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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Interview with N.T. Wright (part 5 of 6)

In June of 2004 I had the privilege of interviewing N.T. Wright for The Living Church Magazine. Alas, the transcribed results clocked in around 14,000 words, and The Living Church was only able to publish around 1000! So their loss is your gain, dear reader, as I plan to present the interview in six parts (excepting what appeared in print), directly from my notes as transcribed from a tape recording. I hope you enjoy it.

I should also mention that I plan to include a lagniappe, a Christmas gift if you will, at the end of the interview: part seven, which includes sections printed earlier in The Living Church Magazine.

(Read part 1 here, 2 here, 3 here,or 4 here.)


Continue reading Interview with N.T. Wright (Part 5 of 6)


So to take a step back and talk about this relationship between the church, the culture, and what that interplay is, or should be?

Yes, well, as I said about the Aeropagus speech, there is no one answer to this. Neibuhr explored those different ways of doing it, and it depends on the culture. In Athens, Paul saw some things in the culture, which he was able to ‘yes, fantastic, let’s go with that, and let’s build on that.’ And other things which he saw for which he said ‘nope, that’s wrong, that’s out of line, and here’s why.’

For example, when he and Barnabas were called Zeus and Hermes? Their sense of idolatry absolutely rebelled against that, they didn’t say ‘hey, that’s a good start!’ They said ‘no!’

That’s in Acts 14, and it’s very interesting because they’ve done a great healing miracle on a cripple, and Paul has had him stand up on his feet and walk. And Paul and Barnabas, when the crowd called them gods, said ‘that’s not the right interpretation.’ Then the crowds, instead of wanting to worship them, instead try to stone them. And so the church’s relationship with culture we ought to assume will always be ambiguous.


And of course for us, it’s even moreso, because we’ve got a legacy of 2000 of would-be Christian culture getting it right and getting it wrong. We’re in a dynamic, often contested relationship with a culture which itself has a lot of bits of Christianity in it. When you get a choir to sing the St. Matthew Passion, do you miss out the point where the choir sings ‘his blood be on us and on our children,’ that’s just an example. Because J.S. Bach is one of the great Christian musicians of the Western world, how much do we engage in critical reflection on where he was coming from on certain issues, and, if we do that critical reflection, at what point do we say ‘I’m sorry, but we simply can’t sing this stuff?’ At what point do you say ‘we’ve got to clean it up?’ And at what point ‘we’re going to sing it anyway, but we’re going to preach about what we’re going to do with that?’ That’s engaging even with our own culture, but so much of contemporary culture is not a specifically Christian product, but the product of Western enlightenment economic imperialism, often – and this is a hugely ironic point, which I wish I could find a sloganized way of putting it up on the wall – in America at the moment, you still have this hassle about Darwin, about whether you believe in Darwin or not, and I want to say ‘there are serious problems with Darwin,’ (you should look at Wittgenstein’s critique of Darwin, very interesting). But often in America, the very same people who want to rubbish Darwin and go back to a creationism, are themselves totally soaked in the social Darwinism which says that the economic and political modus operandi of the Western world since the eighteenth century has got the right to develop and do its own thing, because might is right, and because we have developed this way and therefore we can get on and do it. This is the philosophy of Malthus, actually, to whom Darwin was deeply indebted. Darwin was soaked in Malthus’s stuff long before he ever got in a boat and went looking at turtles and finches. It’s very ironic that a lot of right wing America is implicitly, absolutely solidly social Darwinist. Even while rejecting Darwin on creation. I think this needs to be explored in a lot more detail.

I also have a sense that, inasmuch as there is a correlation between more liberal views on national politics and an embrace of Darwinism, there is an almost uncritical embrace of biological Darwinism, but a complete denial of a Malthusian sort of economics.

That may be so, and it would be fascinating to tease that out. It is these issues which need to be teased out, and precisely because the church must engage with where the culture has been and still is, these things need to be smoked out, put on the table, and we need to be able to have a conversation about them without people simply saying ‘rubbish! That just fundamentalism!’ on the one hand, and ‘rubbish! That’s just silly liberalism!’ on the other.

This, again, diverts from my questions, but it is a question that has come to mind several times in talking with you, given some of the synthesis you’re talking about, being on that fault line between the church and the world and so on, what do you think of the work of John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy generally?

Ah, interesting. I’ve not read a great deal of Radical Orthodoxy. I think that Milbank’s protest against the sociologization of Christian theology was absolutely justified, spot on, and it needed somebody with that ability and depth to say it at such length and with such detailed analysis that it would actually be heard. If it had been a 150 page book, people would not have even noticed it.


There are two obvious problems with Radical Orthodoxy, one its proponents have made a virtue of dense prose. People sometimes accuse the Archbishop of Canterbury of writing densely, and of course he was the teacher of some of the Radical Orthodox, including Milbank, but they have gone even further down that route. And it is almost as though if they said it in plain English - do they have the oomph to say it in plain English and be heard? And they probably do, but it would nice to see it. As a result a lot of people simply don’t know what’s going on. The second thing is, that in their attempted repristination of the Medieval tradition – which in all sorts of ways is something that we’ve got to do – they don’t know what to do with the Bible. And a would-be Christian theology which really does seem a bit puzzled with to do with the Bible, I think there’s a warning light going on there. It’s early days, yet, but it will be fun to see how that plays out.

My next question, and I anticipate your answer as being ‘sorry, I can’t comment on that,’ are you able to make any comment on the work of the Eames Commission thus far? (Some rumours have circulated about this or that proposal that the commission might set forth – apart from denying the rumours, are you able to characterize the work in a general fashion?) {N.B. the date of this interview was June 1, 2004. -ed.}

Well, I can say certain things. Our first meeting was basically a very happy one. I think I and many of the others were quite nervous that it could be acrimonious and difficult from the beginning, and it wasn’t. And that owes a certain amount to the wonderful, genial chairmanship of Archbishop Eames, who is of course extremely experienced with this sort of thing. I think there is also a genuine willingness, right across the board, to look at each other in the face and to listen and to work together. Rowan Williams commissioned us, we had a service of commissioning at the beginning of the work of the commission, and it was a very moving thing to be charged by the archbishop himself, formally and liturgically to undertake this work. And I think we take very, very seriously the fact that this is done in the context of prayer and shared study. This is not simply a political thing to cobble together a solution, like the back room people might do in Washington or Downing Street, this is not the model we’re using.

So the ‘smoky backroom deal’ is just because the incense is swinging, is that it?

Well, that would be nice. I’m not sure we used any incense the last time, actually. I’m not sure we will at Kanuga, either. We’re meeting in Kanuga in a couple weeks’ time. {Again, the date of the interview is 6/1/2004. -ed.} I should say, in terms of the rumors, and people have sent e-mails saying ‘I see you’re going to be saying this, that and the other,’ and of course what happens is that anybody can make a submission to the Eames Commission: anybody. Any group, any individual can write a letter, a memo, a paper, for the Eames Commission. And I’ve had so many come in that I’ve had to say to my secretary that I’m going to have to take an extra suitcase. I’m going to be grossly overweight on the plane, to take all the papers I’ve printed out off of e-mail. We may just end up leaving them on the laptop and taking the electronic version. But then of course it’s open to anyone to release one of those papers to the press and say ‘I have submitted this to the Eames Commission,’ and the press will say ‘the Eames Commission will be considering the possibility that such and such.’ So it could be that someone will submit a paper saying the Eames Commission should decide that the moon is made of green cheese, and the next thing you have the press saying ‘The Eames Commission is going to decide the moon is made of green cheese.’ That’s how press releases work. As far as I am aware, all we have done so far, is to say, ‘this is roughly where the problem lies in terms of communion, and here are some pieces of work that we need to do to advance us into a position where we can start talking about it.’ And what we have done is commission from the different members of the commission papers on the different aspects of the question as we see it. I have done a paper on the authority of Scripture, which I submitted just a week or ten days ago. Others have done papers on all sorts of aspects which we are now receiving by e-mail. We will be working on these, and I regard it as very, very open as far as what sorts of things may be possible, what sorts of statements we may be able to make. I’m not trying to be evasive, that is actually where I think it is. I think all the members of the commission would agree that things are very, very open at the moment.


(More to come soon.)

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3 Comments:

Blogger anonymous said...

Thanks again for posting this very interesting interview. Could you or anyone else point me towards Wittgenstein's critique of Darwin that Wright mentions in response to the second question?

Thursday, December 23, 2004 5:15:00 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Dear anonymous:
Alas, he did not give the reference, although he mentioned in part 6 of the interview that he had recently been reading a couple of Wittgenstein's works including "his jottings" (Wright's word). I have looked in vain for a Wittgenstein title containing the word jottings, and so it must be Wittgenstein-jargon for one of his other works, most likely one of his books of aphorisms. Unfortunately, Wittgenstein is not at all my area of philosophical expertise, and so I can't even hazard a guess beyond this. Perhaps some other well-informed reader might fill in the gaps?

Thursday, December 23, 2004 1:09:00 PM  
Blogger Rev Sam said...

Almost certainly 'Culture and Value' where his most interesting apercus on Christianity can be found. Another possibility is his lectures on religious belief, but I'm pretty sure it'd be the former.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 7:35:00 PM  

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