N.T. (Tom) Wright is the Bishop of Durham in England and 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, and The Climax of the Covenant. He is also working on a 12 volume For Everyone series, in which Wright provides a translation and commentary new Bible students.
I read a quote from C.S. Lewis the other day, and he said, "The problem when I became a believer in England was that you were left with either the hysterical rantings of the fanatics, or the intellectual elite of the clergy." He said, "Had theologians been doing their work, I would have been unnecessary." Why is it so rare for academics to connect to the mass of people?
I think the answer is partly just sheer pressure of time. If you're an academic and you want to get tenure, or you want to maintain your credibility within the guild, you've probably got academic projects which you're eager to get on with and write articles, and books in order to get your main ideas out among your peers.
There's always the hope that they will trickle down to the ordinary folk in the churches. That sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't happen. One of the reasons that I left the academy some years ago and went into full-time work in the church instead was that I found I was getting more of a buzz myself out of meeting clergy who were at the [coal] face, if you like, than simply teaching undergraduates who wanted to know "How soon can we finish this tutorial and then I can get off and play tennis?"
In the first chapter of Mark we read about demons and exorcisms. You have this phrase, "They can shriek but without authority." There are a lot of Americans who would argue that these are not real stories, there is no such thing as a demon. How did you interact with the idea of a spirit world and how does that relate to people today?
C.S. Lewis had a famous remark at the beginning of Screwtape Letters where he says "The average person has two equal and opposite reactions when faced with demons and devils." Either they're tempted to say that this is all a bunch of nonsense and we can't believe in them, or to take a very unhealthy interest in them. Lewis says neither of those is the right approach.
I learned from that and I think that's basically right. I think we, in the western world, have often tended to dismiss as either nonexistent or irrelevant things that we don't understand. That's a very arrogant thing. People in many, many other parts of the world are perfectly aware that there are hidden forces in the world and around us, some of which are malevolent, and whatever language you use for them, you've got to do business with that stuff.
God's kingdom is a central theme throughout the New Testament. What are some of the things that you wanted the everyday person to understand about God's kingdom?
I think one of the critical things that I have worried about a lot is that many people when they hear the idea of kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven, they think it simply refers to a place called heaven where you go when you die. That is clearly not what it means in the New Testament. It's like kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. It isn't kingdom as in a place; it's kingdom as in kingship, as in sovereignty, as in rule. I've sometimes heard Americans say we don't understand kingdom because we live in a democracy, and it's you Brits who have a king.
That's a very shallow analysis because I know America got rid of kings when they booted George III out 230 years ago, but in terms of today's world, when you look around and say, who in today's world has the kind of authority and the kind of empire that George III had, the answer is George II, your current president. You actually have something much more akin to the sort of monarchy that we had then, even though it's democratically elected.
What does the everyday person need to understand about how hell is used in Jesus' teaching?
I think part of our difficulty is that we are still firmly plugged in to a medieval picture of heaven and hell, such as you find in Michelangelo's painting of the Cistine Chapel, such as you find in Dante's Inferno in Paradiso. We Protestants miss out the middle bit, the purgatory bit, but you've still got a medieval picture which is not a New Testament picture of people after death going either to the one place or to the other.
What would a Palestinian Jew in the first century have thought when they heard those words?
A Palestinian Jew would have used the word Gehenna and Gehenna is the rubbish heap on the southwest corner of Jerusalem. I was actually filming part of a television program about the Resurrection in Gehenna just a matter of months ago, and so I know the place quite well. There was always a to-and-fro between the idea of this smoldering rubbish heap, which was always burning away as they piled more stuff on, and the idea of an event or a state of being rather like that which would serve as a metaphor for the place where the people who rejected God would go eventually.
So much of the Bible is appropriately metaphorical and we need to know what it actually refers to. But much more important than that is to get into our heads what the New Testament really is banging on about, which is resurrection, which is not a synonym for going to heaven when you die, but is what is going to happen after that.
I've often said, heaven is important but it's not the end of the world. What the New Testament is on about is what I call "life after life after death." That is, resurrection life after whatever state we go into after death. The New Testament teaches a two-stage post-mortem eschatology. And it goes on and on about resurrection and says very little about the intermediate state, which we can call heaven if we like. It's very interesting that so much Western Christianity has focused on the intermediate state so much that it's forgotten that there is an ultimate resurrection. It thinks that heaven is all there is.
What do we learn about being a Christian from the radical words of Jesus' call of his disciples?
It isn't a matter of simply taking a step of faith; it is a matter of signing on with the acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord. When the disciples made the decisions to down tools and follow him around Galilee, they were saying with their feet as well as with their hearts, we're with this man. Wherever he goes we're going to go, too.
When Paul talks about "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord," one of the things he means, of course, is confessing that Caesar is not lord and that there are other lords which have ruled over you. And so the step of faith is also necessarily a step of commitment, which is a commitment of life to live in a different way, to live by a different rule.
What did Jesus mean when he said, "deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me"?
They would have instantly heard this in a very, what we would call, "political terms." This means to do something which is liable to get you into serious trouble with the authorities, because crucifixion is not something that happens simply because somebody dislikes your religious ideas. It's something that happens because somebody thinks you're a danger to the State, or to their public order. Now, we have gone so far away from that in the modern western worldand far be it from me to go out of my way to court disaster or to court confrontationbut I think we have to be prepared to say no, this gospel calls us to a way of life which radically challenges the ways of life that authorities routinely foist on us.
It strikes me that these words go straight to the heart of a major flaw in American evangelicalism, which is the desire to be popular, the desire to be mainstream. There is a loss of the sense of exile, and speaking into the mainstream prophetically.
This is very strange, but in terms of the Left Behind seriesand I know that's only one sub-branch of American evangelicalism, but it's very popularthat whole theology, dispensationalism, started off as the literature of the oppressed, of the tiny minority for whom the rest of the world is going to hell and this very small group would be saved. That's very ironic now that literature is sustaining the mainstream, right-wing ideology, where you've got the anti-Christ turns out to be the head of the UN, he's a kind of a Kofi Annan figure who is allowed power because there's a weak democratic president.
It's very bizarre to see the way in which this ideology, which started out as a beleaguered minority thing, has become mainstream and therefore does not even realize just how compromised it is with so many things that are going wrong in our world right now.
So what did Jesus mean when he said, "render unto Caesar."
Just before the time of Jesus' birth, or around the time of Jesus' birth, there was a major tax revolt. I seem to recall that your country rebelled against mine precisely on the issue of tax revolt. Obviously some of you guys are familiar with it. There had been a major tax revolt resulting in hundreds of crucifixions, major repression by Rome. So this is one of those buttons which, if you push it this way or push it that way, everybody knows what's going on and it's very disturbing.
We have a political spectrum that runs from left to right which is from anarchy and revolution on the one hand, to a status quo and solid government on the other. The Jews in Jesus' day and the New Testament simply didn't operate with that spectrum. They operated with a spectrum which spoke about the need to call rulers to account, and calling them to account might well involve actual opposition, but opposition not because you were a revolutionary who believed in a kind of a Marxist anarchy or whatever, but because you believed that there is a God in heaven who wants the world to be governed justly.
Some people say there's no way Jesus would be a movement of the Christian Coalition, or there's no way Jesus would be a member of the Amish. Can you make that kind of analogy from Jesus?
You can and you can't. It's very bizarre to me to say what would Jesus have been a member of because part of the whole point is that Jesus was starting a movement, and quite literally the world revolves around him. I want to rephrase your question. If one hears oneself saying "could Jesus be useful to us in this question?" I want to say that the question ought to be, is there any way we can be useful to Jesus in the project that he has got going forward? And I suspect you would agree with that.
But having said that, yes, it's very interesting. I was once leading a party of tourists in Palestine, and we went on the bus and we went past Qumran where the Essenes were and we went down to Masada where the lost and the revolutionaries have been and we had been up in Jerusalem the previous day and going around the Temple which the Sadducees were running.
I was commenting, isn't it interesting that Jesus doesn't do this one, doesn't do that one, doesn't do the other one. There are all these different options and instead Jesus ends up in Gethsemane which is a way of saying yes and no to everything. He doesn't run away, but nor does he lead an armed resistance. He doesn't try to become a king in the ordinary sense. He does this very strange thing which comes right through the middle and which, therefore, remains the most deeply subversive thing you can imagine.
The issue that is most dividing the church in America today and the same in your church is the issue of homosexuality. Some people argue Jesus was silent on the issue. Everybody says he would have been on their side, base on their reading of the Bible. What does the text actually say?
In my view the text is not limited in the way that some people might imagine. The New Testament is actually very clear about all kinds of sexual misdemeanor. And the New Testament simply reaffirms a great deal that was common coinage in the Judaism of its time as to sexuality. Jesus didn't need to speak explicitly against homosexuality for the same reason that he didn't speak against heroin addiction. It was not a problem in the world of his day. Jesus didn't speak about circumcision though that was a very, very important issue for Paul in the churches of his day because Jesus was working with Jewish people and all the men were circumcised. It wasn't a question.
It would be a very trivialized read of Jesus if we imagined that Jesus simply came to give us a set of teachings on every possible subject that we might ever want to know anything about. And that's not how the early Christians saw Jesus at all. There are all sorts of lessons that need to be learned about how you use the New Testament authentically and with wisdom instead of cutting and chopping and picking out bits.
The question is more, when you do the serious historical work and discover what the early Christians thought about why God gave us the gift of sexuality in the first place, and how it reflects who we are as human beings, then the question is more, "Did they know anything about the issues that we face? And if they did, do we have to do what they say?"
It would be a more intellectually authentic position to say, the New Testament says that homosexual practice is not what Christians ought to engage in but I disagree for these reasons. I can understand that position. I can't actually understand a position which says the New Testament is either silent or open on the subject because, frankly, it isn't. The other thing which comes up again and again is people say, well, all they knew about was certain types of homosexual phenomena and not at all the sort of thing that we have, to which the answer is just go and read Plato. Plato's Symposium has a lengthy discussion of homosexual love which includes as one of the options precisely the kind of long, stable partnership that some people now are advocating. This is not new. Modern homosexuality was not invented by Michael Foucault, you know. There's a great deal that goes back through the 18th and 19th centuries with which we're in a continuum. This is a much deeper and harder issue than people have made out.
We hear the phrase, "engaging the culture" almost ad nauseam today. What you think it means truly to engage the culture, and what Jesus teaches us about the incarnation, being transforming. What does it mean from Jesus' life and teaching to engage the culture?
I'm not sure I would start with Jesus because Jesus was doing something unique and unrepeatable and he was not just being a model of how we should be good Christians. Jesus is not the first Christian in that sense. Jesus is the one who makes possible a way of life which we loosely call Christianity. And his achievement in his death and resurrection was thoroughly enculturated. It meant what it meant within the culture which God had prepared. Paul says, "When the time had fully come." God prepared that culture so that Jesus, by being thoroughly within the culture and doing what he had to do, would make the sense God wanted him to make.
We can then see Paul and the others going out and engaging their culture. Look at the Areopagus address in Acts 17. Paul begins by saying, "You've got an altar to the unknown god, well I'm going to tell you about this unknown god." Then he says, "You also have all these temples made with hands, but I'm going to tell you that the true God does not live in temples made with hands. He's not like that at all." So he's saying yes to this and no to that, and then he negotiates his way through stoicism and epicureanism and so on, engaging the culture all the way, quoting their own poets but showing that they might mean something different. Now, that's wonderful cultural engagement and it's not a matter of saying no to everything, it's not a matter of saying yes to everything, it's a matter of Christian discernment in seeing what is good, seeing what can be redeemed, what can be refreshed.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The 12 volumes of the For Everyone series are available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information is available from the publisher.
The Resurrection of the Son of God was recently featured for the Editor's Bookshelf.
Christianity Today editor David Neff interviewed Wright about The Resurrection of the Son of God.
Dick Staub is president of the Center for Faith and Culture, which examines intersections between popular culture and religious belief. Complete transcripts and audio versions of Dick Staub Interviews can be found at dickstaub.com. Recent Dick Staub Interviews for Christianity Today include:
Art Lindsley Says Truth Is Trueand Absolute | The author of True Truth believes Christians shouldn't be post-modern, modern, relativist, or absolutist. (June 2, 2004)
Finding God in the Questions | ABC News Medical Editor, Dr. Timothy Johnson, decided to rethink his faith and found God by asking questions. (May 25, 2004)
TV's Spiritual Directors, Buffy and Angel | As Angel enters the TV afterlife, the author of What Would Buffy Do? explores one of television's more spiritual shows. (May 19, 2004)
Driving to Paradise | David Brooks, author of On Paradise Drive, says Americans are on a spiritual search for paradise, and Christians need to supply the language for the search. (May 05, 2004)
Jerry Bridges Is Still Pursuing Holiness | After 25 years, The Pursuit of Holiness is a classic (April 27, 2004)
Craig Barnes Is Getting Restless | The author of Sacred Thirst says modern life is nomadic, and we are all searching for a home we can't find on earth. (April 13, 2004)
Coming Back to the Heart of Worship | We can't not worship, says Harold Best. But we can worship wrongly. (April 06, 2004)
William Dembski's Revolution | The author of Intelligent Design set out to answer the toughest questions about the movement he helped promote (Mar. 30, 2004)
Steve Wilkens Loves Bad Christians and Pagans | The author of Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans believes Christians can learn a lot from skeptics and non-Christians. (March 23, 2004)
Transforming Culture into God's Image | Gregory Wolfe, author of Intruding Upon the Timeless, has opted out of the culture wars in order to build a Christian culture for others to imitate. (March 16, 2004)
Heidi Neumark is Transfiguring the Bronx | After spending 20 years as pastor of a church in the Bronx, Heidi Neumark realized that sometimes people just need some Breathing Space (March 09, 2004)
Serving God Without God | The author of Running on Empty discusses his life in ministry with and without a walk with God. (March 2, 2004)
China's Christian Syndrome | David Aikman, author of Jesus in Beijing, says in 20 years Christians could have a major impact on China, and that could change the world. (Feb. 18, 2004)
The Gospel According to Tupac Shakur | Why do kids relate so well to hip-hop artists Eminem or Tupac? And what can a preacher learn from these modern-day prophets? (Feb. 10, 2004)
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingJunia, the Female Apostle Imprisoned for the GospelWhat Scripture tells us about the story of this “outstanding” Jewish woman in chains.Português
- From the MagazineBhutanese Nepali Refugees Turn Their Trials into Zeal for EvangelismThousands found Jesus while displaced, which prepared them to plant churches and settle in a new land.
- RelatedHow We Got Our Bible: Christian History TimelineA brief chronology of how we got 'The Good Book'
- Editor's PickResisting the Impulse of Self-OptimizationIn Lent, we realign our identity in Christ and recover our sense of being loved into existence by our Creator.