The second part of my 2012 interview with Tom Wright looks at the pull of academia. We discuss 3 of the bishop’s recent books, touching on Rob Bell, Paula Gooder, C.S. Lewis and the afterlife.
For most Christians, theologians are not a topic of conversation at the water-cooler or even over church coffee in green cups. They lurk in the shadows of theological colleges and libraries.
Tom Wright is an exception. What he writes resonates with ordinary people, who enthuse about his work. His quotes pop up on Twitter. Leading thinkers get excited by his influential ideas. He could be the Steve Jobs of the theological world.
Surprised by Hope
Like a heavy rock thrown into a pond, Surprised by Hope, Wright’s book about life after death, made a sizeable splash when it came out and it has continued to make waves. Ripples include Paula Gooder’s Heaven (and two fascinating talks on the subject at Greenbelt); a controversial take on the afterlife in Rob Bell’s Love Wins, and other books by the likes of Francis Chan. I wonder whether Wright felt at all responsible for the outbreak.
“I think it’s too big a question, if I may say so,” he replies, “Paula Gooder and Rob Bell are exceedingly different characters, both of whom I know. In fact, I taught Paula at Oxford – she’s one of my star pupils.
“I read Rob Bell’s book and was very puzzled about it, because actually all his arguments, which are pointing in the direction of universalism without quite going there, are arguments that I met in studying theology in Oxford in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies. It’s puzzling to me why they would come up now.
“I think Rob comes out of this very American context, where ‘believing in heaven and hell’ is almost synonymous with being a Christian.”
Wright likens it to a “medieval perception,” shown in artwork in the Sistine Chapel, of “Christ in the middle, sending some people this way and some people that way.”
“That is not how the Eastern Orthodox churches see it,” he continues, “It’s not how the New Testament routinely presents it. The image of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is there and important, but it’s by no means the only image. If you look at Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15 or Revelation 21-22, you get some very different imagery and when we’re talking about the ultimate future, we’re talking about signposts which have symbols on them.
“When you are diving down the roads and see a sign to a castle, you may have a picture of a castle. The castle’s not going to look like that. We know that’s a symbol and we know how to decode it. In the same way, we need to be a bit more grown up in how we read the bible and decode the sheep and the goats, and decode the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven; and decode these things to say this is actually about God’s old-new creation. God will not have – and cannot have – in the new creation, anything as Revelation says, that loves and makes a lie, anything that corrupts and destroys God’s world.
“So, almost a definition of hell is that this is what happens when people determinedly say to God, ‘OK, I see you’re trying to do a new creation. I actually prefer to go with the old one, which means I’m going to corrupt myself and everyone else.’ Few people actually say that, but that’s what their behaviour in fact is saying.
The resurrection stories say, ‘God’s new creation has begun and you’re invited to be part of it.’
“So I don’t think I’m responsible for a revival of interest in it. I simply grew up with hymns, prayers, etc. all talking about going to heaven when we die, and then, as I was studying the New Testament, and particularly studying the resurrection of Jesus, realising this isn’t what it’s about. The gospels are not about ‘Jesus has died on the cross, therefore now he’s gone to heaven, and so will we.’ No, the resurrection stories are saying, ‘God’s new creation has begun and you’re invited to be part of it.’ That’s something which I don’t think I ever heard growing up.
“Conceivably, in C. S. Lewis’ book Miracles, Lewis is one of the few writers in the ’fifties who actually took the resurrection and the new creation seriously and was working with it imaginatively as well as poetically and theologically. So in a sense, I’m trying to carry that on.”
In Surprised by Hope he writes a lot about “life after life after death,” his phrase for the Christian hope of resurrection to a recreated Earth after a waiting spell in paradise, rather than a forever-disembodied life in heaven. I note that even the Jehovah’s Witnesses have ‘got’ that bit of theology better than the average Anglican.
“Of course!” he replies. “Heresy is what happens when the Church forgets a bit of its teaching, somebody else picks that up and makes a whole system out of it.”
He claims that the answer to such heresy is not to accuse the heretic of being completely wrong, but to admit that some of our own teaching has been lost and that we have consequently “been misshapen in the rest.”
When he worked at Westminster Abbey, he noticed the change in gravestone inscriptions. What used to read things like “I will arise” evolved in the 19th century to texts like “Gone home” or “Home at last with the Lord”.
“So in other words, up until 18th / 19th century, they’re thinking of a two-stage post-mortem reality and then at some point, they backed off from that and it’s just dying, going to heaven, and that’s it. That then leaves the whole vision of new creation open for other people to exploit – including the secularists, by the way: ‘You Christians are just pie-in-the-sky; we’re going to transform the world’ and that’s why Marxism is a Christian heresy.”
Unlike Wright, Rob Bell seems to use a very sketchy and unacademic logic…
“Rob doesn’t try to be academic. Rob has ministered for a long time in a situation where many, many Americans have as almost the number one article of their faith ‘There’s a lot of people out there going to hell, including him and her and him and her, and so we’re going to save them’. That’s a pretty unbiblical way to look at the world. Rob has wanted to jolt people out of that wrongly judgmental way of approaching everything.
“I’ve often said to people, ‘John 3:16 does not say, “God so hated the world that he sent his only Son;” God so loved the world.’ But a lot of people preach the gospel as though it’s ‘God so hated the world.’ When people preach hell as ‘God basically hates you, you, you and you, but if you’re lucky and put your faith in Jesus, maybe you can escape this fate,’ that’s an appalling picture of God.
“I don’t think Rob has solved how you do it differently and coherently, but I think he has raised a red flag against that gross distortion, which is far more popular today in America than it is in this country.”
Many of his readers must feel cheated that the Church has allowed public understanding to be so wrong for such a long time and puzzled as to how this has happened?
“I suspect that most generations feel like that. It’s certainly how Karl Barth felt when he wrote his Romans commentary and realised that he’d spent all that time studying under old liberal Protestants, who had just then colluded with the Kaiser and Bismarck. He suddenly realised the bible is about a fresh word from God breaking through all that. I think this happens in each generation.
“I would be very disappointed if it doesn’t happen in the next generation. People will look back and say, ‘Tom Wright got this, this and this, but actually, he had a big hole there, which he missed.” Fine, we all have to be as faithful as we can to the whole of scripture and I do my best to do that, but I’m aware that I’m basically a gospels-and-Paul person and there’s a lot of other stuff which I’m fascinated by, but haven’t yet felt I’ve got to the bottom of.”
How God Became King
Sub-titled ‘The Forgotten Story of the Gospels,’ this work builds on Surprised by Hope.
The author explains, “The basic point is that for generations, most Western Christians have read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as a book which tells us how Jesus died for us so that we go to heaven. They’ve assumed that that’s what it’s about. In fact, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John quite demonstrably are talking about how God through Jesus actually became king on Earth as in heaven and that’s a story which I never heard growing up; it’s a story which I know a lot of other people haven’t heard.
“Now people have criticised me and said, ‘Tom Wright thinks nobody’s got the gospels right until he did.’ No, of course there’s lots and lots and lots of people who have done this right. But it’s a particular trend in the Western churches and the result is that visibly people don’t know what most of the stuff in the gospels is all about.
“Most Christians have the creedal framework, where as long as Jesus was born of a virgin and died on the cross, he really could have done nothing in between and it wouldn’t have mattered. Now, if that’s so, then it’s very, very odd. When you write a piece, if somebody said the only things that matter are the first chapter and the last chapter, you’d say, ‘Well I worked extremely hard at all that stuff in between!’ So my vision of what that stuff in between is about is: this is what it looks like when God is taking charge. People are scared of that, particularly in the western world, because they don’t want theocracy; the kingdom of God is about a redefined theocracy. Theocracy is full of scary stuff.”
According to Wright, that has nothing to do with recent news items about Sharia law and far more to do with Epicurean thought, which tried to do away with religious fighting by “pushing God upstairs” and leaving religion as an irrelevant private concern.
“The result is that even Christians have made their peace with that and have thought that religion and politics don’t mix; that as long as they’re saying their prayers, going to church and living a basically moral life, they can be building the Tower of Babel during the week and it doesn’t matter.
“So it isn’t Sharia law; it’s an enlightenment desire to keep the running of this world firmly in human grasp and tell God he can have our spiritual bits, if he wants. The Gospels ought to call ‘time!’ on that and that’s what I’m trying to say.”
Another part of the big picture that he believes the Church must re-adjust is the place of the creeds, which should be recognised as a list of the decisions that the Church reached when there were issues to resolve, but which was never intended to be complete.
“The problem is when people treat the creeds as a teaching syllabus. That’s a genre mistake. They didn’t have, in the early years, any particular debates about the Kingdom of God that needed a creedal statement. ”
Would he have the creeds done away with altogether?
“No, no, no. People who said the creeds also said the Lord’s Prayer, “On earth as it is in heaven;” they were also reading the gospels, invoking the presence of Jesus as King and Lord. We have used the creeds as a teaching syllabus; then we’ve forgotten what the Lord’s Prayer actually means; then we’ve forgotten how to read the Gospels. That’s what I’m trying to unpick. It’s a big agenda, I appreciate that.”
“This is a much bigger, tougher agenda than either the traditional conservatives or the traditional liberals have actually envisaged”
The claim that we have forgotten how to read the gospels also comes in page ten of the book, where he observes that we have fitted them into a framework of ideas and beliefs that we have acquired from other sources. He then adds, “I want in this book… to allow them to speak for themselves. Not everyone will like the result.”
Who won’t like that result? As well as the reviewers who claim that he is being arrogant it is “particularly people who like their religion in one compartment and their public life in another. You’ve got on one hand people who are actually cradle-and-cross Christians and on the other hand, people who are social-gospel Christians, who say, ‘We don’t know about the incarnation and atonement, but here’s Jesus being nice to old ladies and small children and we’ve got to do that too.’ Fine, much better to do that than not, but actually, you discover when you try to launch a social gospel programme, that unless it’s got the cradle and the cross bookending it, it’s not going to get very far.
“This is a much bigger, tougher agenda than either the traditional conservatives or the traditional liberals have actually envisaged and that’s why it is very challenging.”
When I suggest that Wright is a rare thing – someone who’s actually popular amongst various church groups at once – he chuckles and adds, “and unpopular amongst various church groups at once.” When I guess that means a few conservative groups in America, he adds, “and some in England, too.”
“That’s partly because of what I say about Paul,” he explains, “but also because of what I say about the meaning of Jesus’ end time language. As you’ll see in Surprised by Hope, I firmly do not believe in the rapture and all that, and that is an absolute central article of faith for so many American Christians (and some English ones) and actually, I think that’s a radically misleading way of looking at everything.”
Wright says that he likes mixing with people and likes to stay friends with those who write radically different things from him, so that they can keep the discussion going, but notes, “That doesn’t work across the board. There are some agendas out there in the Anglican Communion, because of the Windsor Report, which I had a hand in. Some people have bitterly resented and rejected that and so are very, very angry with me.”
Before we finished, I wanted to know two things: why sometimes he writes as N. T. Wright, and sometimes as Tom Wright (Tom is to appeal to everyday readers, while N. T. is used with more academic material) and whether he ever writes for the sake of it, rather than from passion.
“I am a writer and writing can be very hard work, but that seems to vary according to things that I don’t fully understand. Sometimes, all I have to do is start sitting down at a keyboard and it just happens, like turning on a tap (which is very exciting, when that happens). It doesn’t mean you don’t have to go back and edit it, but it means you can get the stuff done.
“Most of the stuff I write, I write because I really, really, really care about the stuff and am excited and passionate about it. But the big book I’m writing on Paul at the moment, I’ve been excited about for years. It’s changed a lot in that time, but I’m still very, very excited about it and looking forward to getting it done and out there.”
That book is now published as Paul and the Faithfulness of God.