Today, we welcome the popular Bible scholar N.T. “Tom” Wright back to ReadTheSpirit to talk about his latest book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Tom himself refers to the message of this book as “explosive,” and we are not alone in recommending this new book. Veteran religion columnist Bill Tammeus also praises this new book for the helpful balance it provides to often overlooked messages in the Gospels. As Bill Tammeus describes this new book, he sets it against the common evangelical message that the bulk of Jesus’ preaching about God’s Kingdom is lost in an exclusive focus on: “You’re a sinner. Jesus came to die for your sins. Believe in Jesus and you’ll go to heaven.” In our interview, when Tom Wright turns to his criticism of the beloved C.S. Lewis, readers will find that his critique focuses on this very point.
In Part 1 of our coverage, we reviewed the new book and provided brief excerpts from Tom Wright.
Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Tom Wright …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH N.T. “TOM” WRIGHT
ON HOW GOD BECAME KING
DAVID: In writing about your new book, I’m saying that you want to shift the questions that your readers are asking. Most Americans understand that you’re the scholar who says “Yes” to the question: Are the Gospels true? But you really want to talk about: What do the Gospels mean? Am I describing this correctly?
TOM: Yes, that’s a very fair way to make this distinction. One of the targets of this book is Christians who say: Yes, the Bible is true. It’s inerrant and so on. But, then, they pay no attention to what the Bible actually says. For too many Christians it seems sufficient to say Christ was born of a Virgin, died on a cross and was resurrected—but never did anything else in between. I’m saying: That’s not the way to understand the Gospels.
DAVID: There are real convergences between the passage in this new book about Christ and the Roman Empire—and what John Dominic Crossan writes about this point. For example, you both make the point that the Gospels use politically loaded phrases to describe Christ. Many of these phrases are taken directly from what ancient readers knew were claims about Caesar. Obviously, you and Dom Crossan disagree about many issues concerning the Gospels, but is it fair to say there is some agreement on these points?
TOM: That’s a very good question and it would be fun to sit down with Dom and try to tease out these points. I haven’t read all of Dom’s recent books because I’ve been so deep in my own research about Paul for this next big book that I really want to complete about Paul. So, I cannot claim to know everything Dom has been writing in the last few years.
I would say this: In the Gospels, we see the confrontation of Jesus with all the powers of evil, including the S-power: Satan. Now, it’s hard to even mention Satan or the Devil these days because people have so many strange notions about what those terms mean. But I would say that throughout Jesus’s clashes with temple authorities and with Roman authorities all the way through the Gospels, the big confrontation behind it all is Jesus’ confrontation with the dark power of evil itself—evil that uses human structures in various ways. The message of the Gospels is the defeat of the powers and principalities of evil and with it the ways that empire uses these powers. It’s more complicated, I am saying, than just picking out phrases A, B and C and saying that they refer to Caesar and Rome as the main target of the Gospels. I would say that the real target, as Paul says, is the powers and principalities of evil and ultimately sin and death itself and that, yes, empires do get sucked into all of this. I have not read Dom’s recent books on this, so I cannot say how I differ with the way he describes this whole process. But, I am saying that, yes, American readers need to realize that a lot of the language about Jesus in the New Testament is politically loaded and understanding this context is very important. I think Dom and I would be on the same page on that point. I think there’s a great discussion to be had on how we might agree—and how we differ—on these points.
BRIAN MCLAREN, FOX NEWS & POLARIZED LEFT AND RIGHT
DAVID: We’ve been covering books by Brian McLaren for years and Brian himself regularly stops by ReadTheSpirit for interviews. I was struck, in the middle of your book, that you actually take a shot at Fox News. That’s something Brian is doing this summer in some new e-books he is releasing.
TOM: Well, what I’m doing is making a broad-brush point for readers. I’m not talking about Fox News in any detailed way and I’m not claiming that everything they tell you is wrong. I’m just referring to the well-known political viewpoint that comes through Fox News and I’m saying: We should be careful about listening to that point of view exclusively. There is a striking, radical polarization between your Left and Right that I have to say is really disturbing because it distorts so many issues. This Left-Right polarization forces people to say: We are all on this side now! We must check off every box on this slate! We must keep in line!
In your country, for example, there seem to be Christian political voices saying that you shouldn’t have a national healthcare system. To us, in Britain, this is virtually unthinkable. Every other developed country from Norway to New Zealand has healthcare for all of its citizens. We don’t understand all of this opposition to it over here in the U.S. And, we should remember: In the ancient world, there wasn’t any healthcare system. It was the Christians, very early on, who introduced the idea that we should care for people beyond the circle of our own kin. Christians taught that we should care for the poor and disadvantaged. Christians eventually organized hospitals. To hear people standing up in your political debate and saying—“If you are followers of Jesus, you must reject universal healthcare coverage!”—and that’s unthinkable to us. Those of us who are Christians in other parts of the world are saying: We can’t understand this political language. It’s not our value in our countries. It’s not even in keeping with traditional Christian teaching on caring for others. We can’t understand what we are hearing from some of your politicians on this point. Yet, over here, some Christians are saying that it’s part of the list of boxes we all should check off to keep in line.
SMALL-GROUP IDEA: HOW C.S. LEWIS GOT IT WRONG
DAVID: Whenever I talk to people about their favorite authors, I hear you described with comparisons to C.S. Lewis. So far, you’ve never written fiction like Lewis, but I can see some obvious similarities. You come from across the Atlantic with a powerful, traditional Christian voice. And Lewis did proclaim that God’s involvement in the world was quite real and tangible. Here is one example of a basic point that readers might find similar: In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes, “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign …” In your book, you write: “In Jesus, the living God has become king of the whole world.” So, help us clarify this point. How do you compare Lewis’ work with your own work?
TOM: I have enormous admiration for Lewis, who I read in my teens and 20s voraciously. I read some passages so many times that I can recite them by heart. It’s not surprising that there are Lewis references in my own work. But on some key issues, I have to say: He didn’t actually understand how the first century world worked and he didn’t understand the role of Judaism and Israel. In The Screwtape Letters, at one point, he dismisses all of historical Jesus research. When he summarizes what he thinks he knows about this historical record, it turns out actually to be low-grade stuff. He had a highly attuned mind on so many other issues and so many other areas of scholarly research. But he wasn’t a scholar in this area. Because he didn’t understand this important context, I don’t think he understood some of the key points that the Gospels are making.
On the subject of the Kingdom coming into the world, I think I would sharply disagree with Lewis. Lewis was allergic to the idea that there might be ways that Christian leaders should actively engage with what is happening in the world today. In Mere Christianity, he argues that political questions should be left to political leaders and, in the Church, we should stick to issues of salvation.
On that point, I actually want to say to Lewis: No, I think the Christian Gospel raises important questions about the way we do democracy now. Precisely at the point of what Lewis says about social and political engagement—and in the content of what he writes about Bible scholarship and the context of Jesus coming from within Israel—I would quite significantly disagree with Lewis.
DAVID: You’ve just given church leaders a terrific idea for small-group discussion in which people who’ve loved Lewis over the years—and may already own the Lewis books you’ve just mentioned—could talk about what Lewis is saying versus what you’re arguing in this new book.
So, let me give those small-group leaders a little ammunition for sparking discussion. First, in Screwtape, they might start with Letter 23 in which Lewis dismisses anyone who does research into the historical Jesus as not worth “ten shillings in ordinary life.” He says Bible scholars who write books just want to produce best sellers for “every publisher’s autumn list.” Bible scholars who dig into the ancient record are threatening to “destroy the devotional life,” Lewis argues. Worse yet, Lewis writes, these writers can encourage Christians to work toward social justice in this world. That’s the work of the Devil, too, Lewis suggests. Only Jesus’ Resurrection and then Redemption really matter, he argues. There are obvious clashes with your own work.
Then, if readers turn to the “Adjusting the Volume” section of your new book, they will find your overview of how central themes in the Gospels flow from Judaism and the Hebrew scriptures. You explain a lot about the “explosive” message of Christianity in the ancient world. You argue that understanding this context is essential to understanding the Gospels. In contrast, Lewis tends to dismiss Judaism as if it was curiously interesting that Jesus happened to come in the human form of a wise Jewish teacher—but not much else. You write that without fully appreciating the context of Judaism and Israel in which Jesus is teaching and acting in the world, then “we will never hear the proper harmony” of the Gospels’ message. Another clear clash between you two.
Finally, if readers turn to your section on “The Kingdom and The Cross,” they can compare your thoughts with Lewis’ own very dim view of taking political action from within the church. You criticize people who say that Christianity is “a beacon of light but without actually engaging with the world” on crucial issues. Compare that, for example, with Lewis’s section on Social Morality in Mere Christianity where he says that Christian clergy who speak out on political issues are “silly” and he argues that this is a “job for which they have not trained.”
So, count that as a brief Study Guide for a few weeks of spirited discussion comparing Lewis and Wright.
TOM: We do need to remember Lewis’ context. He was writing after having seen, first hand, the horrors of a particular war. He also had seen in Britain in the middle of the 20th century some rather naïve attempts to say that all Christians must unite behind a particular policy or party. And that kind of claim often is naïve and shallow. Lewis was perfectly right about a lot of things he was saying in his time. He was pleading for a space where Christians and the Church should properly operate and he was arguing against some things that he saw happening in his particular era. And, I would agree with Lewis that there are some issues on which the Church really doesn’t have much to say. Right now in Britain, for example, there’s a big debate going on about whether we should build a whole new airport. I’m not sure that’s an issue that the Church has much to say on. But there are, indeed, lots and lots of other very important issues today where the Church needs to speak. There is much that Lewis got right, especially if you read Lewis in the context in which he was writing. And, there is much in Lewis that I significantly disagree with today.
SEARCHING FOR HOPE IN A ‘CLEAR-HEADED’ NEXT GENERATION
DAVID: In the end, are you a hopeful writer and teacher? Should we read your books and hear your talks as dire warnings—or with an underlying hope for the future?
TOM: There is solid reason for hope, but that doesn’t mean I can look out at the world and say: Oh, yes, there are so many good signs that there’s nothing to worry about. I see lots of good signs, and I see lots of disturbing things. There’s the whole mess we’ve made in Iraq and Afghanistan and there’s the disturbing fact that some people are saying we ought to fly over and bomb Iran in the middle of this mess. People just don’t “get” how disastrous our policies have been in the Middle East. So, on those issues, I probably would sound like quite a liberal to many Americans. Then, I look at the state of sexual ethics and, when I talk about those issues, I probably seem like a right-wing conservative to many Americans.
The answer is complex. When I look across Africa and Asia, I see huge currents of thought and life, some of which are very life giving—and some of which are devastating. I’m now 63 and I do pray regularly for wise leadership in the next generation. We need clear-headed people to emerge to tell our story correctly to a new generation and to guide us all so that the world might develop in healthy ways.
Enjoy More of N.T. Wright’s Popular Works …
BUY THE BOOK How God Became King is available at Amazon.
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.