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The N.T. Wright interview on the inspiration of Paul and Psalms

Cover Paul and the Faithfulness of God by NT Tom Wright

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

N.T. Wright is writing like a man on a mission, now that he has left his role as bishop to devote his remaining years to producing books that he hopes will inspire individuals and strengthen congregations. At the moment, he is publishing his longest book (1,700 pages bound into two volumes weighing in at 5 pounds) and one of his smallest books (a mere 200 pages, less than 10 ounces and small enough to tuck into a coat pocket).

Both books will be eagerly snapped up by the host of N.T. Wright fans around the English-speaking world.

ON PAUL

Paul and the Faithfulness of God:
Rowan Williams, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion from 2002 until his retirement in 2012, describes this massive work with these words: “N.T. Wright’s long-awaited full-length study of St. Paul will not in any way disappoint. From the very first sentence, it holds the attention, arguing a strong, persuasive, coherent, and fresh case supported by immense scholarship and comprehensive theological intelligence.

David Crumm, Editor of ReadTheSpirit, adds to that review: “Rowan Williams’ praise is well founded, although not every reader will find the entire book exciting from the first sentence. Certainly—clergy, educators, small-group leaders and men and women who love Bible study will enjoy this landmark in scholarship. More importantly, Wright uses this book to argue against those evangelical activists who use Paul as a source of one-line ‘proof texts.’ Today, Paul would be shocked by some of the ways his letters are quoted out of context, Wright tells readers. Paul never intended to serve as a finger-wagging disciplinarian. His vision was far, far larger, Wright argues.”

ON THE PSALMS

The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential:
Once again, let’s turn to Rowan Williams: “A characteristic blend of learning, personal insight and spiritual perception. This book will be of enormous help to Christians who want to know how to make fuller use of one of the greatest scriptural resources for prayer.”

Cover The Case for the Psalms NT Tom Wright

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

David Crumm of ReadTheSpirit says: “Buy this for your friends who rarely set foot inside a church—and for your friends who flock to megachurches with an electrified sound track of pop praise songs. Both will discover the world’s greatest collection of sacred hymns with a friendly yet passionate guide—Wright himself—to make the introductions.”

Tom Wright’s opening lines in the Psalms book: “This book is a personal plea for the Psalms, which make up the great hymnbook at the heart of the Bible, have been the daily lifeblood of Christians, and of course the Jewish people, from the earliest times. Yet in many  Christian circles today, the Psalms are simply not used. And in many places where they are still used, whether said or sung, they are often reduced to a few verses to be recited as ‘filler’ between other parts of the liturgy or worship services. In the later case, people often don’t seem to realize what they’re singing. In the former case, they don’t seem to realize what they’re missing. This book is an attempt to reverse those trends. I see this as an urgent task.”

David Crumm spoke with Wright via telephone during one of Wright’s recent U.S. tours …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH N.T. ‘TOM’ WRIGHT
ON PAUL AND PSALMS

DAVID: The story behind this big new book on Paul is as dramatic as the arguments you make in the book itself. You gave up being a bishop to finish this book! Tell us about the decision.

NT Tom Wright Bible scholar and authorTOM: That was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make professionally or personally. It was a huge joy to be the Bishop of Durham. That’s where I come from and I really loved being back there. I loved doing that work. Then, in 2009, I had a four-month sabbatical and went to Princeton to finish writing this book on Paul. I thought I could finish most of the book during the sabbatical, then I could go back to Durham, be bishop for another four or five years—and retire at that point. But, by Christmas of 2009, I had written a lot and researched a lot—and I was thoroughly enjoying the work—but I wasn’t able to get far enough toward completing the book so that I could just keep being Bishop of Durham and then expect to wrap up the final parts of the book in a weekend here and there.

The choice was very difficult. My wife and I were aware that this huge project was just sitting there unfinished. I either had to decide that this project was just a hobby until I later would retire as bishop—or we were going to have to consider moving elsewhere, soon. At the same time St. Andrews was knocking at my door, looking for a senior New Testament person for their staff. All the lights turned green in that direction and we were astonished at how well everything worked out. I know my decision shocked a lot of people, including some of my friends. But the move enabled me to finish this and other writing, as well. (For more on the chronology of these moves, see our N.T. Wright Resource Page.)

DAVID: So, the next question is: Can readers dive into this book on Paul, or do they have to read the three previous books in this overall series? Starting with this book, they will miss the full sweep of your previous three volumes in the series, but they clearly can find a lot of new insights here with Paul. What do you think?

TOM: Yes, I think someone can pick up this book and read it from start to finish, without first reading all the others. Think about it! (laughing) It’s enough to ask someone to read these 1,700 pages! It would be just too daunting to suggest that they have to start by reading a couple thousand pages of other books before they can even open this one on Paul. Sure, this book stands on the shoulders of my earlier books. But this one, I hope, is worth reading even as a freestanding book.

TOM WRIGHT: A REBUKE OF PROOF TEXTING

DAVID: There are sections of this new book that will be daunting to general readers. But there also are sections that are very quotable. I marked a lot of them in my copy of the book. Let me zero in on one immediately. You take aim at proof-texting evangelicals who want to chop up Paul into a set of individual rules to be followed one by one.

Let me read a section from your book. You write, “I marvel in particular that many commentaries, which one might suppose to be committed to following the argument of the text they are studying, manage not to do that, but instead to treat a Pauline letter as if it were a collection of maxims, detached theological statements, plus occasional ‘proofs from scripture’ and the like. I take it as axiomatic, on the contrary, that Paul deliberately laid out whole arguments, not just bits and pieces, miscellaneous topoi which just happen to turn up in these irrelevant ‘contingent’ contexts like oddly shaped pearls on an irrelevant string.”

That’s fairly pointed language. Proof texting isn’t the way to read Paul!

TOM: Well, of course, we can say that there are places in Paul’s writing where you can put in a thumb and pull out a plum. There are lines in Paul where he sums up some of his arguments, for example. But the point I am making in that section you just read is: Let’s be sure that, if you’re reading one sentence, that we also see the context of the paragraph, and the context of the entire letter. By relying exclusively on a single verse, we can tend to distort the big picture. And the big picture is that Paul was developing a whole new way of looking at the world, at God and at everything else.

‘LAUNCHING CHRISTIAN PUBLIC THEOLOGY’

DAVID: The larger argument that runs through these 1,700 pages is that Paul was a theologian, not just a finger-wagging problem solver. Even though Paul didn’t sit back and write out a huge theological masterwork—you argue that Paul really did see himself as revealing a much bigger picture of Christian theology. People who are obsessed with the individual rules miss the bigger picture.

TOM: One of the great strands that runs through this new Paul book is that Paul was launching Christian public theology. This was not a private project. He was launching a worldview that could hold its head up so that people could look deeply into this theology and say, “My goodness. This makes sense.”

DAVID: Here’s another shocker for some of your evangelical fans: You argue very strongly in this new book that Paul was not a world-rejecting theologian. In other words, Paul believed that this world is the one God is perfecting. Christianity is not about simply saving your soul, grabbing a ticket to heaven somewhere over yonder—and this world be damned. That wasn’t Paul’s viewpoint.

TOM: It’s ironic and amusing to me that some American evangelicals have this as a cultural marker. It’s ironic because America—of all the countries in the world—is so wonderfully supplied with resources and has so many rich people living there. The evangelical community itself has often been quite well to do and powerful. Yes, there are many poor evangelicals, but there also are many wealthy and influential ones as well. So, why reject this world? To me, that’s an irony.

But, you are correct: I want to say very clearly to readers that, no, we are not merely passing through this world. That idea is a complete misunderstanding of the whole New Testament. That idea of rejecting this world goes back to the Middle Ages when this present world was a dark and gloomy and terrible place and the only thing you realistically could do was to say your prayers and hope for a better world elsewhere. But why should this remain a 19th or 20th century evangelical hangup?

If people are still claiming that God is not interested in this world, then I say that kind of preaching would leave Paul wringing his hands! God’s purpose is to renew the world—not to replace it!

DAVID: Let me read a few lines I marked, sprinkled through this book. Here’s one: “The reign of God’s restorative justice and healing peace is meant for this world, not for some other.” Here’s another one: “Paul believes that he is living in the world over which Jesus, the Messiah, already reigns as Lord.” And here’s one more, even stronger: “Paul did not see himself as simply snatching souls out of this world’s wreck in order to populate a Platonic heaven. In the light of Paul’s statements in various places about his hope for the whole creation, we should take seriously what he says about God reconciling ‘the world’ to himself.”

In one of my favorite passages in your new book, you use the British metaphor of teatime. You say that faith is not about dreaming of teatime in heaven, somewhere else. It’s about actually getting out the china and preparing the tea and sandwiches, every day, in this world.

TOM: That’s exactly right.

Now, the danger of saying this is that people must see what I’m writing here in the context of the entire New Testament. People may think I’m preaching the old Social Gospel. “We’ve heard that and it didn’t work,” they will say. “Oh, he’s just saying we should be nice to each other and take care of the poor.”

I want to say to them, “Well, one reason the old approach to the Social Gospel didn’t work is that we tried it in the wrong framework. If we let him, Paul will show us a far larger framework of what we should be about in this world.”

Actually, one of the most exciting things I experienced as Bishop of Durham was to work with people in ordinary churches who were out in their streets and community doing the things the church should be doing. I’m talking about ordinary little churches on the street corner—sometimes with just 50 people on a Sunday morning. But they were true followers of Jesus and they were doing things because that’s what followers of Jesus do: They were helping out in old people’s homes, they were visiting prisoners, they were feeding people.

It’s when people gather and follow Jesus like this that other people begin to ask: Who are these people? Why are these people doing these things? Why aren’t they just sitting at home and watching the television like other people?

This is how Christianity spread two millennia ago. It happened when people began asking these very questions: Who are these people living like this?

The thing that really matters is the actual transformation of human communities by the self-sacrificial love of those who are grasped by the sacrificial love of God in Christ. That’s the inauguration of God’s new world. I’m certainly not preaching an old line about shining a little candle in the darkness to make one feel better. I’m talking about something bigger: Rays breaking through in our world that show the sunrise is coming.

POINTING TOWARD ROMANS 14

DAVID: I’ve been asking you about provocative passages in your book, but it’s easy to see that you really do intend this new book on Paul to serve as a healing manifesto. In asking these questions, I’m pointing out what I see as a major opportunity with this book: Sure, your more conservative American fans will invest in this big new book. But I think there’s a whole lot of refreshing, deeply insightful analysis here that mainliners and Catholics will find fascinating, as well. I think, at this point, your—shall we say—your religious-political viewpoint is beyond the typical American categories. To some, you continue to read like a conservative; to others, you read like an American liberal.

I think the foundational touch points in scripture are fascinating, too. One of the passages from Paul that you refer to at least a half dozen times through this new book is Romans 14. This is where Paul urges Christians not to let disputable issues divide them.

TOM: Romans 14 is addressing the Christians in Rome, knowing that there are several different house churches there, quite probably from different cultural backgrounds. Some were Jewish Christians who believed that they must keep every detail in the Torah and that they must not keep company with people who didn’t see it that way. Then there were Gentile Christians who were saying: Well, this is a whole new thing, so we can ignore those Jewish Christians down the road. In Romans 14, Paul is skillfully addressing these issues.

DAVID: You make several references to the way you translate 14:1. In your own earlier book, called the Kingdom New Testament, you translate it as: “Welcome someone who is weak in faith, but not in order to have disputes on difficult points.” This is part of an argument that comes full flower, later in Chapter 14, when Paul writes—and, again, this is your translation: “Do not, then, pass judgment on one another any longer. If you want to exercise your judgment, do so on this question: how to avoid placing obstacles or stumbling blocks in front of a fellow family member.”

TOM: In Romans 14:1—and I do have the Greek in front of me as we are talking—Paul is describing disputes about matters with different judgments in the community. The point he is making is that people should get together and not use differences of opinion as a point of squabbling.

Now, I need to say: For Paul there are some lines in the sand, or red lines we might call them, but part of the tricky thing in reading Paul is finding where he actually says there is a line that no one can cross and remain within the fellowship of the Messiah people.

In this section of Romans he was more concerned about ending divisions that came down to squabbling and discrimination over differences of opinion. He wanted people to see beyond those squabbles.

NT Tom Wright cover The Resurrection of the Son of GodDAVID: In this book on Paul, I should point out: You don’t really dive deeply into these specific disputable issues. In other words, in these 1,700 pages, you don’t go on to sort out the further interpretation of these passages as it relates to Paul’s specific moral code. That’s for another book. This book is about Paul’s larger theological worldview. He wanted people to stop squabbling about disputable issues because Paul’s goal was a far larger community coming together as, to use your phrase, “Messiah people.” The first step, in Paul’s view, was welcoming people so they could form this people Jesus was calling into being.

Now, I also need to step back for a moment. I know you’ve got at least a couple more big volumes in this overall series yet to come. And, we should mention, as well, the first three books in this series. Let’s do it as three short questions and answers. So, give us a little summary of Part 1, which was The New Testament and the People of God, back in 1992. It still gets rave reviews from your readers. There are now 40 reviews on Amazon and 38 of them give it 4 or 5 stars. And—this is key—people are still posting glowing reviews on a book that’s been out for more than 20 years! So, in a line or two, what’s it about?

TOM: In that first book, I tried to cover things I wanted my students to know before they started a serious study of the New Testament. This book is a sketch of 1st century Judaism and what early Christianity was all about.

DAVID: Part 2 was Jesus and the Victory of God. Again, rave reviews on Amazon: 50 out of 52 reviews give it 4 or 5 stars. Summarize it?

TOM: This is a full-scale attempt to put Jesus of Nazareth in a historical context and to ask the questions: What were his aims? What did he think he was supposed to be doing? Why did he die? What did he mean when he said God’s Kingdom is arriving?

DAVID: Part 3 was The Resurrection of the Son of God. This time 62 of 69 reviews are 4 or 5 stars. Again, can you give us just a line or two describing it?

TOM: This book asks: What exactly happened on Easter morning? But in order to address that question, we have to look at beliefs about what happened across the ancient world, the ancient Jewish world and the emerging Christian world.

TOM WRIGHT PLEADS FOR THE PSALMS

DAVID: Finally, I want to ask about the new book on Psalms. I think this little book is going to be very popular with a lot of readers. But the most striking quality in this book is passion. You really are pleading for the Psalms here, right?

TOM: I have been shocked over the last decade or two because in my country and I think in yours, too, some of the most vibrant and lively Christian churches seem to be giving up on the Psalms. Some of these churches have very lively worship songs they like to sing. But, in my view, biblically rooted Christians should place the Psalms absolutely at the center of worship. Yet, Psalms are nearly forgotten in many places.

I like creative new music and it’s wonderful when churches have people writing these new songs, but I don’t think there’s ever been a serious Christian movement in the last 2000 years that didn’t place the Psalms at the core of worship and devotional life. I look at the present context, which is Psalms missing in many churches, and I am saying to readers: What is wrong with this picture?

DAVID: It’s more than a matter of history. Most importantly, as you point out in your book, the Psalms contain the whole range of human emotion—crying out toward God in all conditions of life, right?

TOM: There’s no emotion we can feel that the Psalms don’t already have in spades. This allows us to bring anything we can conceive in our human lives today—whatever challenges we face—and find them voiced in the Psalms long before us. If we forget the Psalms, we are aiming toward shallow, transparent Christianity.

DAVID: Well, our readers will get the point after that kind of comment. You feel very strongly about this.

TOM: My publisher at HarperOne, Mickey Maudlin, says we should be asking: What would Jesus sing? Maybe we can get more people asking: “WWJS?” I’ve actually used that line in talks. The Psalms are Jesus’ hymnbook. These Psalms are songs Jesus would have sung and that Jesus wants us to sing with him, today.

DAVID: Finally, I’m sure our readers would like to know: What’s next?

TOM: Well, I still haven’t finished what I regard as the backup book for the Paul project, which also will be from Fortress Press: Paul and His Recent Interpreters. I was going to finish it this past summer, but the copyediting for this massive 1,700-page book took all summer. There already are references out there to this next book, but the truth is: It isn’t finished yet. That will come soon, but it’s been delayed.

Then, I’m supposed to be doing a commentary on Galatians for Eerdmans. There are a whole lot of things I’m hoping to do further down the track.

DAVID: Well, we’ll keep in touch. Our readers will stay tuned.

Want more on N.T. Tom Wright?

Visit our extensive N.T. Wright Resource Page for summaries of his earlier books and links to earlier interviews with the Bible scholar.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Duncan Newcomer says:

    It is interesting to me that he seems to be writing to people outside the box he has somehow been seen in. Also the Ch 14 of Romans seems pretty relevant to the conversations in America, not as a template for Jesus talk, but just common talking.