May 7, 2010
Why Do You Think Tom Wright Is So Popular?
The recent Wheaton Theology Conference with Tom Wright as the keynote speaker was sold out weeks ahead of time. As we observed the masses at the event itself, a professor acquaintance asked me why I thought Wright is so popular. “It’s great academic theater,” I answered glibly. Where that came from, I don’t know.
I’m a serious reader of Wright’s stuff. I have been so for over twenty years. And as many times as I’ve heard Wright speak—and those times are numerous—I’m still fascinated by his substance and delivery. I simply don’t know anyone else—at least in the theological world—who can speak like Tom. And he communicates effectively up and down the register of audiences. Without pauses, without “uh’s,” his speech flows forth in great verbal profusion, eloquence and substance. And so, at risk of utterly downgrading any scholarly gravitas I have left, let me gush a bit.
Editors (and many readers) know that a good speaker doesn’t make a good writer, or vice versa. But Wright’s writing is just as good as his spoken delivery. Only once have I surprised myself in telling someone that I thought one of his books was boring. But what I actually meant was that it was written for a popular audience, and I knew what he was going to say. In that sense, I found it boring, though I’m sure many others did not. So one reason for NTW’s popularity is that he is spellbinding.
But he also has some very important things to say. I recall wondering for several years about the fact that the return from exile (think Ezra-Nehemiah) was a far cry from the prophesied future return (think Isaiah) and how that might relate compellingly to Jesus. I could see the “return” motif in the Gospels, for instance. But my best attempts to think through this conundrum and see it as a whole were only halfway satisfactory. Then Tom came along and offered the missing piece: there is an interpretive tradition in second temple Judaism that understands the exile as ongoing, with Israel still in exile under Rome. Why of course! The penny dropped and some oddly fitting Gospel and Pauline texts quivered, shifted and fell into place. While Tom’s thesis has not gone uncontested, its main lines remain compelling for many of us. So too for his understanding of the first Adam, Israel and Jesus, the Last Adam. I could see a rude outline of Israel as Adam (particularly as I taught the Pentateuch for a few years), but the picture did not stand out in relief until Tom turned on the backlights.
When The New Testament and the People of God first came out, I immediately read it, and then reread sections repeatedly as I taught NT.
Then too I vividly recall picking up my copy of Jesus and the Victory of God at SBL right after it rolled off the press. I had been eagerly anticipating its publication. Between Thanksgiving and New Year I devoured it. I’d read tons of material on the historical Jesus and the Gospels, and initiated and was in-house editor of the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. But I remember telling friends that if they read Tom’s JVG, they would never read the Gospels in the same way again.
Tom was repeatedly shining a bright new light on old and familiar texts. And it was exciting. Here was serious historical scholarship that did not lose itself among the trees but showed the way toward a high Christology from the bottom of Israel’s story on up.
Later I was excited when we were able to publish The Challenge of Jesus, a book that has served as a wide-mouth funnel for introducing general readers to Tom’s work on Jesus. It was fun also to initiate a book we called Jesus and the Restoration of Israel, in which (under Carey Newman’s editorship) we enlisted a number of notable scholars to interact with aspects of Tom’s work on Jesus. (Perhaps the best part of that book was that his critics drew him out, encouraging him to clarify for us his thinking in several respects.)
And what can we say—that has not already been said—about the significance of The Resurrection of the Son of God. Then too, over the years I have repeatedly returned to my thoroughly marked-up copy of The Climax of the Covenant to be reminded of his insights into difficult Pauline texts. And many other books of a more general or less technical nature could be mentioned.
Why Tom Wright is so popular is a question that could have been asked at any time over the past five to ten years as his popularity has increased. But it’s a question that bears further reflection after the Wheaton Theology Conference (WTC) last month. With 1,100 registered attendees, it was the largest conference ever held at Wheaton College during the school year. And thanks to the Internet, many more have been downloading, listening to, discussing and blogging about the addresses made at the conference (and this conversation leaps geographical bounds).
There are comparisons being drawn with the Together for the Gospel conference that met at approximately the same time and what these two events tell us about evangelicalism today. There are critiques of what Wright or someone else said (and sometimes these critiques reveal a spotty acquaintance with Wright’s work). And there are some interesting reflections on Richard Hays’s paper, which exposed an important perspectival tension between these two long-time friends.
Beyond Wright’s exegetical brilliance, rhetorical skill and remarkable self-confidence—all of which do indeed make great theological theater!—there is this significant fact: Tom Wright has shone his interpretive lights on many an overly familiar or elusive New Testament text, and he has done so under a grand and sacred canopy of interpretive plausibility. I hesitate to make the comparison for obvious reasons, but—hey, this is a blog!—Bultmann is the twentieth-century icon who comes to mind as one who had somewhat similar influence in shaping a big picture—but in quite the opposite direction! Tom Wright shows us how the Bible—and primarily Jesus and Paul—“make sense.”
With his increasing popularity comes a company here that demurs on this (yes, that would include me), one over there that opposes him on that, and another that finds him downright dangerous all around. So far as I observed, the latter were not in evidence at the WTC. But no one who attended or has listened is unaware that even Tom’s friends differ from him in matters small and large. So it is and, in fact, should be. But I think most who attended the conference would say that even if they are not fan boys, or even have significant differences, Tom Wright has stimulated their thinking like no other NT scholar of our day. And perhaps some, who had viewed him as strictly an academic or a hoity-toity Anglican, were struck by his passion for the gospel on display in his flying overview of Ephesians in a chapel talk or the virtual altar call that concluded one of his plenaries.
Tom Wright has a brilliant mind and stunning eloquence. That makes great academic theater—and more (as I’ve hinted above). But more importantly, he’s also got a heart and soul that is not ashamed of the gospel and its saving power.
Here’s a small collection of blogs and comments on the conference:
Michael Gorman (Scroll down)
Daniel Kirk (follow through with his three parts)