Bishop Tom Wright: The Bible and Tomorrow’s World
Now of course the point of all that is not simply an interesting set of skirmishes about different ideas. The point is that these ideas had legs, and went about in the ancient world making things happen. They altered the way you saw things, the way you did things, the goals you set yourself and the ways you ordered your world and society. From the beginning no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my culture, so I must adapt the gospel to fit within it’, just as no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my surrounding culture, so I must oppose it tooth and nail’. Christians are neither chameleons, changing colour to suit their surroundings, nor rhinoceroses, ready to charge at anything in sight. There is no straightforward transference between any item of ordinary culture and the gospel, since all has been distorted by evil; but likewise there is nothing so twisted that it cannot be redeemed, and nothing evil in itself. The Christian is thus committed, precisely as a careful reader of scripture, to a nuanced reading of culture and a nuanced understanding of the response of the gospel to different elements of culture. You can see this in Philippians, where Paul is clear that as a Christian you must live your public life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and that whatever is pure, lovely and of good report must be celebrated – but also that Jesus is Lord while Caesar isn’t, and that we are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. There are no short cuts here, no easy answers. Prayer, scripture and complex negotiation are the order of the day.
There is of course a very particular Anglican spin to some of this. Many parts of the older Anglican world, not least here in England itself, have become very used to going with the flow of the culture, on the older assumption that basically England was a Christian country so that the Church would not be compromised if it reflected the local social and cultural mores. That strand of Anglicanism has always been in danger of simply acting as Chaplain to whatever happened to be going on at the time, whether it was blessing bombs and bullets in the first world war or going to tea at Buckingham Palace. Within that world, the Bible has often been quietly truncated. We don’t like the bits about judgment, so we miss them out. We are embarrassed by the bits about sex, so we miss them out too – and then we wonder why, in a world full of hell and sex, people imagine the Bible is irrelevant! The Bible is a kind of spiritual Rorschach test: if you find you’re cutting bits out, or adding bits in, it may be a sign that you’re capitulating to cultural pressure. Equally, of course, there are many parts of the Anglican world where nothing but confrontation has been possible for a long time, and there people may have to learn the difficult lesson that actually the world is still charged with the grandeur of God, and that the biblical Christian must learn to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, no matter who they are, what they believe or how they behave. It is crucial to our vocation, and to our particular vocation granted our particular histories, that we rediscover the art, which itself is rooted in scripture, of discriminating (as Paul says) between things that differ, and of affirming what can and must be affirmed and opposing what can and must be opposed. Those of us who are involved in the business of politics and government know that this is a difficult and often thankless task, but it must be undertaken.
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Posted July 31, 2008 at 6:42 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]
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1. Chris Hathaway wrote:
There is much here that I like, and much that I dislike. I will get into the latter later. But for me, and others may have a different estimation, this was worth the price of admission:
We live in a world – the western world, but increasingly the global community – where truth is at a discount. Relativism is everywhere; there is only ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’. Facts don’t matter, spin is all that counts. Likewise, and deeply worrying for the church, because we easily get sucked into this, argument and reason are set aside, and instead of debate we have the shrill swapping of hurt emotions. ‘I am a victim; you are prejudiced; end of conversation’. Or, in one of those worrying irregular verbs, ‘I am speaking from the heart, you are prejudiced, he or she is a bigot.’ My friends, this entire way of thinking – a world where the only apparent moral argument is the volume of the victim’s scream – is an affront to the biblical world, to the Anglican world, to the world of scripture, tradition and reason. Reason is not the same as emotion or indeed experience. Genuine screams of genuine victims matter enormously, of course, and are all taken up into the cry of dereliction from the cross. But they are to be addressed, not with more screams, still less competing ones, but with healing, biblical wisdom. The reaction against scripture within postmodern Christianity is no worse than the reaction against reason itself. And ‘experience’, which for John Wesley when he elevated it alongside scripture, tradition and reason meant ‘the experience of God the Spirit at work transforming my life’, has come to mean ‘whatever I feel’ – which is no more a safe guide to anything than a glance at the English sky in the morning is a safe guide to the weather later in the day.
This well articulates what I have said before in some of my more sniping rants. Despite all other differences it marks a dividing line between those with whom dialogue still promises some benefit (and here I may be betraying my position as an old fashioned Christian rationalist) and those with whom dialogue is futile because there is no common reason upon which to argue, nor any common commitment to find such reason.
What I find less enjoyable in his discourse is his constant habit of playing both sides against the middle in which the middle seems to be an ill-defined high ground, a floating tertium quid on which he can stand looking down on the other contrasting sides. The following is rather typical of this trend:
We have allowed our debates to be polarized within the false either/or of post-enlightenment categories, so that we either see the Bible as a holy book, almost a magic book, in which we can simply look up detached answers to troubling questions, or see it within its historical context and therefore claim the right to relativize anything and everything we don’t immediately like about it. These categories are themselves mistaken
There are so many unanswered questions raised by this statement. Who is claiming to “simply” look up detached answers? Detached from what? And is Bishop Wright claiming that God has not revealed through Scripture the truth to certain basic questions as to what human behavior is pleasing to Him and what isn’t? How many who look for such answers truly ignore the broader narrative context, that is, the rest of the Bible that tells of how God revealed these answers and to whom? I understand, coming as he does from the academic world, that he is well aware of those within the historical critical community who do very much as he says about the other extreme, but I think he is sadly characterizing the “conservative modernists”, as he later calls them, saying that they “claim that they can simply look up truth in the Bible, without realizing what sort of book it is”. There is a condescending arrogance here that would be lessened if he dealt with the actual arguments on such conservatives, who are fully aware as he what sort of book they are reading. Does he think that he alone understands the nature of the Bible?
Second in irritance to me is his insistence on a political dimension to the kingdom of God when it is coupled with a non-reflective progressive political orientation. By “non-reflective” I mean that he so often identifies his preferred politics without laying out what is his political philosophy/theology that allows him to apply Christian principles to worldly political situations and come to the conclusions that he does. The lack of a clearly identified political reasoning makes it seem as if he is simply assuming that what he dislikes in politics must be against the kingdom of God, and that what he likes must flow from an openness to God’s kingdom breaking into the world.
Thus he can say: “I know that quoting a Vietnam protest song dates me, but I guess that I’m not the only one in this room radically shaped by the events of the late 1960s” without seeming to reflect on why it is that a Christian theologian should allow himself to be shaped, and that “radically”, by a period in world history rather than be shaped by the Lord of history, which should enable him to critique even those would be transformative historical events. Of course, it is impossible with sinful and fallible flesh to completely rise above our own culture and history, but it should at least be held up as the ideal, the goal toward which we strive. I detect little in +Wright’s political asides that reveal any deep suspicion of his own political biases or a working awareness that his politics are merely his interpretation of how the kingdom of God would be manifest in this or that situation. If he is going to make such a big deal about God’s kingdom having a necessary political dimension, and if he is going to give his blessing to certain liberal political idea or plans, and his scorn to conservative political ideas and plans, it seems only right that he should lay out his political hermeneutics. Why should one prefer, theologically, Gordon Brown to Tony Blair, which he clearly does?
July 31, 11:47 am | [comment link]
2. Baruch wrote:
I fear todays theologians have advanced little from those in the past who argued about the number of angels on the head of a pin.
July 31, 4:41 pm | [comment link]
3. adhunt wrote:
“Second in irritance to me is his insistence on a political dimension to the kingdom of God when it is coupled with a non-reflective progressive political orientation. By “non-reflective” I mean that he so often identifies his preferred politics without laying out what is his political philosophy/theology that allows him to apply Christian principles to worldly political situations and come to the conclusions that he does. The lack of a clearly identified political reasoning makes it seem as if he is simply assuming that what he dislikes in politics must be against the kingdom of God, and that what he likes must flow from an openness to God’s kingdom breaking into the world.”
Far too often people will take one speech, or lecture, or even one book and analyze it and criticize it for not laying out their complete underlying theological structures when that is not what they were trying or intending to do, so that any attempt to say anything becomes suspect because beforehand they did not elaborate the whole of their systematic theology or hermeneutical method. If you have not read enough of Tom Wrights writings to understand where he is coming from then that is your ignorance and not Tom’s “non-reflective” rhetoric. The fact of the matter is that he has layed out in specific detail how he believes the Gospel addresses these topics. The most recent would be his book “Surprised by Hope” where the second half of the whole book is dedicated to it. You may not agree with his reasoning, theological or otherwise, but to say that he is ‘non-reflective’ is just plain…....ignorant? Perhaps willingly so
July 31, 5:40 pm | [comment link]
4. D. C. Toedt wrote:
I read the entire lecture. It’s explicitly grounded on what Paul Zahl might call a high anthropology: an assumption that the central narrative of the creation, with its trillions of solar systems and billions of years of history, is to be found in (selected) pre-scientific folk tales told by (a minority of) inhabitants of one planet.
One need not be a cultural relativist to be unpersuaded of this premise, and thus of the entire intellectual edifice that Wright erects upon it.
July 31, 6:51 pm | [comment link]
5. D. C. Toedt wrote:
BTW, adhunt [#3], I’ve read all three volumes of Wright’s magnum opus, so I’m at least somewhat familiar with his thinking.
July 31, 6:53 pm | [comment link]
6. adhunt wrote:
I’ve read em’ twice (loved em!). But still these are about Christian Origins not really about his political theory. I found it a feat of incredible restraint that in “Resurrection of the Son of God” +Wright let his ‘practical’ interpretations out so little! In “Surprised by Hope” he lets his argument in “Resurrection” be the foundation but he teases out his ‘political’ theories in far more depth than in “Resurrection”. There are of course other books where he has done the same, but I feel that it is in this one that he really lets it all out. I have the inkling that he may yet release another similar book after he releases the next in his opus, “Paul and the Justice of God”. He tends to distill his major books into popular books quite often.
July 31, 7:11 pm | [comment link]
7. Chris Hathaway wrote:
adhunt, I have not yet read “Surprised by Hope”, but I have read many, many of his political pronouncements before that book without any clear political philosophy laid out. Perhaps I can be forgiven for expecting him to lay out his philosophy before he waxes political. I shall try to give his latest a perusal and see if my definition of what constitutes a political philosophy is the same as yours. Perhaps he does explain his philosophy clearly. But it may also be that he makes a more elaborate argument based upon the same assumptions that I laid out above. If he says something to the effect that the Resurrection mean that nations should not go to war or that we should abolish the death penalty, have universal health care or other such nonsense, then I shall not feel that my critique was that ill-informed.
August 1, 12:26 am | [comment link]
8. adhunt wrote:
Fair enough my good sir.
August 1, 5:51 am | [comment link]