The former Bishop of Durham, England, N.T. Wright, is a leading New Testament scholar and the current Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is the author of several books, including Surprised by Hope and After You Believe. We spoke with Wright about the differences between the U.S. and the European church, why character and virtue matter, and how he first came to love Scripture. You can read the whole interview in the Summer
2010 issue of Neue. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
When our children and their children look back on this time in Church history, how do you think they will judge those of us who lived during it?
I think future generations will say the late 20th century and the early 21st century was a time of great convulsions and upheavals. And post-9/11, the huge standoff between fundamentalism and secularism. But also the shift from modernity to postmodernity and all that goes with that. What I would like my children and grandchildren to remember is that I tried to keep—and we tried to keep—a cool head and steer the ship through some very choppy waters, and perhaps through some tidal waves. We may not always keep it absolutely upright, but we have a responsibility for trying to keep it going in the right direction even though the winds and waves are against us.
As a biblical scholar, what do you consider your role to play in that story?
My first role is to try to spend quality time every day in the Scriptures, and to make sure I am listening, and thinking, and open to new things which are there in Scripture but which haven’t impinged on my consciousness yet. And that’s a daily delight and challenge for me. But then my role is to translate that as quickly as I can, whether into an academic article or book or into a little sermon. I do have to think about the larger contribution I hope to make over the next 10 or 20 (hopefully) years—to sum up the fruits of my own life’s work, really.
What role do you see the institutional church playing in the personal responsibility of developing character?
I think one of the ways in which we can help—and I say “we” speaking as part of an institutional church, as it were—is to make sure our basic practices are in good repair. It’s very easy for a church just to slide along from week to week, taking it for granted that we do our services like this and that, and we celebrate the sacraments like this and that. … It’s very interesting how even a little bit of casualness or slackness in preparation and execution can have quite a negative effect, and we need to watch out for that. At the same time, the church does have a responsibility to be looking out for and praying for the fresh mission opportunities. What is God calling us to do that’s different in this community, right now? And sometimes it may take years before the answer to that prayer comes, but unless the church leadership are doing that, then people may well feel a sense of, “We’re not quite sure what’s going on here.” Whereas, if something is going ahead, they may have a sense of, “I’m glad I belong to this church because we’re doing this and this.”
How did your love affair with the study of Scripture begin?
On the day the Queen was crowned, which was June 2, 1953, I was 4-and-a-half years old and my sister was 5-and-a-half, and my parents gave us a Bible each to commemorate the coronation. We’d not had our own Bibles before, and this was a King James Version Bible, quite small print, but with a crown and the Queen’s insignia on the front. I remember my sister and me sitting down on the floor in the bedroom, looking at this extraordinary book and thinking, “We should actually try and read some of this.” We chose the letter to Philemon, which is a single page, and we read Philemon out loud to ourselves. I’ve got a clear picture of me at age 4, thinking, “Ooh, well, now here’s a little bit of Scripture I can actually maybe start to think about.” And I’ve never lost that sort of a sense of a love for Philemon. Then, when I was 12, somebody gave me a set of Scripture union notes, which were for daily Bible reading. I found them extraordinarily helpful in just making the Bible come alive, day by day, as part of a daily devotion. And I would spend, I don’t know, a quarter of an hour, 20 minutes every morning, right through my teens, just reading the next bit of Scripture, and reading the notes on it, and praying about it and then gradually starting to be able to, in youth groups and so on, to expound little bits of it myself. Then that was just extremely exciting, to feel I could get inside a bit of Scripture and help others to get inside it as well. So that’s how it began, and it’s been a lifelong thing, really.
How would you encourage others who are trying to engage the Scriptures in that kind of way?
I think I want to say, surprise yourself. Get a different translation from time to time. Go away somewhere where you’re not going to be phoned or emailed. Sit down and read right through 1 and 2 Chronicles in a sitting, or read right through all of Paul’s letters at a sitting. The first book other than Philemon I actually read straight through, the first long book, was the book of Revelation when I was, I think, 14 or 13. I’d just been given the New English Bible translation, and I knew nothing about Revelation. I just opened it and read it from cover to cover. And I didn’t understand more than a tiny bit of it, but it’s like watching a thunderstorm. You think: “Oh my goodness, something’s going on here. I have no idea what it is, and it’s very exciting.” I think people need to be able to be surprised by Scripture. Read Genesis at a run or Job at a run. Then to go down into the single verse, into the two- or three-verse short passage, and say, “What is this all about?” Get a piece of paper and write down what you think this verse is about, and what you think this phrase is about, and what you think this word is about. The thing is inexhaustible. It’s just a gold mine, and an everything-else mine, as well. You’ll never tire of it.