Moore: You wrote a short piece on Covid-19 for Time magazine. Magazines and newspapers have the freedom to change titles. Did Time come up with the title of “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To,” or was that your title? If the latter is the case, do you have any misgivings about the title?
Wright: The headline was written by a sub-editor. That often – I think normally – happens. However since hearing some of the crazy things that people have been saying about the whole pandemic – conspiracy theories and the like, often dressed up in vaguely Christian language or with an arm-waving reference to the Bible – I think it was prescient. After all, the climax of my point is Romans 8.26-27 where Paul insists that we do not know what to pray for in the time of distress . . .
Moore: It seemed to me that your piece in Time was a warning to not be presumptuous. It also struck me that your call to lament was not one untethered to hope, but rather to guard against hoping for the wrong sort of things. Is that accurate?
Wright: Well, yes. The point is that – as we see in the Psalms again and again – true hope arises out of lament. We have a prayer in the Anglican prayer book which asks God to help us love what he commands and desire what he promises. Our natural inclination is to do that the other way round: to ask God to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire. Only in lament – in which penitence may well (though need not) be a key element – can our loves and desires, our hopes and aspirations, be reordered.
Moore: Your closing words in Time: “In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope.”
Again, it seems evident you are not advocating hopelessness as one critical reviewer described. Please add some further clarification and words on a having a biblically grounded hope. [My suggestion, if you had asked me (cue the laugh track), would have been to put this section of your article earlier.]
Wright: Well, the article got squashed down in the editing process anyway. Of course it isn’t hopeless. Romans 8.26-27 come within a chapter full of hope. But so many Christians skip over those verses because they don’t give us the easy hope we all want.
Moore: In God and the Pandemic you exhort us to steer clear of “knee-jerk” reactions. Would you highlight a few of the most egregious errors you hear others making when it comes to this present crisis?
Wright: (a) ‘This is a sign of the End; get ready for the rapture’; (b) this is a government plot to take away our freedoms; (c) vaccination will implant secret codes in you; (d) this is a punishment for [fill in the blanks . . . gay marriage? Abortion?]; e) this is a great opportunity for evangelism . . . The last one isn’t so bad, but if we needed hundreds of thousands of people to die around the world just to kick us into talking to our neighbours about Jesus then something has gone horribly wrong . . .
Moore: In God and the Pandemic, you write that Jesus weeping at Lazarus’s tomb “could be the clue to a great deal of wisdom.” Please unpack that a bit for us.
Wright: The Jesus of John’s Gospel is very obviously the incarnate Word through whom all things were made. He remains sovereign throughout the narrative; he knows what is going on, what he will do, and so on. So why does he weep? Because part of the sovereignty of the truly divine Son is his solidarity with the suffering world he came to save. Our image of God ‘controlling’ everything is very high-and-mighty. Jesus does it differently.
Moore: Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, yet it is wise to consider various scenarios so as not to be flat-footed when challenges arise. I am presently working on a documentary about the Dones, those growing numbers of Christians in America and Europe who are disillusioned with institutional Christianity, and so have stopped identifying with any local church.
How well prepared is the church, especially in Western cultures, for addressing the new landscape of a post-Covid-19 world? My own concern is that the number of Dones might grow. I also wonder how many ministers are ready to offer a clarion call to follow Jesus with greater intentionality.
Wright: I am not an expert on the present younger culture though I see plenty of the same thing in the UK. The church has always, from the beginning, spread because it was caring for the poor, the outcasts, the sick, the illiterate – and people couldn’t think why they were doing it, but they knew it was a new way of being human and they wanted to join in. Insofar as ‘institutional Christianity’ in the mainstream protestant west has been a matter of tossing ideas at people’s heads – or even warm feelings into their hearts – many younger people will shrug their shoulders and walk away. But when this faith makes a difference on the street – as from the start the Jesus-followers have always done, except when they are warned not to in case they think they are justifying themselves by ‘works’ (!) – then people of all sorts will take notice.