Table Talk: Remembering Not to Forget (extended version)
An exclusive Worship Leader interview with N.T. Wright and Worship Leader’s Andrea Hunter
A few years ago, I attended a lecture by N.T. Wright at Fuller. The event exuded the electric excitement of a rock concert. A long line snaked around the venue, growing by the second: a multigenerational crowd, most in their early to mid-twenties. When we finally squeezed in to the too small hall of a very big church, it was standing room only. Wright took the podium and as he opened his laptop, like a conductor raising a baton, respectful silence fell instantly on the buzzing sanctuary. Who is this theologian, who inspires fan-like allegiance, stirs controversy, directs our attention across the narrative of history, and passionately exhorts us again and again, in an amazingly prolific stream of books and lectures to not simply read, but take our place in the story? We recently had the opportunity to spend a very short half hour with the man often titled “the world’s foremost New Testament theologian and hear his thoughts on worship, songwriting, drama and the larger question of Christian life and practice. What follows is the unabridged version of the interview published in Worship Leader’s May 2012 issue.
WL: Since this issue is really about the pastoral artist and your recently released How God Became King: The forgotten story of the Gospel,” how does seeing Jesus as King impact the way we live and worship?
N.T. WRIGHT: It is quite a deep shift I think that people need to make and I say this without having done all the kind of market research on every church in the land and how they all see things (laugh) so I know that many people are probably already up to speed with this and that I may just reflect the particular context where I’ve lived. But I think the strong sense in the New Testament that Jesus is already reigning, already ruling the world has been so just forgotten by the Church and partly because it seems so counter intuitive, you know, people still say and I read just the other day that “of course the idea that the kingdom of God actually came then [In Christ’s first advent] is manifestly wrong because just look out the window and read the newspaper and watch the television and you will see that the world is not being ruled by a good and wise and loving Jesus.” But that simply mistakes the kind of rule that Jesus himself constantly said he was having. That’s what the parables are about, what his re-definition of power in Mark 10, etc and the Sermon on the Mount [is about]. This is what real world-changing power looks like, the meek the brokenhearted, the wounded, the little people and the people who are hungry for justice, that’s how the world changes, not through the big people we see as power brokers.
And it seems to me that actually can be an enormous confidence booster, which is precisely what is going on at the end of Mathew in Mathew 28 when Jesus says all authority has been given to me. You therefore go and do this, that and the other and he doesn’t say it’s gonna be easy. He doesn’t say it’ll be just a pushover, you know, pushing on an open door; far from it. It wasn’t for him, it won’t be for us, but the fact is he’s already in charge and one day that will be complete and manifest and all the rest of it. And that I think, that sense of it is almost a sigh of relief that he’s already in charge. I once said a sermon like this when I was preaching for the ordination of some young clergy and I said “how many new clergy does it take to change a light bulb” and the answer is “Jesus has already changed it. It’s your job to go and switch it on.” And I think that sense that something has already happened as a result of which the world is a different place and what we are doing is implementing something that has already been achieved rather than having to achieve something which is going against the grain of the deepest reality.
That for me is the center of it and of course that then stimulates and evokes worship. I mean worship is quite different when you’re worshiping the one who is already the king of the world rather than worshiping one who is kind of your private lord who you hope will one day be king of the world as it were. And we rightly summon all creation to join in our praises, you know. I love that old song that the three men in the burning fiery furnace sang in the Apocrypha
All your works bless you lord…
Whales and all that move in the waters bless you lord…
Every green thing upon the earth bless you lord…
The whole creation is summoned now to praise the lord. And there’s kind of an exuberance about that which reflects the sense of what is already true rather than simply something we hoped might be true one day.
WL: And so does that mean that the kinds of songs we sing would be different, the way we walk in the world is different? Yet, it is one thing to say it would be different, but how would that be reflected?
N.T. WRIGHT: Yeah I think it is. One of the great things about some of the recent worship song movements I think is that they have already sensed this. They are invoking the Jesus who is already lord. I suspect that often they don’t have the biblical and theological backup to sustain that insight and the trouble with that is that if it isn’t reflected in teaching the people who are going to church on a Sunday or a week day evening or whatever and sing these songs, there’s a danger of a disconnect between that and how they perceive the rest of the world their whole working lives to go to the office.
They go to a café, grab a coffee. It doesn’t, you know, it becomes a little hobby that they do on the side, which is a good thing but better than not doing it, but doesn’t actually fill in the gaps. And I think the sense—the reason I wrote the book really was this profound sense—that people were reading the gospels and preaching from the gospels and not getting from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John the primary thing that those four books are actually trying to talk about.
And I think in terms of how people live, how they as you say walk down the street, there is a sense in which yeah following Jesus is still going to be tough. It’s not that we can just get down the street and say well it’s all easy from now on then because it isn’t. When Jesus you gotta take up your cross and follow me, but there is a sense that he has already won this victory and we are living out of that rather than simply hoping it may one day happen.
I suppose is the difference between somebody who has been in love with this person for many years or a long time and has hoped against hope that maybe they would be able to get together and is living out of that sort of oh maybe it’ll happen one day. And then the next day they get the phone call and the person says yes this is it. And they then walk down the same street and go to the same job, but now with the sense that we are now in a world which has changed because the world has been spoken—the commitment has been made.
See what I mean? It’s actually happened and everything now looks different and I think it’s—it’s easy for people to fool themselves that everything now looks different, but the gospels are there to tell us page by page by page that no this isn’t just you fooling yourself. This is not you whistling in the dark. This has actually happened. The world is a different place because of this and that changes the whole tone, the way you go about things maybe even your heart rate while you’re doing it. (laugh)
And I think it has actual physical implications as indeed within sacramental theology becomes very clear.
WL: Theoretically, okay it’s changed, but how do we see that tangibly reflected? You know because we’re talking about there is this change, but how would that affect the way an individual Christian walks, a Christian church or community interacts with the rest of the world, a so called Christian nation interacts with others? You know how does that all play out?
N.T. WRIGHT: Yeah that’s a huge question and in a sense maybe half a dozen of the last books I’ve written are exploring the answer to those questions from different angles. My book After You Believe is designed to say this is what the development of Christian character is supposed to be like and my book Simply Jesus which came out last year has a long last chapter discussing precisely how this impacts on life in society. And these are not simple issues. You can’t just give a one line slogan, which then everyone says oh yeah fine I see, okay, that’s it.
It has to be wrestled with, but I think the sense that I have from the gospels and the rest of the New Testament is that we today are missing out because we assume in the Western world that basically the enlightenment project of science and technology and the way we now run the world and our economic systems and all the rest of it, this is just the way stuff is and all we can really do is hope as Christians to evoke faith in some more people to get maybe people’s personal hurts healed and personal behavior, lives transformed a bit.
But actually it’s much, much bigger than that, much, much more interesting than that really. The sense that things can be changed because Jesus is already on the throne, you know, that wonderful old hymn “This Is My Father’s World.” I go back to that again and again, the last verse of that.
This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done;
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and heaven be one.
The achievement of Jesus’ death and resurrection climaxing his kingdom work really has brought about a new state of affairs.
So it actually, speaking as a pastor–there is no one size fits all. Everyone is coming from somewhere slightly different and different people have different perceptions: the way they were taught to read the bible, the way they were taught to say their prayers, the way they were taught to resist temptation, whatever. And so if I was preaching a series of sermons on this I would want to know where the congregation was and what they had understood so far and where they were coming from.
So I wouldn’t want to just to say, “Okay this is how it impacts right here and now,” but I do think in the last chapter in the book is designed to make this point quite simply that there are far too many Christians for whom it would be quite sufficient if Jesus had been born of a virgin and died on a cross and never done anything else in between. And I want to say actually all that stuff in Mathew, Mark, Luke and John is load bearing and it ought to be load bearing for how we see the work of God’s kingdom here and now.
And for the vocations and the projects that we ought individually and collectively to be lending our weight to; so for instance when we campaign as I and others have often done for the release of third world nations from the massive unpayable debts that the world financial system for the last 60 years has got them into. This is not a few Christians squealing at the people who really have ultimate power. This is the people who are trying to be obedient to and follow the will of the one who actually has absolute power calmly confronting the people who in this world think they have power with the message that actually the poor matter and the downtrodden and the victims matter and that there is a God who now has actually pronounced judgment on the systems that keep victims as victims and keep the poor as poor, etc. And that we’re just going to go on pressing the case.
And that’s just one example out of the thousand, but there are many others and things happen as a result of that. I mean who would have thought all the stuff that happened in the first three centuries. Here you’ve got the Roman Empire which was as fixed and immovable and massive and secure as the present western empire is in the world. And here you’ve got a bunch of frightened bedraggled disciples following this strange guy Jesus. And yet within three centuries the world was utterly transformed and all sorts of things were now beginning to be taken for granted like caring for the needy, looking after the poor, finding ways of helping those who are extremely sick, which were just not dreamt of before.
In the ancient pagan world such people will tough it out. They just went to the wall. And so the transformation that has happened and the transformation that is still to happen happens because of who Jesus is and what he has already done rather than what he might do one day. That’s the big difference.
WL: So the problem of evil that you talked about, the problem of evil in the world, in aligning one’s self with Jesus, you’re saying that perhaps the way that some of the systems are confronting evil in the world may not be really a kingdom methodology, for instance Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East?
N.T. WRIGHT: It’s hard to speak simply about these things because they are very complex issues and as with personal problems so with international global problems it takes a while to get into the depth of such a problem and it’ll take at least as long to get out the other side. You know when you’re counseling somebody that’s often the first thing you say that “You’ve come to me now, but you’ve actually been digging yourself into this hole for two or three years and it may well take two or three years to get you out.”
There’s no one with an instant magic wand. Having said that yes the Western world has gone about the way it’s done Middle East politics by the classic methods that the Roman Empire employed. We have superior firepower. We have heavier artillery than you. Therefore we’re just going to impose our will on you and that will be that. And we have learned nothing either from history or from the gospel that that isn’t the way that real change happens in human beings or in societies. That merely breeds resentment and fresh waves of stories being told of martyrs, which then sustain the next generation of terrorists.
And we have created in the last ten years far more terrorists in the Middle East than there ever were before. And there were a lot of people who warned ten years ago that that would be what would happen if we did what we were planning to do. And we’ve done it and it has happened. And we just seem to have learned nothing. And you know, okay, the empires of the world do what they do, but if a nation says explicitly or implicitly that actually the way of Jesus is the way we should go, then there have to be radically different ways of going about stuff.
WL: In the end of your current book, you talk about dramatic Scripture reading, which is certainly another way of conveying the Word; you talk about new ways of approaching the gospels in the context of the sanctuary and other places of gathering. So how would you bring new life to them?
N.T. WRIGHT: Well it’s very interesting how limited the imagination of many congregations and Christian teaching programs have been in this respect. Happily there are some great exceptions to that, but I remember for instance—is it 20 or 30 years ago—Alec McCowen, the actor put on, Mark’s gospel on the London stage and he held audiences night after night for long running sessions. It was just him on stage with I think a chair and a table and he just used the King James version of Mark’s gospel and it was absolutely spell binding and people just kept coming and they’d come back to get it again.
And I’ve seen John’s gospel done like that by the actor Paul Alexander, one man show. In two parts he divided John’s gospel after Chapter 10, so it began the second half with the raising of Lazarus in Chapter 11 and again absolutely breathtaking and quite a long evening. And I think we haven’t had the courage to take our own documents seriously. And you know of course they’re difficult, they’re complex. There’s all sorts of stuff going on, but actually they’re no more complex than a Shakespeare play.
And if you put on Hamlet or the Merchant of Venice or whatever and get some decent people to do it, it doesn’t matter that half of the imagery runs by people. The drama itself captures them up and transforms them and that’s how it should be. I don’t know if I mention in the book, but it was something that was in an early draft of the book and I’m not sure if it stayed in the final draft, but a couple of years ago in Durham one of the churches in my diocese did a whole Lenten thing where instead of having the Scriptures read during the course of the liturgy they did the liturgy during the course of the Scripture.
And they read large chunks of Luke’s gospel each week and through Lent climaxing obviously with the Easter story on Easter day, but they made the reading of the gospel the framework for the liturgy and then they did confession and intercession and then the Eucharist itself within the framework of the larger reading. And some of it was musical, some of it was different voices, some of it was children, etc. They used imaginative possibilities.
And really this is the sort of thing that half-a-dozen people who have a sense of how theater works, how liturgy works should be set free within the average parish or diocese or whatever to say “Let’s try stuff, let’s develop stuff.” There are no rules except, let’s take these amazingly exciting texts and stop them being boring (laugh) because, what a crime to take these explosive, amazing narratives and make them just so serious. [So Christian say] “We know this bit. It’s all a bit tedious and ho hum.” And that’s the real killer.
WL: So how do you think the true life of the Gospels was forgotten in the context of the Church and worship?
N.T. WRIGHT: I think this is a very long story and it weaves its way back through many centuries and it’s not just one branch of the Church, it’s several. And I want to say one or two reviewers have criticized me as though I’m saying “Nobody’s ever seen this before and now I’m telling you” and of course that’s absolutely rubbish. Plenty of people have seen it before in different generations. But the large drift of Western Christianity has been to focus on the divinity of Jesus and the death of Jesus detached from what the Gospels are saying, which is this divine man and this man who dies on the cross is the one who is bringing in God’s kingdom.
And instead they have pushed the kingdom narrative to the future so that in the creeds he will come again and his kingdom will have no end and people have imagined that the kingdom is therefore something which only happens at the end. That wasn’t what the creeds meant, but that’s how people have implicitly taken it and so then when people read the gospels all they expect to hear is a little Jesus teaching a little moral lesson here or warning them about a particular sin there or giving them a strange earthly story of the heavenly meaning or something there.
And the whole sweep of what they’re actually talking about has—it’s not even the people have argued about it and puzzled about it. It’s just they’ve missed it and as I say you can no doubt find plenty of contra examples, but I’m speaking out of my experience of church over 60 years.
WL: So the gospel of the kingdom is inherently different than the gospel of salvation.
N.T. WRIGHT: It’s not different in the sense that you know that the two don’t go together. It is that the meaning of salvation is God’s re-claiming of his sovereign rule of heaven and earth which rescues us from the corruption and decay which has infected us as humans and the earth and all that is in it. And so salvation is not from the world but for the world and us within it. So we have truncated; we have shrunk the gospel of salvation in that sense and we have not allowed it to be what it really is.
So it’s not kingdom versus salvation it’s salvation defining kingdom and the opposite danger obviously and I say this in the book is that people can imagine: “Okay, we don’t need the Cross. We don’t need the resurrection; all we have to do is try to make the world a bit of a better place.” And that is completely wrong. The kingdom that you get in the Gospels is the kingdom that is finally established through the death of Jesus and which Jesus says will be implemented through the suffering and death of his followers. That goes on being the means.
It isn’t that Jesus finished that in a sense. There is a finished work of Christ on the Cross, but if you look at the book of Revelation or first Peter or indeed the Gospels themselves they indicate that Jesus followers again run into the same kind of flack and hostility as he ran into and that that is the way in which what Jesus achieved is going to be implemented in the world. That’s tough. We all shrink from it. I certainly didn’t want that. I would much prefer a quiet life, thank you very much, but I have no choice. This is what the script says.
WL: When Jesus said his kingdom “was not of this world” and you talk about it in the book and then in your new translation of the New Testament, the wording is different there than how it has sometimes been understood, true?
N.T. WRIGHT: Exactly; I’ve got the Greek text in front of me. It’s John 18:36. Jesus says my kingdom is not and in the Greek the word is “Ek” means “out of” or “from.” And in other words, it’s “Where did this stuff [the kingdom] come from?” And it doesn’t come from this present world. That’s always the problem between creator and creation. What God the creator does and gives comes from God, but is for the world. So I’ve often said to people if you hear that phrase my kingdom is not of this world and think “Oh there it is. It’s another worldly kingdom and that’s where we’re going and that’s all right.” That is a total misreading. The point is my kingdom has a different character to the kingdoms of the world. It’s very interesting. I saw a review of this book on somebody’s blog site yesterday. A friend e-mailed me to tell me I should look at it and it was a very hostile review. And they quoted this line my kingdom is not of this world and they said “There you are. Wright is completely wrong to think that this kingdom has anything to do with the present world.”
And then they went on to talk about that I was wrong to say that countries like America should think twice before going off and bombing the people they dislike. But I mean the whole point of what Jesus then says in John 18:36 is “my kingdom is not from this world because if it was from this world my servants would be fighting.” And that’s the whole point. That’s what worldly kingdoms do. And so I fear that this ideology of an other-worldly kingdom which is not what the text means simply legitimates people who claim to be Jesus followers in fighting and beating up anyone they happen to dislike and claiming the right to do that and I think that’s actually blasphemous.
WL: Well it does do that, but it also does another thing which is creates a sense of escaping this world and in terms of our worship, how do you see this world as connected to his kingdom coming?
N.T. WRIGHT: Yes, this is a tricky one because you recall early in the book I draw the distinction between the Christians who have simply jumped straight with the Creeds from the virgin birth to the Cross and noticed nothing in between. And then there is the mirror image of that, which is the people who forget the Christmas story and forget the Good Friday Easter story and say Jesus was a great social worker. He was nice to old ladies, stray dogs, small children, etc. and we’re just going to do that stuff and that will be fine.
And then that collapses into a kind of easygoing, “Isn’t this world a nice place and we’re to make it even better” sort of spirituality, which is very, very thin and one dimensional and I’ve met that sort of stuff. And there are some hymns which say effectively that. And I quoted before that lovely hymn “This Is My Father’s World” and I was once in a church where they actually only sang the first two verses of that, which then actually misses the point entirely. The first two verses are simply saying, “Isn’t this a lovely place?” Which you know, yes it is, but there is still radical evil in the world.
And there are people who go around and simply say “Ooh isn’t the sunshine nice and don’t we like the trees when they come out in bloom at this time of the year…” etc. Then somebody comes along and says “What about my 16-year-old child who is dying of cancer? What about the baby who is run over by the truck last week?” And that sort of easygoing pantheistic hedonistic spirituality has absolutely nothing to say to that.
Whereas when you have this vision of the integrated vision the Gospels give you, yes the world is a glorious place, but there is still radical evil in it, which has been defeated by Jesus on the Cross and the task of the Church is then to address that in the power of the Cross, which is what the best of the Christian doctors, teachers, nurses, have always done.
WL: You mentioned “This Is My Father World.” What kinds of songs, what kind of sermons reinforce the reality that you see? And how as a pastor would you address that—since you said earlier the songs, the people, worship leaders who are touching on the reality of the king and the kingdom that are not always reinforced by teaching? In an ideal world what would these songs look like? What would the sermons and the teaching that support and integrate “kingdom” perspective sound like and say?
N.T. WRIGHT: That’s a huge question of course. I am not okay with all the worship songs which have come out in these last years because I have inhabited many different worship traditions over the last decades including some very, very traditional ones and, occasionally, some very radical new ones. One of the things I would want to say is it’s not just about the content of the words, though it is about the content of the words.
And I worry when the words of some of the modern worship songs seem to me just a random selection of Christian slogans as it were rather than actually a narrative of the world as claimed by Jesus and as rescued by Jesus in his death and resurrection and the world is still a suffering place, but which is looking forward to the new creation. Some worship songs are struggling to say that, but if the narrative is broken then it’s not actually helping the people who are singing it in the way that it should.
And then the other thing I really, really worry about is the music. Quite a lot of the contemporary worship songs don’t actually have tunes in the proper sense. They have two or three notes which they go to and fro on and then maybe they have a chorus which lifts it a bit, but it’s still often not a tune. When you go back to some of the older things way back into the medieval period and through the 16th, 18th Century, etc., you have an actual tune.-And the point about a tune is that it’s telling a story.
It’s going somewhere. And I am very anxious about worship songs which have deconstructed the tune—the idea of a tune—and that’s the radical nature of post-modernity to deconstruct the narrative. That’s where our culture is. But we ought to be discerning how to do fresh actual tunes, not sort of past issues, copying what was done in the 16th or 17th or 19th or whatever century, but actual refreshed new creation tunes rather than simply a scattering of random notes. You can feel the difference in the congregation when they’re given a real tune to sing.
WL: You’re saying, “the medium is the message”: if there’s a tune, then it’s telling you that you’re beginning somewhere and you’re going somewhere?
N. T. WRIGHT: Exactly, exactly, exactly, and God’s world is storied, you know. This is part of the point of Scripture. Scripture gives us a gigantic story and says, “Hey guys this is your story, live in it.” And if we don’t have tunes, then we’re not actually living in a story. We are merely playing from moment to moment with ideas that may make us feel good or may make us energized to do this or that or may not, but it’s the story that carries the message.
WL: So it’s kind of existential. You’re being in the moment, but not going forward.
N.T. WRIGHT: Yeah. Well it’s existential and in a way post-existential. I mean part of existentialism leads to post-modernity classically in this last century and you can see that happening in the music. And I was in a meeting just the other day where there was a new worship song that we were introduced to and I was waiting for this thing to have a tune and it just didn’t. And it’s actually quite difficult to sing as a result. You can sort of mumble along with it and if the worship leaders are bashing it out, then it sounds good and it can have a powerful rhythm.
And okay a rhythm is a good thing too; picks up the notion of the heart beat and you know this is a very deep part of who we are. We are rhythmic creatures as well as narratival creatures, but if there’s no story then how can you be kingdom people unless you’re deeply inhabiting the story? And, of course, I would say this as an Anglican, actually liturgy matters, that good liturgy is drama and it’s meant to be drama.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I think in the Protestant traditions all too often people have been so frightened of drama because they think it’s hypocritical or whatever. It’s not, “this is somebody else’s form being imposed on us,” but actually I want to say “this is God’s story”; we are invited to live in it. And a good Eucharistic liturgy, a good baptismal liturgy, a good service of the Word as we say in the Anglican church, it doesn’t have to be Eucharistic, but a service that is well constructed around the public reading of Scripture and the preaching of Scripture—if it’s a well constructed service—ought to have that sense of narrative closure through it and being energized by that narrative. So it’s as much the form as in the detail content, though of course the detail content matters enormously as well.