I’ve recently started listening to the Mere Fidelity podcast, a theological conversation between Americans Derek Rishmawy and Matthew Lee Anderson, and Brits Alistair Roberts and Andrew Wilson. On a recent episode they took up the topic of Anglican theologian NT Wright.
Now it’s no secret to any readers of this blog that I’m a huge NT Wright fan; I have given away more copies of Surprised By Hope to friends than any other volume, heard him in person once, and in general point to him as one of the most influential authors in my theological development over the past decade. I’ve read most of his recent popular-level books, and the first three of his Christian Origins series. (His two-volume fourth part of that series is sitting in my to-read pile.)
All the participants on the podcast expressed a great deal of admiration and appreciation for Wright before launching into their criticisms, but it was the criticisms that had me wanting to shout “but… but…” at my phone as I listened. I think much of my disagreement with them may be explained by my American layman’s perspective, and indeed they may have provided enough caveats through the podcast that we’re likely not in great disagreement, but I want to trace their thoughts and my responses here if only to benefit my own thinking.
Wright’s Characterization (Caricature?) of Evangelicalism
This is where I’m going to bang heads with the MF guys (and probably mostly Anderson) the most. At one point he says this:
[…in Surprised by hope] he [Wright] has a narrative about evangelicalism that’s largely de-historicized. That rips even hymn verses out of their context and uses them to show all of these problems within the evangelical milieu. And he says lots of true things in doing so, but he creates such a caricature of the mentality that he’s disagreeing with along the way that I think it’s really unfortunate. [at 13:20 or so in the podcast]
And later on:
The only reason anyone should ever by ‘surprised by hope’ in this world is if they ignored Augustine, ignored Calvin, ignored Aquinas, ignored Luther, ignored everyone who has been saying ‘new creation’ and ‘resurrected bodies’ for the past two thousand years. [at 20:45]
Here, I suppose, the evangelical academic’s caricature is the layman’s sense of reality. I would respond to Anderson here that for every historic evangelical who would largely align with Wright, thus making Wright’s claims a caricature, that there is likely a current evangelical who would not, or at least who knows little on the subject, thus making the “caricature” something much closer to reality.
At the sampling of evangelical churches I’ve belonged to in my 37 years (including Baptist, Bible, Christian & Missionary Alliance, and Evangelical Free), never once have I heard a full-bodied story of resurrection taught in the way Wright proclaims it. Most often the eschatology isn’t taught at all, or it’s lightly glossed over – certainly never brought in a way that emphasizes (as Wright does) how that understanding of the Kingdom impacts how we live in the here and now. My conversations with fellow church members anecdotally indicate that the Left Behind series continues to more significantly influence the common evangelical layman’s view of end times than anything else. (Maybe the upcoming Nic Cage remake of the Left Behind movie will change that? Nah.)
As to the specific point about ripping lines of hymns out of context, I’ll say just two things. First: that the hymns he calls out are some which I have grown up loving dearly, which makes Wright’s criticism a bit painful; second: That this bit of the book will fall flat with American evangelicals within the next 10 years or so since most of us are singing only modern praise songs now, the content of which typically struggles to be correct theologically about even the basics of the faith, and which almost never addresses eschatology.
Anderson doesn’t let it go, though. Later on he argued that Billy Graham’s view of resurrection and heaven isn’t really that different from Wright’s, if you know the code words:
For all the good that he [Wright] is doing, the straw man has brought an unnecessary antithesis and hostility towards the older ways of framing things that doesn’t realize that evangelicals have shorthand, and a whole cluster of concepts behind that shorthand, and it’s not all as bad as NT Wright presents it as being in his lay-level work. [at 22:50]
A couple of thoughts here: first, I wouldn’t assume that Wright “doesn’t realize” that evangelicals have this shorthand. I would assume it is familiar to him and most all scholars who have even a passing familiarity with the history of evangelical thought. However, Surprised By Hope is a popular work, and at the popular level I think there are many, many evangelicals who aren’t familiar with this shorthand.
Fortunately, Rishmawy chimed in on this point:
You and I know that’s shorthand… [but] I think there are times when the shorthand has gotten lost in pop evangelicalism or pop fundamentalism or whatever, where people hear this and are, like, ‘this is totally new’ and you’re right, my pastor has kind of sounded like that. The best of the tradition has never lost sight of this. [at 23:20]
I’m not sure what bits of evangelical tradition Derek deems “the best”, but his comments about that shorthand being lost in pop evangelicalism are, in my experience, right on. When I heard Wright speak in Nashville a couple years ago he noted that, as a surprise to him, he’d developed ‘something of a side ministry’ helping American evangelicals find their way out of the Left Behind sort of theological mess. I’m one of those, and grateful for it.
At another point in the discussion, Roberts, in making an (apparently obligatory on Mere Fidelity) Oliver O’Donavan reference brought up a point that I very much appreciated – that American fanboys of Wright, in feeling that Wright is some sort of Pied Piper (no, not that Piper) leading them out of evangelicalism, would not be feeling their current disillusionment with Wright on social issues if they understood his theology more fully. To wit:
It was Oliver O’Donavan in a conference in dialog with NT Wright that I attended – he made the point that Wright always makes these hyperbolic statements that seem to be anti-traditionalist in order to cover up just how traditionalist he actually is, how conservative his position is, because otherwise people wouldn’t realize how firmly in continuity it is with Reformed evangelical tradition. [at 19:20]
This has actually led me to appreciate Wright even a bit more lately than I had before, because I find myself having pushed pretty hard against evangelicalism the past several years, only to consistently find that while I am often sympathetic with the plight of some of my more progressive brethren, I can’t fully get on board with them when it comes to much of their social progressivism. It’s encouraging to have someone like Wright seemingly closer to that middle ground where I often find myself.
To the esteemed gents on Mere Fidelity – first, thanks for the great conversation. Yours has quickly become a favorite podcast of mine. But I’d urge you, in the midst of your theological erudition, to not so quickly pooh-pooh Wright’s pop characterization of evangelicalism. By many accounts he is speaking evangelical truth at a level that is reaching many who may never delve into Augustine, Calvin, Aquinas, or Luther. And for that we should be thankful.
The Mere Fidelity guys are promising a second discussion on Wright to discuss the Reformed folks’ issues with his theology. I’ll listen with interest but, not being Reformed myself, without much of a dog in the fight.