Story and interview by Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm
Friends call him “Tom”—and, at this point, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright has friends around the world, eagerly looking for his next visit and his next book.
There’s an air of C.S. Lewis about the bishop of Durham.
Nearly a decade ago, he became a sensation among American journalists for touring the country with Marcus Borg, the two of them cast as a pair of dueling Bible scholars and co-authors of a still very popular book, “The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.” What drew headlines coast to coast was that, in each city along their tour, the crowds were larger than anyone envisioned. I recall reporting on this myself, double checking to make sure the claims were true — that thousands of people, rather than hundreds, were hungry to hear truly gifted scholars debate details of Jesus’ life and ministry.
That year, Borg played the provocateur, skeptical about many traditional claims concerning Jesus. However, since that time, Borg’s own path has veered right into what he calls “The Heart of Christianity” and his recent books are read by thousands of regular churchgoers across the U.S.
That year, Tom Wright played what I can best describe as the C.S. Lewis role. In many of Tom’s books, he even writes in Lewis’ nuts-and-bolts voice and measured cadence. Many Americans may have forgotten the role Lewis played as a Christian titan in the popular media of his era. In his heyday, before “The Chronicles of Narnia” eclipsed everything else he wrote, Lewis was famous as “a Christian apologist,” meaning that he’d go anywhere and stand toe to toe with anyone to defend his orthodox view of the faith.
The truth about this more recent pairing is that Wright and Borg both studied at Oxford and both share a passion for grappling with both the latest historical research into the biblical record — and a passion for stirring up the church into a vigorous force for change in the world. The two “foes” still disagree on many points, but they’re getting closer and closer to an all-out, rabble-rousing appeal to the Christian church to rise up, take a daring step away from its all-too-individualistic focus on saving “my” soul.
They both want to see Christians creatively dive into the work of healing this broken world.
In that way, both Wright and Borg are standing in the vanguard of voices like Rob Bell, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Ken Wilson and so many emerging evangelical leaders, these days.
The spring of 2008 is shaping up as a bracing, fresh season in which daring evangelical voices are blossoming in ways we haven’t seen before. We’ve already written about the exciting new crop of books hitting bookstores right now — and you’ll read much more about this vanguard in coming weeks.
It’s this exciting new time in religious life that moves us, at ReadTheSpirit, to keep saying: “We haven’t seen times like these in 500 years.”
So, what’s Tom saying now — in his brand-new book, “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” — that’s so daring and urgent?
There’s no way to fully capture a book so full of fascinating insights in just a couple of lines. But, hey, I’m a trained journalist, so I’m going to try. Before we turn to our Q and A with Tom himself, here are a few lines from his new book that I think suggest the daring voice that speaks from this volume.
By the time these lines appear in Tom’s book (around page 200), he already has argued that Christians have a sadly muddled view of what the Bible and classical Christianity teach about salvation, resurrection, heaven and the mission of the church. One core stone in that foundation is that we are called, not to focus on escaping from evil bodies and an evil Earth into a heavenly realm — but, instead, we are called to work with God to heal and renew his Creation in a glorious new way.
Tom writes: “As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality … then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.”
Then, a little more than a page later, Tom links this argument with the New Testament in this way: “For the first Christians, the ultimate salvation was all about God’s new world, and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people or being rescued from shipwreck or whatever was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate salvation, that healing transformation of space, time and matter. The future rescue that God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present.
“We are saved not as souls but as wholes.”
Once again: “We are saved not as souls but as wholes.”
For many readers, it’s time to rethink assumptions about what Tom Wright is saying. You may think you know Tom Wright — but you’ve never actually bought one of his books, because you had this guy’s message “pegged” and perhaps you thought he didn’t have much to offer in terms of new directions for the church. Perhaps you took a good look at his dense magnum opus about Jesus, published a couple of years ago, and you were put off by such a tome. Well, this new book is a rabble-rousing manifesto. It’s based on solid scholarship, but it will take you to unexpected places.
I actually finished reading Tom’s new book with a grin.
I said to myself: I’ll bet there are a bunch of people out there for whom this is the first Tom Wright book they’ll own. And, I’ll bet there are some pulpits out there from which this is the first Tom Wright book that’ll be quoted in a sermon.
Dear Readers, please forgive the long wind-up to today’s Q and A with Tom — but this book truly is big, bold and complex in the arguments it poses. Tom and I talked about this challenge in the interview and we agreed that it was important to give you a good feel for this book’s fresh voice, before we jumped into this Conversation With Bishop N.T. Wright.
(Photographs below are from the Durham Cathedral, where Tom has been bishop since 2003. It’s an important landmark in the UK. You can learn more about it by clicking on the link for the cathedral.)
DAVID: In this new book, you’re talking to people in a very direct way about the importance of understanding Christian teachings about salvation, resurrection and heaven. There’s a real urgency in your tone here. At one point you actually say that you want “to make the point once more as forcibly as I can.”
I’m going to make an attempt to explain your book to readers before they read our questions and answers. But, help me here. Take a shot yourself at explaining what you would regard as the core of this book.
TOM: Let me put this as simply as I can. Most Western Christians have grown up with the idea that the name of game is simply to go to heaven when you die. What I routinely say to people is that heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.
Wherever we are when we die, the really important thing is where we are after that. There’s a phase two in Christian teachings. Any 1st-Century Christian would have been surprised that you didn’t understand that resurrection isn’t life after death. Resurrection is actually what I’m describing as life after life after death. We actually thought of calling this book “Life after Life after Death.” But when we showed that title to people, they thought it was a typo. They didn’t get it.
After death, people do rest in paradise, if you will. But Phase 2 is really God bringing about new heavens and new earth. It’s right there in the Bible. The payoff in realizing that this is part of the process is that it gives important value to the present space, time and matter in our world. Our faith is all about reaffirming the goodness of God’s Creation. Our faith isn’t about fleeing life. God is bringing a new heavens and a new earth.
Let me put this another way. If you say, “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through,” then what you’re saying is, “What’s the fuss of trying to do anything about this world?” And you’re saying, “There’s no point in trying to make it a better place.” And that’s not what Christianity teaches.
Our faith in resurrection is a reaffirmation of this present world.
DAVID: Now, many people who are life-long Christians have been so influenced by popular culture –- movies, TV shows, music, novels –- that what you’re describing in the book is going to come as something of a surprise to them. Many Christians have never explored traditional beliefs about salvation, resurrection and heaven in the way you explore them in these several-hundred pages.
I was just attending a Bible study group this week and people were asking about the doctrine of Purgatory. They were curious about the concept. When you start talking about this doctrine that resurrection is in the future -– that God will bring a new earth into being –- we should explain that you’re not arguing that there’s a sort of half-way world out there where you think people hover after death. You make a point in the book in saying that you don’t believe in Purgatory.
TOM: Absolutely not. I point out to people that in medieval Roman Catholic Western Christian thinking there was a sense of a two-stage future life. In this idea, there’s a stage after death that, except for a very highly favored few, is a very unpleasant stage where people stay for a while. This Purgatory is a stage where people are sort of cleaning up, sorting out and perhaps even needing to be punished for some unfinished matters here on earth. I talk about that and I recommend some reading people can do if they’re interested in those issues.
DAVID: We should point out here that, while you’re widely popular for your traditional defense of the Christian faith, you’re not speaking for all Christian positions here. You’re an Anglican. When you argue in the book that there’s no place for Purgatory in Christian teaching, we’re talking about a belief that is still an important doctrine in other parts of the Christian world. The Catholic church still talks about Purgatory as a place after death. We should make it clear to people that your book isn’t necessarily talking about all Christian teachings on these matters, right?
TOM: Yes, and I was taken to task in “First Things,” which is edited by Richard John Neuhaus. He gave what I can only describe as a rather rude critique to “Surprised by Hope.” I say in the book that I think the pope may be changing on this issue of Purgatory. Neuhaus says in his rather harsh critique of my book, essentially, “Come on! The pope continues to teach Purgatory!” And so on. But I think if we do carefully read the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict, and read what he has written since becoming pope, I do think that he is getting away from traditional Catholic notions of Purgatory. I’m not trying to put words in the pope’s mouth, whatever Richard John Neuhaus may think. I’m simply reading what Benedict has written and I think there has been change on the question of Purgatory.
DAVID: Hopefully, readers will realize from our conversation here that you’re talking in this book about some really fascinating Christian teachings -– things that I know from my own experiences in talking with readers will be really intriguing to lots of people. But they’re also complex ideas. And people are going to be surprised, I think, when they read your book to discover that they’ve never really grappled with all of these teachings you’re describing.
TOM: Part of the difficulty in Western Christianity for both Protestants and Catholics for the last 1,000 years has been this emphasis on Christianity as being all about how we can get saved. We’ve taught people that what really matters in Christianity is how we get to heaven. The focus becomes all about “me” and “my salvation.” People get stuck there in this self-centered focus.
But, if you read the Bible, humans are called to be responsible, wise stewards over God’s world and when humans mess up, that means the world is in a mess. And the New Testament, whether it’s John or it’s Paul writing to us, is quite clear: The purpose of God rescuing humans from whatever fate they might have is not just for their own sake -– but for what God can do through people’s lives. The point of Christianity is how the world can operate through the lives of redeemed, wise humans.
Once you get that into your mind and heart, then we realize that the tasks that God calls us to as human beings –- whether we’re called to dig wells in Africa or we’re called to write a string quartet –- the point is that God is calling us to tasks that are an anticipation of God’s new world. What we do here on Earth truly matters.
And, you know the funny thing? I’m not making this up, whatever people may think. It might sound that way to some people, but I’m not spinning a new idea off the top of my head. I’m asking people to pay attention to what’s right there in the biblical text itself. Some of this has been screened out of our Western tradition, but it’s right there in the Bible.
DAVID: What we’re talking about right now is such an important part of your book. It’s where you’re leading people as you try to explain these doctrines and biblical teachings to them. You reach this point toward the end of your book where you say, essentially: If you properly understand God’s relationship to the Earth, then you’ve got to become like citizens of heaven right here on Earth. You’ve got to do the work God calls us to do in making this world a better place to live, right?
One of the examples you give in the book is William Wilberforce, the famous British advocate who pushed parliament to end the slave trade.
TOM: Yes, we’ve gotten off track in this regard. I think that if you go back 200 years and look at some of the great figures in England and America, you’ll find people like Wilberforce who understood exactly what I’m talking about in the need to make this world a better place. Somehow, though, the evangelical movement turned toward a sort of disembodied piety and got out of the business of social justice. And evangelicals picked up this idea that there is no use doing anything in this world. … There’s an inscription that says, “Heaven is Home.” But that simply is not biblical language. That’s not something Wilberforce ever would have said.
A second critique I would make of the evangelical movement is that in the last generation or so, the styles of worship in many places have detached themselves from the great story of scripture about Creation and the new creation God wants to bring into being.
And, instead, a lot of worship has focused only on the relationship with Jesus as almost a romantic love with Jesus. That’s fine in the sense that a deep relationship with Jesus is at the heart of Christianity, but if that’s all you focus on throughout your life, then you’re like a young couple falling in love and staring into each other’s eyes all the time and never getting anything done in life. I worry about styles of worship that reduce the great story of scripture into Jesus and me falling in love. And then saying that’s all there is.
One of the things I’ve been banging on about over the last year or so is a growing conviction I’ve got that the Western church has forgotten what the gospels are for. There’s this feeling among many evangelicals that the gospels are just there to provide little snippets of what Jesus says about this issue or that issue. There’s almost a feeling in some quarters that the gospels are almost back-fill for Pauline theology. And, to that I want to say: No! No, the gospels are much, much more than that. The gospels are about the kingdom of God coming on Earth and if you take that seriously then the gospels will recondition the way you read Paul’s letters.
DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we’ve been writing extensively about how dramatically viewpoints are changing through the Christian church –- and it’s especially evangelical voices that are leading this reformation of the church. These voices –- including your new book -– are really trying to stir people up to new realities — or perhaps we should say very old realities — in the faith.
TOM: For too long the Western church has been saying that the main question is just: How do we avoid hell and get to heaven and, if that’s the only thing that matters to you, then you’re going to radically misread all four gospels.
DAVID: I’m struck that this is coming from you at a time when you’ve actually become a political leader as well. You’re a member of parliament now.
TOM: I’m not a political scientist. But, to my surprise I am a member of Parliament. I sit in the House of Lords in the UK, so I see quite a lot of stuff coming and going and I am very much aware of this crisis we are facing in western democracy. People are actually starting to ask the question: Is Western democracy actually doing what it was supposed to do?
That’s a serious question in our world today. We cannot assume that America and Europe are going to retain their hegemony in world affairs that they have been holding. The race is on right now between China and India about who is going to become the world’s next superpower. And, if the world shifts dramatically like this, then we could have superpowers in the world calling us on how we’ve been running our governments. It could happen in the future that new superpowers will be looking at us and saying we haven’t lived up to what we were supposed to have done for people –- and calling for regime change in our countries.
DAVID: Fareed Zakaria is coming out with a new book right now, called “The Post-American World.” He’s making just this kind of argument. But, really your book isn’t a book of grand political theory. What you’re talking about toward the end of your book is something very basic about people’s lives -– that we need to engage ourselves in the daily needs of people in our world, right?
TOM: Yes. I’m saying that the Western tradition is on the wrong track if people are spending their time combing the Bible for isolated snippets to defend this dogma or that rule. If they’re lost in the snippets, then they’re missing the great tradition of scripture. They’re missing the great frame of scripture.
The great story of scripture is that God sets slaves free. The Exodus narrative is foundational in the Old Testament and Jesus made this a major theme through his own death. He chose Passover as the time he would make this journey to Jerusalem. That’s the story of the Exodus. The idea that God sets slaves free –- that God wants us deeply involved in making this world a better place –- that’s not me making up something in a new book.
These are the themes that are woven into the warp and weft of our Christian tradition.
SO ENDS our 2008 Conversation with Tom Wright.
Looking beyond these two N.T. Wright books?
OTHER N.T. WRIGHT BOOKS are described in our Wright Small Group Resources page.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.