Interview with N.T. Wright (Part 7 of 6): a lagniappe!
Unlike previous installments, bits of this have been published elsewhere, in TLC, specifically pp.21-22 of the October 3, 2004 issue.
(A tip of the hat to the inestimable Book Review Editor at TLC, Patricia Nakamura, who made it all happen -- and who is available to edit and proof on a freelance basis for you if you make contact with me at my e-mail address, above.)
(Read part 1 here, 2 here, 3 here, 4 here, 5 here, 6 here.)
Continue reading Interview with N.T. Wright (Part 7 of 6)
I first ran into your For Everyone series in England, before they were available over here in the States. I was immediately impressed.
What were some of the challenges that you encountered in putting together this series, and trying to make the New Testament accessible “to everyone”?
The first critical thing to say is that these are not really even commentaries, they are guides, because they are written explicitly for the kind of people for whom the word ‘commentary’ sounds too heavy. One of the very first meetings I spoke at when the first two books were released, somebody asked me ‘why didn’t you put a thing at the back saying “for further reading, see…”?’ And I said ‘because that is precisely the sort of thing which would put off the people at whom this series is aimed.’ And there were other people in the room who nodded and said ‘Yes, I would not have bought a book like that.’ At the same time, I have been amused and slightly cross that clergy will often write to me and say ‘this has been marvelous in my sermon preparations!’ And I’ve written back and said ‘It wasn’t meant for you! It’s meant for old Mrs. So-and-so down the road, or for the confirmation candidate.’ It’s designed so that a 12 year old confirmation candidate or a 70 year old person in the congregation whose never been to [a commentary] before, will be able to, without being intimidated at any point, to find their way into what is, after all, their own book. This book belongs to the 12 year old confirmation candidate and the 70 year old in the pew just as much as it does to the bishops and the professors if not more. The problem is in much of western Christianity, there is an assumption that we all know basically what’s in the Bible. That is a radically, radically wrong assumption. The church has managed to hush up a good deal of what’s in the Bible – including many bits which aren’t actually particularly difficult, but which the church has just managed to ignore for awhile.
Well, I mean the Letter to the Hebrews, for example. It used to be much better known in Anglicanism than it is now. People think ‘oh, it’s just all about sacrifice and all the temple stuff, we really don’t understand it, let’s just not go there. So they hop over it. And I actually really enjoyed writing the book on Hebrews. But also there are bits of John’s gospel. People tend to think ‘Oh, I like John.’ But there are actually bits of John which are very mysterious and dark and difficult. It was very exciting to me to work through those, and find ways of putting my finger on key points, which then, hopefully, people will be able to pick up and go with.
Some of my amazement at this series and the fact that it would be available for sale is my experience of Christian bookstores in America, which often will have endtimes prophecy or nothing else that substantive. It’s as if it wouldn’t even cross their mind, or at least their bottom line, that people would be interested in this stuff.
Yes, it’s interesting. My sense is that – I don’t know the full range of American Christian bookstores, and you do have many that are just off the map in terms of where we are in Britain. Even the more evangelical end in Britain – we just don’t have the clientele to support a major “Left Behind” sort of series, although Left Behind unfortunately sell well in Britain as well. Many of your evangelical bookstores will sell commentaries from evangelical publishers and so on. I suppose they would reckon, though, that that is aimed at the seminarian and the preacher.
It’s a very, very small section of an otherwise large bookstore.
I’m sure that’s right. Lots of the stuff is just a Christian version of the self-help section. I remember somebody sending me a bookstore catalog, I won’t say which publisher it was in America, a year or two ago, and after having flipped through it, I remember saying to my wife, ‘page one, how to be a happy Christian, page two, how to be a good Christian, page three how to be a good and happy Christian, page four, how to be a good, happy and successful Christian, just on and on and on.’ And really, we’ve had rather a lot of those books over the last thirty years. I have a sense that we’re missing something. And I’m not saying that they’re valueless. In a sense, this project was a way of doing it from the other end, saying we’re all signed up to Scripture, but we don’t really know what to do about it, let’s just dive in and see.
You’ve already hinted a bit at the answer to this, but what made you decide on the format of the books and their commentary on the Bible? I am curious why you chose not to include a brief section with historical and thematic overviews?
The publishers and I had lengthy chats about how it should be and over the course of a year or so I tried out some draft sections, and we went on saying, ‘no we haven’t got it quite right, supposing we did it like this,’ and so on. I did at one stage, a bit more of verse-by-verse, and we looked at it and said, ‘no, this is a bit more academic, a bit more preachy.’ One of the things we decided to do was to start virtually each section with a folksy little anecdote or little aside or whatever. Those are the hardest bits to write. Passage by passage, those are the hardest bits. For the same reason that we don’t have a list of further reading at the end, we decided that any introduction saying ‘you need to think about some ancient history here’ or whatever, was just going to be too forbidding. And people actually come wanting to know about the text: right, let’s just take them straight to the text, and then the questions come up as they come up. So that, for instance, in the pastorals, where there’s a serious question about whether Paul wrote any or all of them, I allow that to emerge in the first section or two, and in the Letter to the Hebrews, I allow the fact to emerge that we don’t know who wrote this letter. I actually even toyed with inventing a name for the author of that letter, and then referring to the author by that name, but we decided that was too tacky and wasn’t going to work. So that, incidentally, while you and I are having this fun reading this particular text, in brackets, ‘oh, by the way, you need to know this was written in such and such a year, or there’s a debate about this, or whatever.’ So I’ve kind of dropped a few things in, but in the way that you would in conversation with somebody who had never met the subject before. You just drop something in, in brackets, to let them know ‘There’s some stuff out there. On another occasion, if you like, we could explore that, but that’s not what this is about.’ And so it’s sort of a self-denying ordinance, because as a historian, I love overviews of books, I love the historical background, but it has been a huge amount of self-denial, of just saying ‘well, let’s not go there.’ So it has a limited, but focused aim. I get letter from people saying, I’ve read two or three of your books, can you recommend me something similar on Jeremiah? And I have to write back and say, ‘Sorry, I really don’t know anything similar on Jeremiah!’ Maybe something like it exists, but I don’t know about it.
It is a natural question, is a similar series planned for the Old Testament?
It’s certainly not planned, and if it were I probably wouldn’t be the person to do it. It may be that, if I’m still active and writing in retirement, I might do some Old Testament books. The thing is that I’ve taught New Testament for so long that most of the New Testament doesn’t require very much fresh research. I usually have one or two commentaries to hand, and I use the dictionaries and concordances, and I do often see new things while I’m writing these segments. But in terms of major interpretive strategies, if I was to do – which book of the Old Testament do I know best? Genesis, Daniel, Psalms, Isaiah – I would still have to do quite a lot of fresh work. At the moment I don’t have time for that. I just finished writing the one on Romans, and I have just started writing the one on Acts. When I’m done with that, I have the real toughies to do, the one on the little letters: Peter, James, John and Jude, and the one on Revelation. I’ve never written anything on Revelation except for shorter sections in my bigger books, very short sections. I really have some serious work to do on that, and that’s going to be quite a discipline. What I’m going to have to do is have my secretary block out three weeks here and three weeks there in the diary over the next couple of years so I just have some time to sink some shafts down into that.
What prompted you to incorporate your own translation into the text, rather than, say, the NIV or NRSV or something like that?
Anybody else’s translation that I used would have resulted almost at once ‘actually at this point the Greek says such-and-such’, and that is precisely what this series did not need to say. Particularly I would have to say it with the NIV, which in Paul manages to get many of the key things wrong. The NIV is just disastrous in Paul. I’ve often lectured with the NIV in front of me, because that’s what the students would have, and you just have to say ‘sorry, here’s the Greek, here’s the NIV, it just doesn’t work.’ The NRSV is okay up to a point. It’s the one we use for public reading in much of the Church of England right now. But, again, I wanted not to confuse people by having to do this stuff.
Calling attention to the text, rather than looking at the text.
Exactly. Actually, anyway, that’s been one of the really exciting bits of the task, trying to do a fresh translation; I’ve really enjoyed that.
Is there anything in particular you discovered in undertaking this project?
Yes, I’ve had many times when I’ve though ‘my goodness, look at that!’ When I was working on the commentary on Mark, which was, I think the first or second one I did (I did Luke and Mark together to begin with.) I got towards the passion narrative, and I remember in chapter 10. And I remember thinking at the end of chapter 10, here is one verse which is often flagged up as an interpretation of the atonement, ‘he came to give his life as a ransom for many.’ Mark 10:45. And often people have said ‘there you are, that’s Mark’s interpretation of the meaning of the death of Jesus.’ It just struck me working through the text like this, how odd it is to take one verse, as though that gives you the theology, and then here’s five chapters of narrative of what happened, and then say ‘that’s not really interpretive, that’s just telling the story, and then you’ve got the theological interpretation.’ It dawned on me that what all of the gospels are doing is telling a story in three dimensions, like three concentric circles. The big picture is that this is basically what you would call a political story, this is a story about how forces in the world liquidate someone who is saying something and doing something which is so radically, explosively different that they simply cannot tolerate him. That is how the story is told. Interesting that in the so-called Gnostic gospels, that story is completely lacking, the story of the liquidation of this subversive person by the powers that be. Because in the western world we haven’t wanted to hear politics in the gospel story, we’ve screened that out. So we’ve missed the fact that that is how the story is told. Then, within that, you find the theology. The theology in Mark is the theology of God in the Messiah taking what the powers of the world on himself in this particular way, and then within that theology, you get the personal meaning, the little bits of the story which say he did this for you. Jesus died, Barabbas goes free. Jesus dies, one of the two brigands is assured of paradise, and so forth. If you get the political picture, you find the theological picture within that, you find the personal picture within that. Whereas if you do it the other way – which particularly in this series would have been very tempting to do, to say, ‘right, let’s just go for the personal,’ – you actually screen out the real theology and the politics. And it was very exciting to me, to see the gospels that way.
I am curious why you left Romans and Revelation for later? I would think there would be great demand for an accessible commentary on Revelation, what with the craze surrounding endtimes prophecy (at least here in America), and it seems traditional that theologians and Biblical scholars have made their mark with commentaries on Romans, thinking of Karl Barth or Martin Luther, for example.
Quite easy to do that. I was writing the commentary on Romans for the New Interpreters’ Bible, the NIB, and I finished that in 2002, and I didn’t want to be writing two commentaries on Romans at the same time, they would get muddled up with each other. That was my major writing project between 1998 and 2002, that was the big thing I was doing, so I deliberately said to the publisher, I am not going to get near ‘little Romans’ until I had ‘big Romans’ out of the way. That was published in late 2002, so once that was off my desk, I could get on and finally work around. I started on Romans Christmas of this last year and just finished it a few weeks ago. Revelation, because I have never done major courses or lectures on Revelation, I knew I would have to do more work on it and I wanted to get the series well launched before I got into it. Also, this started off as an English series not an American series, and Revelation has never been as popular in England as in America. But we’ll get there, soon I hope.
What’s the response been to the series so far?
The response has been very good. One of the things that delight me, going around my own diocese now, is when people say how helpful they have found it, laypeople who have not normally read books about the Bible or Christian theology, have actually found this to be a way in. I just think that’s where it’s at. One of my heroes for years and years has been William Tyndale, and Tyndale had this great saying that he wanted the Bible to be something that the plowboy, walking along behind the plow, to be something he could be thinking about as he worked. It’s that kind of image, of the people who really count, the solid people of the ground level of the church, being able to engage with the text, that’s been very exciting.
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