And What About Chauncey . . .?

In the comments section of my recent post N.T. Wright Rides a Pale Horse, Tom Wright was kind enough to come by and leave a contribution to the discussion.

Just to say — thanks for the free publicity, Doug, but too bad I simply don’t recognise myself either in your portrait or in some of what’s said below . . . My only real point was that as a Brit who spends a fair amount of time in America I find the American debates — including those reflected in this blog — to work with a completely different set of assumptions to those elsewhere, including Europe. This doesn’t mean Americans are wrong in the way they line things up and the rest of us are right, but it ought to give us all some critical distance on all of our polarizations.

I don’t normally look at blogsites but a friend suggested I should glance at this one. I’m just a tad sorry I took his advice.

Good wishes to one and all, though

Tom Wright
Prof N T Wright
St Andrews

In this response above, he says that his “only real point” is that Americans tend to debate with a completely different set of assumptions than do Europeans. Now I got that point, mentioned it in my post, and agreed with it. So we agree he said that, and we agreed on the point itself, but apparently differ on whether he said anything else of substance.

So having found out that he doesn’t recognize himself in my summary and response, I went back and looked at the video a several more times. In my book, misrepresenting what someone has argued is not a good thing at all, and I wanted to double check to make sure I had not done that to him. Imagine my relief . . .

In the video, Wright mentions those who have a kind of “passionate and compassionate” social concern that would be characterized here as “left wing,” and we all know compassion is a good thing, right? He says that what we need to do is “uncouple” the associations we “routinely” make, and the need for such uncoupling, he says, is something that must be addressed “particularly in America.” In short, our general association between the conservative/liberal theological spectrum and the conservative/liberal political spectrum is a false association, in Wright’s mind, and we Americans ought to quit it.

Now I am happy to acknowledge that this is not what Wright meant, and if he tells me he didn’t, I would happy to accept that. But at this juncture, I am not willing to acknowledge that this is not what Wright said. Why? Well, because he said it. In his comment cited earlier, he says:

“This doesn’t mean Americans are wrong in the way they line things up and the rest of us are right, but it ought to give us all some critical distance on all of our polarizations.”

But if he does not intend to say that “Americans are wrong in the way they line things up,” then why must this uncoupling he was talking about occur “particularly in America”? If we mortals need to get a bit more critical distance about what we believe, then sure. What reflective man would disagree with that? But that is not what he said — to use the language of “critical distance,” he in effect said that “it particularly ought to give Americans critical distance on all of their polarizations.”

Wright and I agree that Americans tend to line up theology and politics in a particular way. He is critical of that way of proceeding, and I want to defend it. So I am a bit sorry that Wright appears to be backing off in the criticism, because I am really interested in defending against that particular line. I want us to get a whole lot “worse” in that department, such that we leave the cosmopolitan Europeans aghast. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature. [Abrupt book plug: God and the Atlantic by Thomas Howard]

So I believe that while Americans are in better shape than Europeans on this score, with our D minus beating their F, we still don’t do nearly what we ought to do in connecting the Lordship of Christ with what we are advocating in the public square. As Wright himself has argued, if Jesus is Lord, then the Obamacare czar is not. I just want to push this into every available corner.

In addition, while we are here, Wright said that the whole idea of “a spectrum,” including the theological spectrum was “misleading,” and that we need to be willing to learn stuff in all sorts of odd places. Now I agree with the point about learning from anybody, which I often do alone in my study with loud cries of appreciation. I can learn from renegade Catholics and Jewish university professors. But when I learn from different folks this way, I am reading along a spectrum, and at certain points the color swatch wheel does change colors.

For example, Wright himself notes the existence of people who have a robust faith, and who are “firmly rooted” in God, Jesus, the Trinity, and Holy Spirit. But ten minutes experience in the church should tell us that as soon as we note the existence of people who are “firmly rooted” in the Christian faith, we have established our reference point for a theological spectrum. If Smith is firmly rooted, what are we to make of Murphy, who is not rooted quite so firmly? And what about Chauncey, who has had three years of graduate study in comparative thought and is a bit of theological tumbleweed?

The spectrum is inescapable, and for those who have a robust faith in the man Christ Jesus, we have to recognize those whose faith is ailing, and those whose faith is long gone. A political spectrum is also unavoidable — on every issue. I mean, surely there were some moderates in the NSA who only wanted to collect half our emails.

Theology That Bites Back



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  • Thursday

    Did anyone else catch his hilariously short and perfunctory appearance on Rachel Held Evans’ blog?
    Her commenters are all complaining about it.

  • Willis

    NT Wright and Doug Wilson….. two of the most interesting and likable theologians…. in a blog war? You guys should have a beer summit or something. I think that NT Wright is unlikely to engage further over the internet based on the tenor of his comment. And I think your brand of ‘live free or die’ Protestantism is about as foreign to his English sensibilities as one can get.

  • katecho

    I wonder if Wright believes there is ever a time to be polarizing.

    There is a time to be likeable, self-reflective, and learn from others, and there is a time to fashion a whip of cords. This is another one of those unavoidable spectrums.

  • Matt

    If you are looking for another interpretation, then here.

    “compassionate” is simply a reference to the popular perception, both inside and outside the left, of the left. If you polled a thousand random people in any Western country, asking whether the left or the right is in general more compassionate, what do you suppose the result would be?

    America in particular both because of the general prejudice of America as being more fervently religious than other countries, and because of the similar prejudice that religion is much more intertwined with politics here. I think both of these are a little exaggerated by foreigners, but still it is probably jarring for a Bible-belt evangelical to comprehend just how unimportant Christianity is to most of Europe, including the UK. They don’t hate it anymore, they just don’t even care about it.

    “spectrum” refers to how we tend to make everything into a one-dimensional line with everyone in one tribe or the other. Left-Right and Liberal-conservative are just two of the worst offenders. You’re either with us or against us. Real life is a little more complex.

  • katecho

    Thanks to Thursday for the link to the Rachel Held Evans blog Q/A with NT Wright.

    One of the questions was this: From Mark: In these theological/political times, where it seems so important to be in the right “camp” lest we be cast out from fellowship with others because we do not hold the “correct” views, how do you suggest moving forward toward greater unity, rather than greater division?

    NT Wright’s response was: Beware of ‘camps’.
    In the U.S. especially these are usually and worryingly tied in to the various political either/or positions WHICH THE REST OF THE WORLD DOES NOT RECOGNISE. Anyone with their wits about them who reads scripture and prays and is genuinely humble will see that many of the issues which push people into ‘camps’ – especially but not only in the U.S. – are distortions in both directions caused by trying to get a quick fix on a doctrinal or ethical issue, squashing it into the small categories of one particular culture. Read Philippians 2.1-11 again and again. And Ephesians 4.1-16 as well.

    There is definitely something that Wright thinks Americans are doing “particularly”, “worryingly”, and “especially” wrong as compared to “THE REST OF THE WORLD”. Of course he doesn’t want to be polarizing about it. He would never distort Americans with a stereotype, or try to assign us into our own camp. Heaven forbid.

    On another direct question Wright could not even bring himself to politely identify open theism as error. That was as soft a pitch (American baseball reference) as anyone in his position will ever get, and he let it float on by, into the fog. If Wright was just a Bible scholar, that would be one thing, but he is also a shepherd, even if a retired one. Would Paul have let that one slide? Would Jesus? Come on Tom. Love has a backbone. Ascend the pulpit God has established for you.

    Murky obtuseness and mealy-mouthism are not the antidote to rabid sectarianism. We need to be clear where God is clear. It’s not as if we don’t have any biblical examples on how to take every thought captive, and still be charitable and winsome.
    NT Wright should take a page from Winston Churchill, or GK Chesterton, or the Apostle Paul.

  • katecho

    Matt said: “…it is probably jarring for a Bible-belt evangelical to comprehend just how unimportant Christianity is to most of Europe, including the UK. They don’t hate it anymore, they just don’t even care about it.”

    That’s why it is so odd to see Wright suggest that American Christians should be particularly singled out for doing it so wrong as compared to “THE REST OF THE WORLD”. It almost makes one wonder if there isn’t a root of envy sprouting somewhere. We are all capable of such weeds.

    However secularists don’t just hate the Church in America, they are in absolute dread and panic over it. Which is perplexing, given the low tide. But doesn’t Jesus say, straight up, that we will be hated for His name’s sake? If we aren’t just making obnoxious nuisances of ourselves, then having the secularists hate us seems like a positive indicator, rather than a sign of illness.

    I suspect Wright is aware of the unknown Anglican bishop who observed that: “Wherever the Apostle Paul went they broke out in riot or revival. Wherever I go, they serve tea.” There is a lesson in that somewhere that a certain Pauline scholar should take to heart.

    I know NT Wright has a strong sense of the victory of God’s Kingdom in history, but if the Church is being safely ignored in his neck of the woods, maybe he is not in a position to suggest that churches in America imitate the Anglican recipe.

  • Jonathan

    I don’t see why NT Wright would ever want to reply on the blog again, but I can say that I don’t recognize him in this post either.

    NT Wright wasn’t saying that the way America orients the spectrum is wrong, and that the rest of the world orients the spectrum in the correct way. He was saying that the whole idea of a set “conservative to liberal spectrum” that ties one theology together with one politics is wrong, and that America tends to do this more than most places. You make it look like he’s saying that America has a particularly wrong orientation, when in fact he’s saying that we should all look at our orientations, but that America has a particularly strong allegiance to a particular orientation.

    You misquote and misapply his “compassionate and passionate” remark by taking it out of context. Here is what he actually said:

    “In England, you will find that people who are very conservative theologically by what we normally mean conservative in other words, believing in Jesus, believing in his death and resurrection, believing in the trinity are often the ones who are in the forefront of passionate and compassionate social concern of a sort which if were you to transport it to America would say, oh, that’s a bit left wing.”

    He doesn’t say that all compassionate and passionate social concern is left wing. He just says that the particular practice of passionate and compassionate social concern which he is speaking of is “of a sort” which would be viewed as a bit left wing in America.

    That statement could be seen as loaded, but if he parses his statements as carefully as you parse yours, then you have to admit that he’s not saying what you claim he said.

  • Jonathan

    Katecho says: “I wonder if Wright believes there is ever a time to be polarizing.”

    I assume you haven’t read his books? “Who Was Jesus?” is an very strongly worded rebuke of the works of Thiering, A.N. Wilson, Spong and Crossan. “Jesus and the Victory of God” contains 50 pages strongly criticizing the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, specifically focusing on Mack, Crossan, and Borg, and does quite a bit of critique of others involved in the “historical Jesus” quest. “The Resurrection of the Son of God” is an extremely strongly-worded argument with a single direction that would be seen as extremely polarizing for anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus’s physical resurrection or in our future resurrection.

    NT Wright isn’t afraid of being “polarizing” in many circumstances. If you read him that way here, I think you’re misinterpreting what he’s saying.

  • Jonathan

    I posted this comment on the previous post:”

    “Weren’t most White Southern Christians part of the Democratic party during the Depression, when Keynesian economics first took off under FDR?

    For the most part, White Christians in general (and White Southern Christians in particular) didn’t start lining up behind the Republican party until after 1955, and not in full until the Nixon/Ford/Reagan era. And I’m pretty sure that a rejection of Keynesian economics wasn’t the driving force that brought them there.”

    Like I said then, the economic differences between Republicans and Democrats have been in place for a very long time, but White Evangelicals and White Southern Christians in general had no problem sticking behind the Democrats for most of their existence. The first strong push towards the Republicans for both those groups came after the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, then the “Southern Strategy” practiced by Nixon’s campaign in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The second big push was the “Moral Majority” that started in 1979 and which was followed by the “Christian Coalition” in the late 1980s.

    And for all the issues those movements pushed, none of them kept any focus on anti-Keynesianism in their formative stages. That appears to me to be a byproduct of the theological/political alignment that was devised in the 2nd half of the 20th century, not a cause.

  • Iohannes

    “Well, I should say — that is, if I may be so bold — keeping in mind, of course, that I appreciate the complexities of the situation, but — if you comprehend the fundamental qualifications all parties consent to in this circumstance — well, then, I regard it as essential — that is, positively indispensable — I do think such language is warranted — oh, dash it all, what I mean to say is, isn’t calling people to repentance somewhat rude??”

  • Johnny

    All I know is that if Pastor Wilson and Bishop Wright are going to have a beer summit, I’d like to be able to watch it on Canon Wired.

  • Jonathan

    Iohannes, who do you think you’re satirizing with those lines?

  • Iohannes

    Jonathan, I think you are highly simplifying the contours of the situation by calling that paragraph satire. The polarizing implications of that word would almost certainly reduce the range of possible interpretations to an unmanageably small, prejudicial few. Mind you, I am not saying your interpretation is wrong, but I think your (apparently instinctive) application of that term should encourage us all to reexamine and maintain a certain critical distance from our readings of online blog comments. I heartily encourage you to revisit the heuristics of your hermeneutic, preferably with the help of some fustian historiography.

  • Jonathan

    Keep working on it Iohannes. Keep working on it.

  • katecho

    Finally, someone like Iohannes gets it. :)

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