Magazine article The Christian Century

Plain Truths

Magazine article The Christian Century

Plain Truths

Article excerpt

KNOWN AMONG scholars as a New Testament expert, and among Anglican clergy as a bishop, N. T. Wright has shed formality and ecclesiastical title to write popular commentaries simply as "Tom Wright." Every line of his multivolume series creates the feeling that this prolific author of scholarly tomes, this churchman who oversees 290 parishes in the diocese of Durham (and who is also a superb musician in his spare time), has taken a leisurely afternoon stroll with the reader, stopping by the pub, lingering over dinner, all the while conversing casually about various passages of scripture--fielding questions, telling stories, rummaging through his stockpiled brain to retrieve a little gem that gets at the heart of some complex matter.

Echoing Richard Bauckham's argument that the Gospels were not written for a single, narrowly focused community, Wright declares that the New Testament books "were never intended for either a religious or intellectual elite. From the very beginning they were meant for everyone." He delivers these writings from the overstuffed files of the elite and presents them to regular people, like those in his parishes and mine, who have neither the patience nor the inclination to delve far into historical-critical matters.

Not that Wright pretends vexing critical questions don't exist, or shelters his readers from the revelations of scholarship. Yet he speaks in these commentaries as if the biblical stories really happened, and for Wright this is no dumbing-down for the laity. In his earlier work on Christian origins (three lengthy tomes, with more in the wings), he mounted a thorough argument, with shrewd procedural underpinnings, for a healthy appreciation of historicity. Daring to name the "pressure exerted within the guild to show how 'critical' one's scholarship really is ... to show whether or not one really belongs to the post-Enlightenment club ... by demonstrating one's willingness to jettison this or that saying or incident in the Gospels," Wright has presented weighty evidence for his position that "the evangelists were not trying to narrate 'bare facts' without interpretation. Their intention was to tell stories about events which really took place, and to invest those stories with the significance which they irreducibly possessed" (The New Testament and the People of God).

In the "for Everyone" series, Wright crisscrosses the Bible, explaining, for example, Mary's action in John 12 by referring to her behavior in Luke 10. Personalizing the story, he asks the reader, "Where are you in tiffs picture? With the shameless Mary, worshipping Jesus with everything she's got? Or are you with the cautious, prudent Judas looking after the meager resources? Or are you back in the kitchen with Martha?" Wright isn't patronizing the reader. He believes that the stories cohere, and enters enthusiastically into the scriptures out of his own faith.

Wright praises John as a favorite, the simplest and most profound of the Gospels, "written by someone who was a very close friend of Jesus, who spent the rest of his life mulling over, more and more deeply, what Jesus had done, praying it through from every angle, and helping others to understand it. Countless people down the centuries have found that, through reading this Gospel, the figure of Jesus becomes real for them, full of warmth and light and promise." Galatians and Thessalonians "are the very earliest documents we possess ... already full of life, bubbling with energy, with ... a sense of the presence and power of the living God, who has changed the world through Jesus, and is now at work in a new way by his Spirit."

That the commentaries are broken down into small sections of five to a dozen verses (allowing for the short attention span of today's reader) is sometimes troubling. When a long dramatic narrative like John 11 is chopped up into five sections for discussion, we lose the narrative thread. Each section begins with Wright's colloquial translation, which may appeal to casual readers but may seem a bit folksy to others. …

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