N.T. Wright is a world-renowned New Testament scholarauthor of Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of Godand bishop of Durham in the Church of England. He is also a keen observer of culture. ct senior writer Tim Stafford caught up with Wright as he drove from meetings at Windsor Castle to his diocese in Durham. They talked about communicating the gospel in a post-Christian society.
Your book Simply Christian speaks to people outside the faith, in what must be a conscious imitation of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. What made you want to write to that audience?
I suppose I've always wanted to say to my contemporaries in the wider world, "This stuff matters; it's life transforming; it's world transforming." Much of my academic life has been spent exploring underlying issues, particularly about the central events in the gospel. But now it really is time to say, "So what does it mean?"
Because I've done all that historical work, my view of the gospel and how it works out in the real world has been deepened and enriched in all kinds of ways that I would never have guessed 25 years ago when I was starting out writing about Jesus. So in Simply Christian there's a lot about justice, what it means to be human in the mandate to work, the putting to rights of God's world, generating beauty, alleviating poverty, working with ecology. Thirty years ago I would have said those were secondary issues.
There's an old evangelical saying, "If he's not Lord of all, he's not Lord at all." That was always applied personally and pietistically. I want to say exactly the same thing but apply it to the world. We're talking about Jesus as the Lord of the worldnot the Lord of people's private spiritual interiority only, but of what they do with their money, with their homes, with the wealth of nations, and with the planet.
Lewis's Mere Christianity presents itself as inescapably rational. It's an apologetic that traps you in its logic, a very modern approach. But you present a different kind of rationality that seems more attuned to a postmodern world.
I'm quite sure that Lewis would be rather cross at being told that he was some kind of modernist, because his self-description was that he was the last surviving dinosaur from the pre-Enlightenment period. But he was an Oxford-trained philosopher from the early years of the 20th century, and he was conscious of the need to explain things to people who thought in a certain way.
I'm sure Lewis would say he was talking about something that would blow apart the assumptions of modernity, nevertheless addressing people who were within those assumptions. In the same way, I wouldn't want to be thought of as a postmodern writer, but I'm addressing people who live in that world.
And if the argument has a compelling force, it's not the force of A plus B equals C, where there's no escape. I want you to try seeing yourself as part of the picture that we've painted. Or try humming one of the parts of this symphony that we're writing, and see if it doesn't make an awful lot of sense while nonetheless being very challenging. And that's the apologist's dilemma, that if you simply address the God-shaped blank that people think they've got, the God you end up with is the God shaped by the blank. The real God specializes in taking the blanks in people's lives and pulling and tugging and turning them into a new shape.
One of Lewis's classic maneuvers is this: Jesus said he was God, and you either believe that or that he was a madman on the level of someone who thinks he is a poached egg. It's a powerful argument that has had a strong effect on a lot of people, but modern source criticism of the Bible has undermined the idea that Jesus claimed to be God.