who needs to be put straight. Of course some of them would say exactly that about me!
But if you say Jesus died and nothing happened but the disciples had some interesting ideas, then you have cut off the branch on which all classic Christianity is sitting. This generation needs to wake up, smell the coffee and realise serious Christianity begins when Jesus comes out of the tomb on Easter morning. This is not a nice optional extra for those who like believing in funny things.
7. Surprised by hope is perhaps your most well known book. Is it at the centre of your theology?
I’ve had more correspondence about Surprised By Hope than all my other books put together! It has really touched a cord with a lot of people. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s at the heart of my theology or if it’s just a lot of people have grown up with the traditional picture of hell and have been fascinated and excited to think that the traditional picture isn’t as robust and worthwhile as the actual Biblical one.
Some people have grown up in churches that tell them they are going to spend a long time in purgatory. Others have been bought up in churches that have been told the main thing is the rapture where some people are going to be scooped up and others are going to be left behind. They’ve found it very liberating to be told that isn’t what the Bible teaches.
8. What is the best Christian book you’ve read?
The best theological book I’ve read in the last 20 years is without doubt Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. He takes on some of the major issues in our society and culture and wrestles with them from a deeply Christian perspective. It’s a work of great maturity and wisdom.
9. What has God been teaching you recently?
Because I’m trying to finish my book on Paul, I’ve been re-reading Paul’s letters, just simply sitting with the Greek text in my hand. I’ve studied these things for 40 years and they are as fresh as ever. I’m seeing more and more depth and meaning in them. I’m 63 and I’m excited as Paul and what he’s all about as when I was 23. I thank God for that.
10. You’ve been involved in the Anglican church’s debate on homosexuality. Can you explain what has happened and where you stand now?
In 2003 the leading archbishops from all the Anglican provinces signed a statement saying if a practicing homosexual was consecrated as a bishop in America, this would tear the communion apart at its deepest level. They had said 'we agree this will be a disaster', then they went ahead and did it.
We can’t afford to have that kind of disagreement too often, it is simply too costly. It eats up people’s time, energy and money when people have to zoom around the world and talk urgently in high-level crisis meetings. We shouldn’t be doing that, we should be getting on with the main tasks of the church.
How God Became King is published on the 1st April, published by SPCK.
March 30th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes