HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH N.T. "TOM" WRIGHT
DAVID: After many years of reporting on your work, I particularly appreciate your role as an outsider. Much like C.S. Lewis and other popular Christian writers who have come to us from the U.K., you don't preach the same old political line that we hear from so many Americans. You teach in ways that sound fresh to our American ears. And, while you often criticize American culture, I think you also enjoy Americans. Is that fair to say?
TOM: Yes, I very much enjoy my trips over to the U.S., although sometimes these trips are tiring because they are so packed with events. But, the difference in cultures? You can see one big difference between our cultures in responses to this new book, Simply Jesus. I find that most Americans know in their bones that they want to know more about Jesus. In the UK, most people know firmly in their bones that they don't want to know any more about Jesus. So, there is a great deal more interest in Jesus here in the United States and that is encouraging.
DAVID: I agree with you and we've often reported on that point by comparing global data. The U.S. is distinctive among nations for the strength of our religious passion combined with our strong assumptions about freedom of self-expression. In our sheer religious intensity, Americans are a lot like Iranians. But, in our outspokenness, we're a lot like Scandinavians. We're a unique people. So, is there any particular error in our loud American expressions of Christianity that you'd like to address at the moment?
TOM: Within Western culture in general-and American culture in particular-the Superman myth about Jesus is massive. We all enjoy Superman, Spiderman-and now Captain America once again. We love these superhuman figures who arrive, usually as outsiders, often with a secret identity-and it's only these superheroes who can save the world. We can't do anything much as humans; only a Superman can save our world. Not surprisingly, a lot of people equate Jesus with Superman, a figure who swoops down-most likely with violence as he sets things right-and then he zooms away again taking people with him on his strong arm. But that notion isn't truly Christianity. That's more like Gnosticism. It's certainly an escapist form of religion that says the problems of this world can't be resolved, so we must hope to flee on Superman's arm.
DAVID: Well, as you point out at the end of your new book, a lot of this confusion has to do with America's complicated political history. Our Fundamentalist movement, for example, has deep ties to all kinds of troubling, reactionary political groups in the early 20th century.
TOM: Yes, Fundamentalism as we know it is very much a modern phenomenon. America was so shaped by the Fundamentalist-Modernist clash-through the Scopes trial and all of that history-that American Fundamentalism formed in a particular way. Some of the forces that led to modern Fundamentalism stretch all the way back to America's Civil War. To this day, Americans see so many issues in light of this historic polarization that it's difficult for people to see that Christians from other cultures might think about Jesus and our world in different ways. For me as a Brit, it's ridiculous to hear so many American Christians argue that we have to bundle up all of these political issues that conservative politicians have accumulated, through the decades, along with our Christian faith.
In my writing and teaching, I'm saying: No, we don't have to bundle up this whole slate of issues in one particular way. The reality of the Gospels is that the Kingdom of God is among us. And what is this new Kingdom that Jesus shows us? In Simply Jesus, I explore that big question.
DAVID: I'm always amazed that you are cast in American news media as a "conservative." I understand the history behind this. You're famous for your very popular debates with more progressive Bible scholars. You take a more traditional position in those debates about the Bible. But every time I read a new N.T. Wright book, there are pages that take my breath away in your clarion calls to rethink the way our whole society is structured. The Kingdom of God is a radical departure from the way we've set up our world. You certainly are not an apologist for the infamous "1 percent" who control so much wealth today. Quite the opposite. Conservative commentators now call these rich folks "job creators" and say that we should protect them. You say: The Kingdom of God wants the wealth shared more justly.
TOM: Well, if wealthy people do make things happen in our world-like creating jobs and having a healthy effect on our society-then that's a good thing. The trouble is, this idea is classically used as a smoke screen by the rich. There's this old trickle-down theory of economics. In my country and I see here in the U.S., too, the money certainly isn't trickling down. It's going the other way. I think people have fooled themselves that it's all right for people to become so rich. I think we need to be asking urgent questions about this imbalance.
DAVID: I'm not sure if your American fans are aware of your activism in the UK, through a whole range of public statements, about economic and military injustice in the world. This summer, we published an entire article about your provocative commentary against "American exceptionalism," when you first publicly raised this issue about Superman and Captain America. Have you heard many questions about this issue from Americans during your visits to the U.S. this autumn?
TOM: People have not brought up that specific issue. They do ask me about the task of the church today. And, in the last chapter of Simply Jesus, I do say that the church has a mandate to hold up truth to power. We must speak to power in the name of Jesus. I do talk in the book about proper ways we should be doing that.
I write about the problem with exceptionalism, because in Britain we know a great deal about exceptionalism. We had this problem in Britain for a long time. Seeing that America now is the superpower claiming absolute rights in the world-well, that may feel good in the U.S. But what happens when that exceptionalism moves elsewhere in the world in the years ahead of us? That's what happened to Britain and we now understand the problems with taking this attitude toward the world.
I love visiting America, but the rest of the world isn't seeing the same warm, generous place that I know so well from traveling in the U.S. The rest of the world sees this powerful, rich nation that marches around the world telling people what to do-and dropping bombs on people who confront them. If Americans don't want to be perceived that way, then we need to rethink the way nations should relate to each other.
DAVID: For about seven years, you were the Bishop of Durham in England. And, when you wrote commentaries in the London newspapers, you were speaking from that kind of prominent, official position in the church. In 2010, you-do we say that you-retired?
TOM: No, we don't use the word retired in England for this change that I made. I just say that I changed jobs. I have no plans to retire for some little while yet. I have a five-year contract at St. Andrews and it's open ended. I enjoyed being in Durham, but I had envisioned that my work in Durham also would give me time to do some writing. As it turned out, my diary of commitments in Durham and foreign trips meant that I really had very little time to write. I could see that I wasn't going to be able to finish the work I really wanted to complete.
It was a wonderful, amazing privilege to be Bishop of Durham. But, St. Andrews knocked on my door, inviting me to teach there. My wife and I had very mixed feelings about all of this. But several events converged to show us that we really should make this move. Now, everything confirms that I'm supposed to be doing what I'm doing right now. At St. Andrews, my main task is to teach graduate students and prepare good scholars for the next generation. I really love that. And I also can do my own research and writing, too.
DAVID: This may surprise you, because you're often cast in American news media as the opponent of Marcus Borg andJohn Dominic Crossan. But we've published interviews with both of them in which, much like you, they are working hard to help support church Bible-study groups. Your own new Simply Jesus is a great choice for small groups, but I think that your Kingdom New Testament is the new Wright book that's most likely to show up soon in Sunday-school classes. Does it surprise you that Borg and Crossan, much like you, are trying to promote adult education in churches?
TOM: I have noticed that what they are doing these days seems to have changed. For 20 years of so, I've been debating Marcus and Dom. I have noticed that perhaps they have mellowed as they have aged. Yes, I think both of them are seeking to be enablers and supporters of the church. Of course, I would still disagree with them on many points about the Bible, but I certainly celebrate the church, too.
As I've said already, especially in America, people are hungry to learn more about Jesus and more about Christianity. I think we're all trying to help them find what they're searching for.
DAVID: I think there's an urgency today in our pursuit of faith. There are many reasons. We are anxious, as a nation, about so many things: America's role in the world, global warming and certainly the turbulent economy, among many other issues. Are you hearing these concerns raised as you crisscross the United States in your tours?
TOM: I am still hearing confidence-the sense that: "We are Americans. Our world will rumble on, no matter what happens. The system will keep working." But I think I am also detecting another strand: "Are we so sure about those assumptions?"
I hear this when I am in congregations and we come to prayer time. I hear people praying intently for problems like unemployment. People are losing their homes. I hear people praying about not being able to pay their mortgages. I hear people praying about losing jobs-or fearing they soon will lose their jobs. I didn't hear those concerns with that intensity in earlier years, when I visited America. From the political Right, I am hearing a certain desperation and a tendency to blame everything on President Obama. From my outsider's perspective, I can tell you that what we are experiencing comes from a much bigger global context. Not all bad things can be one president's fault. I don't care who the president is.
Now, from a Christian perspective, it certainly doesn't take rocket scientists to tell us that the rich are getting much richer and the poor are getting much poorer-and this clearly is not the Christian message.
DAVID: So, in this context, with millions apparently reaching toward their faith with more intensity, you are giving us this new contemporary translation of the Christian New Testament.
TOM: Yes, but I should point out that this translation took me 10 years. The first bits of it were done in the summer of 2000, when I was doing smaller Bible-study books called Mark for Everyone and Luke for Everyone. I prepared these translations, initially, to go along with the Everyone commentaries that I wrote over the years. In each of the Everyone Bible-study books, I included my own translation. Now, the complete New Testament is finished and we've put all of the translated books together in the form of this new book. I should also say that I did prepare this with editors and scholars who assisted. I had a brilliant Greek scholar, for example, who went through all of it with a fine-tooth comb. He raised a bunch of questions all across the texts. Then, sometimes I agreed to make a change, based on his questions, and sometimes I stuck with my original wording. But this process helped me sharpen it all.
DAVID: If someone has the original editions of the Everyone books on their shelf-and some of your fans, I'm sure, have collected all of those-will they find much of a different text in this new Bible?
TOM: No. I would say that, as a result of all the final editing, there may be a half dozen alterations in each biblical book. Most of them are so minor that most readers won't notice the changes.
DAVID: I imagine that some readers of this interview may be getting nervous. Anytime a new translation is published, people worry that someone is making mischief with sacred texts. We just published a series of stories about the new Contemporary English Bible (CEB), published by an ecumenical team of Bible scholars here in the U.S. Among the responses we got from readers were anxieties. So, I was impressed that you start this new Kingdom New Testament with this sentence: "The first thing that happened in the church is translation." You're referring there to the original Pentecost, when Christian tradition says that Jesus' followers were speaking in many different tongues.
TOM: This is a fascinating point, because in Islam, you know, the Quran is only in Arabic. You can make translations of the Quran but Muslim scholars tell us those texts are no longer the Quran. They are interpretations of the Quran. The Quran must be in its original language.
It's true, too, that our scriptures are available in the ancient Hebrew and Greek. In my classes, students read the New Testament in Greek, for example. But the choice of Greek for the New Testament was made because Greek was an everyday language, spoken in many parts of the world. Just because our Bible was written in these ancient languages doesn't mean that we are instructed to keep them frozen in those languages for all time. We have the freedom to read and constantly reshape the way we translate these texts. We need to keep nudging people toward new ideas for serving God's Kingdom in each new era. This is a dynamic that comes right out of Jesus' teaching. Jesus did not teach us to live on yesterday's bread. Jesus taught us to pray for today's bread-give us this day our daily bread. I don't expect that my new translation will have much of a shelf life after, perhaps, one generation. I completed it because, in each new generation, we must keep focusing on the needs of the Kingdom today.
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Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity. Nov. 22 and 23, 2011.