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Summer 2005 | Volume 28, Number 2 | Features

A Conversation With N.T. Wright

The Gospel and Cultural Engagement

During N.T. Wright’s visit to Seattle Pacific University, he sat down with Les Steele, vice president for academic affairs and former dean of the School of Theology, to discuss the topic of cultural engagement in a postmodern world. The conversation provides a further glimpse into Wright’s views about the opportunities for advancing the Christian gospel at this particular moment in history. Topics in the online conversation include the Jesus Seminar, the relevance of history to theology, viewing the Apostle Paul through the lens of first-century Jewish life, and theology and politics in the Gospels and Epistles.

Q: You have written about how the church and individual Christians can go about engaging the culture and transforming that culture in the 21st century. Does this entail different challenges than it did in the past?
A: We’ve lived through such an odd time, even in my own lifetime, that the question sounds very different to what it would have done 50 years ago, say. For me, that’s been hugely exciting, because I think I grew up with a rather monolithic idea — which I think was endemic in the society at the time — of the way Western culture was. I remember being told when I was an undergraduate that we simply were children of the Enlightenment; that set the parameters within which we operated.

The whole postmodern revolution has blown the lid off that, as, of course, it had done already, but people hadn’t realized it because cultural shifts don’t happen so that suddenly in 1985, say, we stopped being modern and we became postmodern. It hits different things at different paces. But now, by and large, the leading edge of the culture is very thoroughly postmodern. And one of the things that has done is open up all sorts of new questions.

Things which you couldn’t even ask before, or people were ashamed or afraid to ask, are now completely open. For instance, the whole question of spirituality, which, in the 1960s, was thought really to be the preserve of simply the private clubs who like that kind of thing, such as churches and similar organizations. Now, suddenly, everyone wants to know about spirituality. It’s open season. And the joke now is that everyone wants spirituality, but the one place they think they won’t get it is in church.

So, suddenly all sorts of things look very different. The whole question of politics is on the table again. Whereas we thought that we’d got this kind of settlement where Christian faith was essentially a private thing, and it didn’t impinge on how you did public life, suddenly, even in America – where that was actually enshrined in the Constitution – people are asking questions in whole new ways about how the gospel and public life go together. And public life and culture are so obviously intertwined, they bounce off each other and, in a sense, feed off each other. So that when you then come to the worlds of the arts and the media — both popular culture and also high culture — suddenly people are, again, engaging, asking questions in quite a new way. Instead of the arts just being the pretty bits around the edge, which are nice to have but irrelevant for doing the real work, we are beginning to realize that actually art is a way to the very heart of things.

You can see this with buildings, for instance. In ancient Greece or Rome, people at the leading edge of the culture knew that if you have buildings that were inherently beautiful in themselves, they actually created a sense for the people who looked at them, and lived in them, and worked in them, and worshipped in them, of what they were about. And much of our public buildings, for the last generation, have been almost brutalist in the sheer functional design; so that an airport, for instance, or a shopping mall, you just go there for this purpose, and any sense that it might have a beauty in itself is completely lost. I think we’ve started to see that buildings and public spaces can and should be thought through quite differently.

And in all of this, the Christian church has got a real role to play, because we have very rich traditions upon which we can draw: of how you do buildings for worship and for other things; of how you do art, music, literature, in a way which isn’t just exemplifying or talking about the Christian message, but actually is embodying it and bringing it to fresh life. And so, we’ve got all kinds of resources on which we can draw — the irony being that a lot of Christians have been so battered by modernity that we’ve forgotten that all of that is there. And so we need to recapture, re-envision, re-imagine the Christian gospel in the rich engagements which are now possible.

Q: What do you think is the role of Seattle Pacific University, as a Christian university, in cultural engagement?
A: We are still doffing our caps just a bit to a world which says to be academic means to be uncommitted, to be totally open. The problem is that we all are in danger of signing up tacitly to the old academic ideal of the university, which is that everything is totally neutral, all questions are open, and you are allowed to do anything you want, as long as you don’t scrunch it into some kind of a framework. And in America that division is particularly sharp because you still have a fairly substantial fundamentalist element in your population who really do want to put everything very much into one particular kind of would-be Christian box. (Although the irony is, of course, that the reason for the box is because fundamentalism is itself a product of the Enlightenment, a particular kind of rationalism with a Christian face, as it were.)

But now, I think, with postmodernity, we’re actually in an odd situation where it is perfectly possible to say, “We’re just going to take this framework, and we’re going to work from within it. And we’re going to do our public engagement from here.” And we discover that some frameworks are actually creative, and life-giving, and outward-looking, and open-minded. That, ironically, the Christian gospel, because of its message of freedom, and healing, and liberation, is far more of an open-minded and outward-looking framework than the old Enlightenment framework of neutrality was.

So I want to say to Seattle Pacific University, “Go for it.” You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. And it’s a challenge to show that you really are signed up to what you’re saying about the gospel of Jesus, meaning life in all its fullness. That means exploration; that means the arts; that means scientific exploration. Instead of shutting down on everything, you can open it up. Now, there are battlefields out there. And it’s tough to engage in them, particularly because people out there will say when they disagree with you, “You only say that because you’re a Christian.” And the answer is, “You only say that because you’re a post-Enlightenment person,” simply meaning, “Okay, let’s stop the nonsense and get back to the question.” The task facing Christian universities today is probably more exciting than it’s ever been.

Q: As a scholar, one of the important issues you’ve dealt with is the historical Jesus. What is the value of the “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus, in which you are involved, particularly as it relates to Christian engagement in a postmodern world?
A: The first historical “quest,” or the “Old Quest,” was very much part of the Enlightenment, and indeed a particular branch of that, because Albert Schweitzer, who chronicled it 100 years ago, was himself very much like a Christian version of Nietzsche, trying to take some of the philosophical movement of the Enlightenment and Christianize it. In Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus, the heroic image of Jesus, this great figure who took on the world, was rather like Schweitzer himself. No disrespect; Schweitzer was a great man, but the problem was that by putting Jesus into the first century, people said that that made him totally irrelevant. They said, “What? Who needs this first-century, wild-eyed apocalyptic fanatic? That wasn’t a very nice time to live. People thought very silly things then. They thought the world was going to end. Why should we learn anything from that, except at the level of generality of self-sacrifice, and noble ideals, and so on?”

That’s one of the reasons the quest went into abeyance through half of the 20th century in terms of major serious scholarship in Europe and America. The problem then is that when the quest went into abeyance, people start inventing Jesuses to suit their own other ideologies, as the Nazis did. But when the “New Quest” got going in the 1950s, it didn’t get going very far because it had its feet tied down by all the buildup of theories about early Christianity, particularly in the work of Rudolf Bultmann, many of which we now see to be neither historically nor theologically warranted.

When the Third Quest got going, it was a real attempt to put Jesus back in his first-century Jewish context, as Schweitzer had done, but to do it much better. And with the Dead Sea Scrolls and all the fresh work on the Apocrypha, there was a lot more possibility of that. One of the key things which I think has emerged from a lot of the Third Quest work is to see that, for a first-century Jew, the point is that when God does for Israel what he’s going to do for Israel, it will have worldwide cosmic implications. And so, if Jesus really believes that he is bringing the story of Israel to its climax — and I’ve argued that’s precisely what he believed — then this won’t just be, “Oh, well, that’s funny; somebody in the first century thought that the Jewish story was getting to where it was going.” No. This was going to be God’s means of addressing and reconciling the whole world. And that’s precisely what Paul and others say.

So it isn’t that we have to translate the first-century Jewish message in order to become relevant for the rest of the world. What Christianity is all about — much to the horror of the Enlightenment — is that world history really did reach its climax, not when Thomas Jefferson wrote the American Constitution, or Voltaire or Rousseau wrote what they were writing, but when Jesus of Nazareth died and rose again. And that we have to re-tell that story in each generation in order to discover what it means for us to live out of it and to make it our own in a fresh way. That means living with that whole narrative, right through the narrative of Israel, the narrative of Jesus, and the narrative of where the world has come from and gone to since then.

The key phrase for me, which is something Jesus says to the disciples at the end of John’s Gospel, is, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” In other words, we track what it meant for Jesus to be Jesus and to do what he did within the world of first-century Judaism so we can transpose and say, “Because he’s done that, our task is to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel.” That is the definition, really, of the Christian task — to be for the world, in the power of the Spirit, what Jesus was to Israel. So each generation has to go back and learn afresh what it was that Jesus was doing in his own context. We can never finish learning that. And each generation then has to say, “Now what would that mean for us, in our context, where we are now?”

Q: What about the “Jesus Seminar”?
A: I see that the “Jesus Seminar” has long since run out of steam. That was really an ’80s and ’90s movement with a bunch of scholars who were working within a very tight paradigm of what would count as gospel research. Most of that was laughed at at the time by the majority of the serious scholars in the field. Not all. There are some significant figures, such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, who played a leading role. But most of the main Jesus scholars would never have had anything to do with that. So that the Seminar’s claim to be the scholarly take on all the subjects that it touched was never plausible, even at the time. And, actually, it’s died a death now. I mean, I don’t think anyone really takes it seriously.

Q: Where do you think the debate about the relevance of history to theology has settled at the moment?
A: I think we’re back into the melting pot in terms of what the word “history” actually means, and in terms of the interrelation of history and faith. I get frustrated when people — systematic theologians particularly — tell me that history really hasn’t anything particular to do with faith and that I’m actually compromising my faith by doing history about Jesus or the gospels or whatever, because surely I ought just to believe in the Bible and go with it. It’s not only fundamentalists who say that. There are some quite serious systematic theologians who say that, and it’s because they’ve seen the nonsense that has come from a very constrained Enlightenment historiography.

I had an email the other day from a friend saying something about this. And I said, “Yes, but there is an appropriate historical project. You don’t have to do it the way the Enlightenment insisted that you do it by screening out the whole God dimension, etc. There are other ways of doing history, perfectly good ways of doing history.” The danger with not doing history — and this is what I would say to people who are taking that line — the danger with not doing history is that you are then completely open to the ideologies which creep up unawares, and which need to be challenged. The ideologies which actually still make Jesus in the image of this or that movement, however devout and Christian that movement may be. We all need regular challenging by the actual Jesus, who stands behind, as well as is revealed in, the text of the Gospels.

Q: Another theme you’ve written a great deal about is viewing Paul through the lens of Jewish thought, sensibilities, and practice. Why is it so important to understand Paul in this way?
A: Again, Paul has been misread and re-read by those who regarded Judaism as simply the dark backcloth which he was writing against. In other words, Paul was sort of opposing the law and opposing circumcision, and all of that. So people have tried in various ways to make out that Paul invented this Christian theology with only occasional, scattered side references to Judaism. A good example would be Paul’s reference to Abraham in, say, Romans 4 or Galatians 3, where some people see Paul as simply saying, “I need to tell you about justification by faith. And by the way, there’s this character way back there who’s a good example of it.” Or something like that. Whereas, in fact, what Paul is doing — this is a crucial thing — is telling the story of Israel as the story of God’s call to Abraham as the means by which the world is going to be saved, redeemed, healed. And it matters to Paul that Abraham is the beginning of God’s narrative with Israel, which is designed to be God’s narrative for the world, and that Jesus has brought that story — not some other story — to its climax.

So, Paul is thinking within a Jewish narratival framework and is totally committed to the proposition that God called Israel to be the means of saving the world. The fact that Israel has then become part of the problem, as well as being the bearers of the solution, is the double twist at the heart of Paul’s theology. And it’s because most Christian thinkers (particularly in and since the Reformation) have just simply screened that right out that they then run into all sorts of things in Paul which they can’t make heads or tails of and which they then either have to ignore — as they often do with Romans 9 to 11 — or distort, in order to try to get some sense out of it. The trouble is, if you’re reading even moderately true doctrine out of texts which aren’t saying that, you get all sorts of other spin-offs as a result. And so, I’m doing my best to try to pull people back to say, “Try seeing the world like a first-century Pharisee would. Then try imagining what would happen if you put a crucified and risen Messiah into the middle of that world. Then you’ll see that life is actually both more complicated, but also ultimately more coherent, than it was before.” And also, I find, enormously refreshing and life-giving for the preaching of the gospel in the church today.

Q: One exciting aspect of your work is that as you pay attention to the historical background of the Gospels and the Epistles, you discover that theology and politics are united and not disparate disciplines the way we’ve tended to view it. Particularly in your work with Romans and Philippians, you have recovered the Roman Empire as an important backdrop to Paul’s preaching and to his serving of particular communities. What can we learn from this?
A: I remember Dominic Crossan saying in a conference a while ago, “If you read Paul first, you will get Jesus wrong, and if you read Jesus first, you’ll read Paul differently.” And I think I’ve actually, unwittingly, exemplified that in my own life because I’ve found, through doing my historical Jesus work, having initially been a Pauline scholar, that I came up against all sorts of puzzles and problems because I wanted to be a faithful historian and put Jesus into the right context. But the kind of theological and non-political framework that my early work on Paul had assumed simply didn’t fit. And so, then, the revolution, when it happened to me, of understanding Jesus and the kingdom of God, sent me back to Paul, eventually, to say, “Why should Paul split up what clearly has been joined together for Jesus?” Because, for Jesus, the phrase “kingdom of God” is inescapably political. And when he’s redefining it, he’s not redefining it in such a way as to say, “It’s all about going to heaven when you die, therefore forget politics.” He’s redefining it in order to say, “It is about God and the world and society and how we do stuff here and now, but it’s doing it in a totally different way to what you’d imagined.”

So when Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” he doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with the world. It means he’s not getting orders from the world, but for the world — from God for the world — as he said, “My kingdom come, on earth as in Heaven.” So when we then read Paul with our eyes open to what was being said about Caesar in the first century A.D. — and we have to remember that the Caesar cult was the fastest growing religion in Paul’s world, and in many of the cities where Paul went there were temples to Caesar or the imperial family, and this was the burgeoning thing, this was the new, exciting religious development in the first century A.D. — then we discover that much of Paul’s language about Jesus is designed to say, “Jesus is Lord, and therefore Caesar isn’t.” And he’s teasing his heroes. He’s not setting out too detailed a program yet, but he’s teasing them into saying that it’s Jesus who commands their basic allegiance, that it’s Jesus who is enthroned on Caesar’s cross, if you like. The weapon which Caesar uses to torture people has become the imperial throne of the new emperor – which is a most fascinating theme in Paul.

Now, for us, hearing all this post-Enlightenment, post-Voltaire and Rousseau, post-Jefferson, again it is very, very difficult because it’s been axiomatic in the Western world that religion and politics are simply not the same thing, and so we have created a vacuum. We’ve created a political vacuum in our religion. We’ve created a religious vacuum in our politics. And what’s happened suddenly in this last decade or so is that the seal between those two vacuums has started to leak, and when that happens, you get explosions. And 9/11 was exactly that — religion and politics bursting into each other’s spheres again — and everyone saying, “Oh, my goodness, they can’t mean this; this can’t be real.” But it is real, and it’s happened. And, of course, what’s happened is that we have rejoined the mainland that most of the human race, for most of human history, has known — and most of it still does — that what you believe about God or the divine or whatever and what you believe about how we humans organize our world and how we live in it and organize ourselves, they are part of the same thing and they cannot be separated. So what we need to rediscover is that Jesus and Paul actually give us a huge amount of help in that, and that any would-be Christian attempt to go back to a world in which Paul is only about theology and Jesus only about going to heaven and whatever, and they’ve got nothing to say about real life, is simply a vain and foolish dream. We’d better get used to living in the reunited, reintegrated real world, and there’s some very, very hard questions that we post-Enlightenment societies now have to ask.

Q: Seattle Pacific University grows out of the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. Can we learn any lessons today, as a church and as a university, from the Wesleys as to how to go about cultural engagement?
A: I’m not a specialist on the 18th century nor on Wesley, so this is inevitably going to be a little bit off the wall. I have to say, as myself an Anglican, that of course John Wesley himself said that he lived and died a member of the Church of England and advised all of his followers to do the same. And it’s too bad that they didn’t (chuckle), but the point is I think I understand quite sharply why they didn’t and couldn’t. One of my predecessors as Bishop of Durham was, of course, Bishop Joseph Butler. He was not there for very long, but he was there from 1750 to 1752. And famously he had a conversation with Wesley, urging him to think that he might actually have been mistaken in what he was doing. But of course it was Butler who had this “wonderful” theology of “natural religion,” where you could look at the way the world was and, by the application of devout thought to the way the world was, you could come up with something like Christian theology, this great “natural theology.” And what happened then, in 1755, just after Butler’s death, was the Lisbon Earthquake, which blew that theology apart the same way that 9/11 and, indeed, the recent tsunami have blown apart a kind of easygoing, natural theology or, indeed, pantheism, in our own day. And the Lisbon Earthquake was one of the major causes of the Enlightenment as people realized that the way they’d said things before just wouldn’t work. So they go back to Descartes to teach them how to doubt and then they try to reconstruct after that. That’s a very interesting little quirk in the history if ideas, the way that works.

In the middle of that, you get Wesley doing something which the Anglican Church had not done, and that was actually preaching to the real people who were a sharp edge of the Industrial Revolution — whether it’s the miners, whether it’s the various other industrial workers in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Which is why, in Britain, Methodism has always had its heartland in the working class towns, in the steel mills, in the coal mining areas, in the cotton mills, etc. So this is my point: Bishop Butler’s rather dry, relaxed, esoteric approach to theology — of just studying the world and the heavens above and thinking and praying and gradually deducing God — really wasn’t meeting the needs of real people, who were having a rough time at the bottom of the pile in English society at the time. And Wesley was filling that gap, theologically and practically.

So, it doesn’t surprise me that for theological reasons, and for sociological reasons, Methodism flourished in precisely the areas that the Anglican Church was backing off from. Now, what’s happened, of course, since then, is that in all sorts of other movements Methodism’s done this and that, Anglican Church has, in the late 19th and early 20th century, in some ways majored in precisely those areas that it didn’t before. The old Anglo-Catholic movement in the slums of Britain, in the late 19th/early 20th century, for instance, was, was very powerful. So things have moved on a long way. Where we are now, certainly in my country, is that we are in covenant with the Methodist Church to work together. I think we’ve got to a point — theologically, sociologically — where we have to say, “We are really very close cousins. We need each other. We should be able to work together.” Of course there are other things going on as well which are threatening to blow apart our own denominations, never mind our union. But we’ve got to work through those and come out on the other side. We can learn a lot from Wesley; we can learn a lot from one another. The common quest ought to be — and I’m sure Wesley himself would endorse this — that we ought to be together re-reading scripture in order to engage the culture with the gospel, drawing on such elements of our respective traditions as will help us do that.

Q: As someone who has made his international reputation in biblical research, and New Testament work in particular, do you find yourself gravitating to one of the Letters, or one of the Gospels, as a tract for cultural engagement today?
A: I have to say that I come back and back to John’s Gospel, simply because I find it hauntingly beautiful and difficult and strange and dark, and yet very profound and passionate. John takes us forward imaginatively because the universe, the way that John conceives it, is just so multidimensional.

In terms of the Letters, I think in all sorts of ways we’re back in Corinth, you know. I wouldn’t say 1 Corinthians is my favorite Letter, because I think that would always have to be Romans. But we are in a Corinthian world, a polyglot, pluriform culture with different people going off in different directions doing different things with personality cults; with issues about money and sex; with rediscovering the sacramental universe but then not knowing what to do with it and getting it upside down and inside out; and with the question of resurrection, and what you mean by that. And the problem, then, in the church, is that when somebody tries to speak a gospel word, which is both a healing and a rebuke, into the culture, the culture hates it. And the Christian culture hates it. And you move very rapidly from 1 Corinthians to 2 Corinthians.

My church has just been doing that. My church is right now in 2 Corinthians mode, where it’s saying, “What is this authoritative thing anyway? We don’t actually like that.” I see my good friend and colleague Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as being right now like Paul writing 2 Corinthians. It’s a deeply, deeply painful pastoral and personal thing. Paul would much rather not be writing 2 Corinthians. But it’s what happens when you wrestle with the big issues — you say the hard things that have got to be said, and the church doesn’t want to hear them. And that’s where the Anglican communion is right now. So I sense that the Corinthians locus is where we have to go and find ourselves re-inhabiting Paul’s world. And it’s painful. It’s tough. But it’s the only place to be right now.

Q: Earlier you referred to the fact that today it seems everybody wants to be spiritual in some way. What advice do you have for Christians who want to speak into that context, a context where Jesus is often excluded?
A: There are positive and negative ways we need to go about that. Let’s take the negative first. People do still want to hang on to Jesus, but as a guru, as a kind of Buddha figure, someone teaching a path of enlightenment. The attempt today — not least in a book like The Da Vinci Code — is to pull Jesus in the direction of being a guru who can help you sort out your private religious interiority. And we need to say to our culture, “That is a myth. That is simply not how it was.” We’ve got to get in touch with a more historically grounded and rooted Jesus. And, of course, that’s difficult because there’s a lot of stuff being said about the canonical Gospels being based on a mistake. We need to do the hard historical work and stick to our guns on that. Another problem, interestingly, with talking about the real Jesus is the same as the problem with talking about Judaism. People don’t want to hear that there is this ancient story of this rather strange people called to be different from the world, holy for the sake of the world, etc. And the problem with talking about Jesus is also the scandal of particularity, that God would act in one place and at one time. You know, again, it’s the Enlightenment thing. We feel that is so undemocratic. If God was going to reveal himself, he ought to do the same across the board. How dare he do it in one place? That’s not right. Although even Aristotle talks about getting to the general through the particular. And in a sense that’s what’s going on: God reveals himself here and now, in this place, in order that he can address the world, not with a vague religious message, but with something much more specific and sharp-edged. We are, after all, talking about the God who made the world and made a lot of very specific and very different sorts of things. The God who exults in difference has become one of those different things himself, in order to reveal himself to the world.

So the positive story we have to tell is a story which has all sorts of very uncomfortable jagged edges, but at the same time it has a peculiar appeal which I think speaks to today’s postmodern culture quite differently from how it did within modernity. And I’m full of hope, in terms of the real possibilities of this message being heard quite differently. Not as, “Oh, well, that’s all right, we’ll go back to what we learned in Sunday school 30 years ago,” but, “Hey, well, that was all right, but we’ve now got to go on into a quite new world, and the real story of the real Jesus will help us get there.”

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