N.T. Wright is among the two or three most influential theologians alive today. And recently, I had the privilege of spending some time with him.
Wright's work ranges from New Testament scholarship to history, social commentary to personal ministry. And, I've enjoyed a lot of it — particularly his work on the resurrection of Jesus and the founding of the early church. The Resurrection of the Son of God is worth its weight in gold. Other of his work I've been less helped by — particularly his work on the new perspective. But, you don't have to love every book from a man to really, really love the man himself. And, I do rather love N.T. Wright.
I recently had the privilege of being part of small group of students who were able to ask Wright some questions. Yours truly actually managed to shove two in. Here's some of what I learned...
Post-Modernity is Recycled Cynicism
One of the great things about Wright is his wit. He likes to mock the modern West for having a worldview on the cutting edge of the 4th Century BC — the worldview of Epicureanism. But in my ministry, I don't bump into that much. More often than not, I'm dealing with folks who think with their feelings and assume that all beliefs are really just power plays. I pastor the children of Foucault and Derrida — the children of post-modernity. So, here was my question:
Adam: "Dr. Wright, you often play off Epicureanism as the big bad false worldview of the Western World. But what would you say to someone like me who pastors people more impacted by post-Modernity than Modernity? How would I translate your work?"
Wright: "Well, that's a set of bad ideas that's just as old. Just as the Ancients were stuck between Epicureanism and Stoicism, there were always those who thought they had the "third way." They were the Cynics, classically speaking. Cynicism has been around a long time, with an even worse record. Saying that everything is really about power is nothing new, and certainly nothing creative."
Witty gold, and so helpful.
Evangelism is Like Farming
Because Wright has written extensively on the doctrine of justification, I've always wanted to know what he thought about evangelism. This wasn't to disagree with him, per se, but to see how his views affect the way he thinks the gospel spreads.
Adam: "I've always wanted to ask you this... You've given a lot of thought to what it means to be 'saved.' In light of your view, what do you say the work of evangelism is all about?"
Wright: "You know, one of my former fellow bishops had an answer to this question that I rather liked. He said evangelism was like farming. When you farm, you've got fences to mend, feed to carry, barns to build, and animals to care for. It's all farming, you know. I think that he's probably right. Evangelism isn't just sharing the gospel, it's the good work — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and serving the world. I think evangelism is probably like that."
Encouraged and Confused
I left that conversation with N.T. Wright greatly encouraged and somewhat confused. I was encouraged by his demeanor, commitment to Christ, his good scholarship, and his willingness to be part of God's work in the world. I was helped by his comments about our post-modern mood being not much more than a Marxist microwaving of ancient Cynicism.
I was not helped by comparing evangelism to farming. At least, not the way he put it. See, farming is always — always — oriented around a single crop or group of crops. You never find a bland "farmer." You meet a cattle farmer, a wheat farmer, a soy bean and corn farmer, or something like that. That single crop organized the fence-mending and barn building into meaningful labor. Famers do those things to better farm for the main thing. Evangelism is more akin to that. Evangelism isn't simply "doing all the Christian things" like preaching, feeding the poor, and the like. Evangelism is ordered around the evangel — the gospel. The work of the church spins off that, not the reverse.
All in all, I'm grateful for Wright. His work is worth considering at almost every level, and his manner is, in my estimation, godly. While I disagree with him at points, I do so knowing only as a student, as I believe I've much more to learn from him than I dare correct.
Hopefully the future will provide an opportunity for me to ask a follow up question... or two.