Award-winning biblical scholar and revered author N.T. WRIGHT (known as Tom outside of his academic pursuits) is the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and the current Chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews. Hailed by Christianity Today as “the most prolific biblical scholar in a generation … some say the most important apologist since C.S. Lewis,” Wright’s newest book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good continues his sometimes provocative explorations of Scripture and reminds readers of the good news of Easter and why it matters today.
For 20 years Wright taught New Testament studies at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford Universities, and he has been featured on ABC News, Dateline, The Colbert Report and Fresh Air. His multi-awarded books include: Surprised by Scripture, The Case for the Psalms, How God Became King, Simply Jesus, After You Believe, Surprised by Hope, Simply Christian, and Scripture and the Authority of God, as well as being the translator for The Kingdom New Testament.
Wright believes Christians today have lost touch with the core story of the Christian faith. At the heart of his argument is that we must revise the way we talk about Christianity today. Gloria and Tom were able to connect “across the pond” via phone from their homes in Indiana and England respectively to discuss this and other topics of interest to all who value a thoughtful approach to faith.
GLORIA GAITHER: I’m honored to talk to you. I’m overwhelmed with your contribution to thinking Christians everywhere.
N.T. WRIGHT: Thank you very much.
GLORIA: This issue of our magazine is on the resurrection, and we’re exploring how the resurrection intercepts our lives; that the resurrection wasn’t just a one-time shot in history — it changed history and it is now around us. The resurrection power is the kingdom of God. So, you can imagine how excited I was about your Simply Good News book, as it focuses exactly on what we’re talking about. I love what you said, and I’d like you to comment on it … that Jesus’ crucifixion, just saving us from hell and sending us to heaven, isn’t the Good News. So, what is the Good News? What happened at Easter?
WRIGHT: It’s a deep and difficult question, because we in the modern, Western world don’t normally think like this. But in the Bible, again and again, Jesus’ death and resurrection is seen as a one-time, one-off, extraordinary victory through which all the powers that threaten us — they’re all, somehow, defeated so that they no longer have any rights over us or any legitimate power over us, and that we are therefore able to be set free. You see talk of a new heaven and a new earth, and the way the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection — particularly John — is that this is actually the beginning of new creation, so that something actually happened.
The trouble with this is that people say, “Well, it doesn’t look as though anything much has happened.” To which my response is that it looked pretty bad for the first Christians, as well. They were being beaten up, or thrown into prison and so on, and they were the ones who said, “Actually, His death has won a victory, and we are living in the light of that victory and the new world has begun.” So that, in fact, all sorts of things have changed. We are not good at figuring out that stuff, because we are used to thinking that the world went rumbling on, much as it always did until early in the modern age, when we invented television or whatever it might be. (laughs)
So the early Christians are quite clear; the Messiah died for our sins, but the death for our sins is the Passover event — there’s a huge significance in that. The older I get, the more I realize it’s really significant that Jesus chose the festival of Passover as the moment to do what had to be done, knowing what would happen to Him and what it would mean. And Passover is the moment when in Jewish, ancient story, the book of Exodus, the children of Israel are liberated from the great tyrant, Pharaoh, from Egypt, and set free to journey to their inheritance. And the early Christians believed that Jesus had done that, and on a cosmic scale, the slavery of corruption and decay and death had been defeated once and for all. So that’s the one-off good news. And, of course, it then applies to everyone, in terms of our present and our future. Though, again, the future isn’t just “going to heaven”; the future is the new heavens and the new earth and hence, resurrection, new bodies within a new world — not simply saved souls going off to live in a disembodied place somewhere. That’s not what the promise is.
GLORIA: And the future — I loved what you pointed out about the upstairs/downstairs kind of mentality — that we’re down here, things are horrible here, but when we die we’re going to go over there, and that God is out there some place, and He came here to get us to take us out there — that whole thing — rather than we have been taken over by the power of a new kingdom, an invisible kingdom that isn’t out there. It’s here …
WRIGHT: Yes, this is the thing, and we have been in captivity, really, to an idea which is a radical separation between heaven and earth, as though heaven is by definition somewhere else a long way away from wherever it is that we are. That’s a very modern idea; actually, it’s an ancient idea which has been picked up in the modern period. But many other world views and philosophies don’t see it like that at all. And for a first century Jew — and of course Jesus and all his first followers were first century Jews — the great image was the temple, and in the temple, heaven and earth come together. It isn’t just that the temple is rather like being in heaven. They actually believe that the Holy of Holies at the heart of the temple of Jerusalem was the place where heaven and earth intersected, and they have this view that heaven and earth were always meant to go together, to overlap, to interlock. And that then this, the early Christians believed, is what happened in Jesus, that He was the one in whom heaven and earth came together.
Paul says it in Ephesians 1:10, that God’s plan is to sum up everything in Him, things in heaven and things on earth. That He is the heaven/earth person, and that all those who are in Him become heaven/earth people, because God is going to bring heaven and earth together in a great act of renewal. So, it takes a lot of practice, actually, to think like this when we modern Westerners are brought up thinking heaven is over there or out there, or somewhere else. Or sometimes then people go the other way, and they collapse it and say heaven is just a state of mind inside yourself, and that’s wrong as well. It really is about the two spheres of God’s created order overlapping and intersecting with one another — heaven and earth — with the idea that this will eventually happen once and for all and completely, and we get to be part of that in anticipation right now.
GLORIA: Exactly. Though, now that you mention the modern era — this created a secularization of the culture because we are so self-sufficient. And that collision with what was intended with the Bible … no wonder there are so many people who say, “Well, who needs religion at all?” because that positions Christ as just a good teacher. So, address that a little bit about how the modern thinking, as I say, since the science and technology era, how that has eroded the church.
WRIGHT: People routinely say “Well, now that we can do this and that and the other, who needs this religion stuff?” And, of course, by addressing the question that way, you’ve answered it before you’ve even really stated it. Because the idea of religion as something which is over, against and opposed to everything else in the world … that is a very, very modern invention. And calling something like that religion is, itself, an invention of the Enlightenment. Certainly nobody in the ancient world would have thought of religion in that way. The ancient religions were interwoven with every other aspect of life. You know, if you lived in a city in Greece or Turkey or somewhere, you believed that the city had two kinds of inhabitants — the visible ones and the invisible ones. It was really important to keep the invisible ones happy, as well as the visible ones — the gods and the humans. And everything was stitched together, woven together.
It’s we who have made this great separation, and it’s part of the philosophy which in the ancient world is called epicureanism, which is to split off the gods and their habitation miles away from the present world and say that they’re irrelevant for ours. That is simply an ancient view that became very convenient politically in the 18th century, in France and America particularly, at the time of the great revolutions—the way of saying, “Well, God may be upstairs somewhere, we’re not quite sure. You can go and visit Him if you like, but we will now take charge down here,” as it were. So, it isn’t just that we can do stuff with science, so we don’t need to worry about religion. It’s “we want to do stuff with the world, with our countries, with how we do our economies, and we don’t want God interfering, thank you very much.” So, it was like a sort of teenage protest — this is my sphere, and I don’t want anyone coming in and messing it up. And of course, there’s a terrible price to pay for that, and I think our world has been paying that terrible price in all sorts of ways in the last 200 years.
GLORIA: The separation of this “upstairs/downstairs,” but it’s bigger than that … the separation of God from His creation, His love for what He made…. Someone brought us a chorus, to which I wrote verses not long ago, that said, He’s making all things new, He’s making all things new. He’s not making all new things, He’s making all things new. That God loves what He made. He loves the whole of creation, which involves the cosmos and beyond. We’re only beginning to have a clue to how huge that is. This Western separation of religion from our real lives, and in the Church, the loss of what happened in the past—the actual resurrection of Christ — is a part of the future. I mean it is all future since then.
WRIGHT: Yeah, that’s right. In a sense, ever since the resurrection, we’ve been living in the dawn of the future. And people sometimes talk about the early Christians living in the last days, and in a sense that’s true, but actually they believed they were living in the first days.
GLORIA: Which makes all the difference in the world.
WRIGHT: Yes, that’s really exciting, and I like that thing about making all things new, not making all new things, because that is the model of the resurrection itself — that Jesus’ risen body leaves an empty tomb behind it. You know, I once met somebody who said, “Oh yeah, I believe in the resurrection, but I don’t think it involved an empty tomb.” And I said, “Well, how does that work?” And she said to me, “Well, I think Jesus just grew a new body.” (Gloria laughs) And so I just think, a.) there’s no precedent for that in the Scriptures themselves, and b.) that doesn’t actually make the sense that the resurrection is seen to make right through the New Testament, which is the renewing, the rescuing of the good creation and its renewing to be part of God’s new world, rather than chucking it away and starting again from scratch.
GLORIA: Well, Paul tried to teach that … I mean, he tried to impart that wonderful insight that fueled the whole early church. I love the way, let’s see, one of the translations says, “All creation stands on tiptoe to see the sons of man coming into their own…” So I don’t know what happened to … I guess for us, it was maybe some puritanical things like God hates his creation, He’d dump you into the pit of hell if He had His chance, but Jesus just stayed His hand. You know, rather than saying He is intent on total restoration.
WRIGHT: It’s an interesting question as to where the misreading of all of that began; I think partly it tracks back at least to the Middle Ages, when they had great plagues and the black death, and so on. The whole mood was that this world is just a dark, horrible place, and the sooner we get out of it, the better. And it’s full of disease and wild animals, and it’s just a hostile environment that we live in, and we’re waiting to escape it entirely. And you can see, for many people in the world as it was a thousand years ago, that’s quite a plausible way of reading the situation.
And then particularly, the late medieval emphasis on purgatory — that what really mattered was where are you going to be immediately after death, and if it’s going to be in an unpleasant place, can you persuade people to pray for your soul to get out of that place? Now, of course, that has no basis in the Bible at all, but it was extremely popular; and it was that that the reformers were reacting to very much — justification by faith. But often, the people who were listening to that new preaching in the 16th century were still thinking, how do we escape this world? How do we go somewhere else instead? And until we get our heads out of that mode, we’re just not thinking the way that Paul and John and the rest were thinking.
GLORIA: And that brings up another whole mindset, and that is that I think we are better at being of the world and not in it than we are at being in the world and not of it.
WRIGHT: (Laughs) Yeah, that may be. That’s an important catchphrase — in the world, but not of it — but it takes a lot to figure out what exactly that means. And Christians have debated in particular cases what that means. But yes, that goes back to John 17, where Jesus prays to the Father for His disciples, and says, “I’m not praying that you would take them out of the world, but that you would keep them from the evil one.”
So they have to be in the world because Jesus is in the world, because He’s come to love the world and to save the world. But as long as they are in the world, they’re in contested territory. And the new creation is always contested territory. And I as a writer, and a prayer, and a preacher, and a scholar and a church teacher, I feel this the whole time. That when you’re doing something which is of any value for the kingdom of God, there’s a sense that there’s a stiff wind blowing in your face, and it’s very tempting to think let’s turn back and take an easier road. This is always the way, and I’ve been in this business a long time, and it doesn’t get any easier. You just get used to the fact that is this is how it is.
GLORIA: If I had to count on my hand how many things I would die for, you know, it would be small. So I believe in the fundamentals, but we have decided to cocoon ourselves away, rather than being yeast. All the metaphors the scriptures use are not about cocooning.
WRIGHT: I think that’s exactly right, and I think so much in modern culture encourages that. And, actually, I think it’s part of the problem with the whole Western enlightenment and post-Renaissance world, really, that we have made a nice world for ourselves at the cost of millions and millions of people in Latin America, in Africa, in Southeast Asia, India, China. We have created this.
I sometimes think that it’s as though — let’s just take Europe — as though Europe is like a gated community with locked gates and there are all these people outside the gates. And we want them to stay outside the gates, because they will spoil our nice lawns and peer in our nice plate glass windows, and we’d rather they didn’t do that. And now it’s actually happening, you know. In Europe, the refugee crisis is at epidemic proportions, and our gated community has been thoroughly invaded, and we’re beginning to realize that the very fact that we created this gated community is part of the problem — that we have been culturally not of the wider world. We’ve sort of gone and we’ve made money in the wider world, and we’ve said we were doing good, but often the good we were doing was to bring revenue back home, which is what empires always do. So I just think it’s hugely complicated, but we don’t gain anything by not facing these larger problems, and I think that is very much like being in the world but not of the world. That somehow, we were supposed to be a part of all of humankind, not dragged down by it into the wrong modes, but we’ve created a sort of artificial mini-world for ourselves in the West, and that’s a real problem.
GLORIA: Well, and that brings up how Jesus prayed for us when He said, Let me teach you to pray. There again, we interpret that as a separate — this heaven life and this earth life — but He really prayed that those two would be one, and that the power of the resurrection would keep us from being afraid of those knocking on the gate.
WRIGHT: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And when the Church has been at its best, it has not been afraid, and has welcomed and healed, and brought hope and light and so on, and thank God that’s going on. You know, there are millions of Christians around the world in really difficult places. I had an email from a friend who’s working in Ethiopia just this morning, and the problems and the pressures that they’re under, and the huge difficulties they face are enormous. But God is good, and the gospel is true, and radical change happens in people’s lives in community, and things go forward. But it is, as I say, very, very contested territory.
GLORIA: OK, so now let me go back to your first point and the title of your book. How can we, as true believers, make the gospel not good advice — that is, not just moralistic niceties — but make it the Good News … the news, actually?
WRIGHT: One of the things that I was fascinated about when I was writing that book was the notion of news itself and how it works, and that’s why I went back to the first century — which is where half of my head lives anyway, because I’m a historian originally — about the news of the Emperor Augustus having won the great battle. And the news gets back to Rome before he gets back to Rome, so there’s a kind of interim where the people in Rome know that he’s won the great battle. So now he’s coming back and he’s going to be king, and the battle has been won already, so you need to get ready and you need to make sure that you’re acting in a way that makes sense with what has just happened and what will therefore happen. So news, as it were, creates a new kind of time.
Something has happened as a result of which the world will, ultimately, be totally different, totally transformed. We live in between the one and the other. That’s how news works. You know, a very close friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer last year and, astonishingly, through prayer and work and medical work, he’s had a very successful operation, has come through. And when I got that news, I realized this is exactly how news works. I was waiting for the email which said how the operation had gone, knowing that the news would condition my feelings for months and years to come. And happily, it was good news. So even though he then has to do a lot of recuperation, and have some more chemotherapy, etc., it’s basically good news, and our relationship, and everything about that relationship is transformed by that good news. Now in the same way, this is how we in our preaching, in our teaching, in our praying, and actually in our sacramental lives, in communion … the point of that is to say, we are good news people. This is a heaven/ earth moment. This bread and this wine actually are ways of God’s future creation rushing forward from the future into our present, so that there are signs of what did happen then, what will happen in the future, and so the action and the story and the participating in the sacrament is a way of saying our whole sense of time is reshaped. We are living out of what did happen, and we are living toward what will happen, and we are feeding on that in the present. And doing that literally with the sacraments is hugely important, but then that spills over into everything else that we do in our lives as well.
GLORIA: That brings up another question, in that time itself is a creature of God. I love what you said about the resurrection is rushing forward from the future into our present. But everything is permeated, the metaphors of the whole New Testament are that we are embedded in the culture, like someone would be embedded in an army. There are Christians everywhere; they are not gone. But the Scripture calls them salt, light, yeast. You know, we are resurrection power in our earth lives.
WRIGHT: Yes, that is indeed our calling. And, of course, like everything else in the kingdom, as I say, it is contested. And one of the ironies of this … one of the privileges of my life is I’ve had to deal with a lot of young clergy going into ministry and seeing them go through their training, and into their early years of being ordained and working as pastors and teachers and preachers. And again and again, the ones who are really making a difference, who are being resurrection people in the world, are ones who often have huge struggles that they have to overcome—opposition from the family, or financial difficulties, or major sickness in the family, or all sorts of things. So often, they aren’t even aware of the extent to which their lives are being signs of resurrection in the world.
See, when you read the acts of the apostles, often this is the case, that it’s as the apostles are going around being beaten up and stoned and thrown into prison, etc., that actually the Word of God is speeding on and triumphing. And Paul talks about this a lot in Second Corinthians, where he’s had a really rough time. He says that he’s always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal bodies.
The emphasis there the whole time is that the resurrection life shows through when people are following Jesus, which is tough and challenging and dangerous and difficult. The danger comes, then, if we say that because we are supposed to be resurrection people, we should be sailing through life, being untroubled, having a nice time, having enough money, and having a happy family all of the time, and so on. And really, most of church history, life has not been like that. If you want to be a resurrection person, be prepared to go through the temptations and the trials and the struggles that Jesus Himself did.
GLORIA: And that brings back a bad influence of the modern era, and that is, I think we have gotten the idea that if we are Christians, we should have this perfect life, we should never have pimples, we should have two cars in the garage, we will never be hungry … and I don’t know where in the New Testament we get support for that.
WRIGHT: Well, quite, quite. I mean, there are promises, like when Peter says, “We’ve left everything and followed you” in Mark 10 and Jesus says well, OK, people who leave everything and follow me will have in this life more homes and friends and family because, actually, Jesus’ family, the Church, is supposed to be a hospitable family. But it won’t be that you will be possessing them; it won’t be that you will be amassing these possessions for yourself. It will be that you’re living in a different kind of way where you will find that your basic needs are met even though it isn’t in this, as you say, acquisitive, modern, materialistic fashion.
Now, materialism has been a problem right through history, you know; that isn’t just a modern one. We have sort of said to ourselves ever since the 18th century, that because we are modern, and because we are grown up, and because we have new science and medicine and technology, therefore in principle, we should be living in utopia. And that is a lie. Then we produce a Christian version of that, which is just a perversion of the Gospel, and we’ve tried to have too much of the resurrection in the present in the form of creature comforts in this world. Now, again, I’m all in favor of creature comforts; I wish more people could share them, but that’s not the meaning of the Gospel.
GLORIA: And it isn’t usually the way to refine the soul, ironically. Now we’re back to C.S. Lewis, to whom you are often compared…
WRIGHT: I owe a great deal to Lewis…
GLORIA: He said, “Pain is God’s megaphone.” So, to be released of pain and think that we can’t learn anything … you know, I guess the biggest enemy of the soul is self-sufficiency.
WRIGHT: Yes! Which is interesting because in the ancient world, self-sufficiency was often seen as a virtue. The stoics, you know, that you would be self-sufficient … Paul, daringly, says at one point in Philippians 4, “I’ve learned in whatever state I’m in to be content.” And he uses a word, which is quite like the self-sufficient word, but then when he explains it he says, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” So, it’s as though the pagan world sees that there is the possibility of being ready for anything, as it were. But the pagan world translates that into something that simply I do all of myself. And the Christian says, “No, this is Christ within me giving me strength, and I have to learn how to make that a reality.”
GLORIA: Thank you so much. This has been a total delight and of course, I love these conversations.
WRIGHT: That’s very kind. It’s been very good to talk to you, and thank you for the care which you’ve obviously lavished on my books, because all your questions show that you’ve been studying them quite carefully, which is delightful. I have to say I do quite a lot of interviews, and it isn’t always the case. Sometimes, interviewers have just gone through and hope for the best. So, thank you for taking the time and trouble.