I was driving cross-country in the summer of 1995, at a time when the music of Hootie and the Blowfish was inescapable. My wife and I listened to the radio from Kentucky to California, and the soundtrack assigned to us by American pop music was song after song from the multiplatinum album Cracked Rear View. Now, I happened to like the band’s acoustic-stadium sound, and Darius Rucker’s über-masculine vocals. But it didn’t matter whether I liked it or not, I was getting it from both speakers no matter what. Hootie’s dominance was unquestioned: At best, DJs could manage to alternate one song by somebody else in between songs from Hootie. Change the channel, more Hootie. At one point (somewhere in New Mexico?), a DJ shouted, “This is Hootie’s world, and the rest of us are just livin’ in it!”
The theological Hootie of our age is NT Wright. He’s everywhere. Multiplatinum, hit singles, the whole package. I happen to like his work, but it doesn’t matter if you like it; you’re getting it from both speakers anyway. This is NT Wright’s world, and the rest of us are just livin’ in it.
I skipped last year’s Wheaton Theology Conference (probably the best annual theology conference anywhere in the US) because it was all about NT Wright. But then the main program of the national ETS conference was also all about Wright, so there was no avoiding it. Change the channel, more NT Wright. The ETS event was exquisitely well planned, with dueling plenaries and an extended panel discussion. Look elsewhere for commentary on the event: Summaries of what went on in Atlanta are available at reputable places, including here at Evangel.
Here in Hootie’s world, I’ve had to develop a few rules for how to keep livin’ in it. I want to make a few brief, impressionistic remarks about Wright’s work, and I want to have the freedom to speak irresponsibly –in a certain sense which I will now define. By “irresponsibly” I don’t mean gossipy or overblown or inflammatory comments. I would prefer to avoid both sin and boorishness. But I want permission to speak irresponsibly in the sense that I haven’t read most of Wright’s work, and haven’t paid close attention to most of the controversy surrounding his views. I didn’t even attend all the ETS sessions where he and his interlocutors mixed it up.
Over the past few years, as an informed Christian person who just isn’t devoting scores of hours to tracking this massive discussion, I’ve developed some rules for getting along in the age of NT Wright. As I listened to the panel discussion among Wright, Schreiner, and Thielman, I thought about how I’d been processing the Wright I’ve read over the years, and a few things became clear to me. Here are my new, modified rules for “livin’ in Hootie’s world.”
1. NT Wright is more helpful than I thought. Tom Schreiner spent a good ten minutes in his plenary address listing the many ways in which NT Wright’s work has been helpful. This wasn’t just the obligatory lip service before a mainly critical presentation; it was sustained, specific, and heart-felt. Schreiner nailed it: NT Wright has presented the world of biblical history in a gripping and fascinating way. He has struck a great balance between historical responsibility, open to academic and even secular standards of investigation, and a faith-motivated reading of the Bible as a Christian believer. His book on the Resurrection of the Son of God is masterful in this regard. Here is an Anglican on the side of the angels when it comes to most biblical issues. And every time Wright spoke in Atlanta, he did that Wright thing: taking any particular passage and putting it in a breathtakingly large context, teasing out the historical, cultural, and hermeneutical threads that make you look at the passage anew. This is Bible scholarship in the grand style, and I love it. The church has a desperate need for a few Bible scholars who know their technical stuff but who also know how to ask the big questions and point us to the big picture. Wright is one of our best, page after page after page.
2. I should try not to think about NT Wright himself. The reason I had sort of forgotten how helpful NT Wright is, is that his relentless airplay had distracted me from Wright’s arguments and made me look at Wright’s public persona. That public persona is not something I enjoy. Wright the public speaker comes across to me as smug. He is at his worst in the field of controversy, where he indulges in describing his critics as people who just don’t quite believe in heliocentrism. He constantly complains that anybody who disagrees with him hasn’t read him fairly. Hardly the happy warrior of Wordsworth’s poem, he tends to adopt a Nixonian tone (“The media’s out to get me… they even attacked my little dog Checkers!”). His book on Hope is vitiated by an “everything everybody has ever believed about heaven is wrong, and only I speak unto you the truth” tone of voice. It just makes my eyes cross; I can’t read on.
So far my rule of thumb has been that NT Wright’s big books are great, but his small books are to be avoided. That’s still not a bad guideline: make some time to study through any of the Wright books that top 500 pages, and you’ll get a blessing. The smaller books (where he can’t show all his work) give him too much opportunity to indulge in cutting a figure, in putting himself out there and invoking his own credibility. From these performances I will avert my eyes when possible. Life is too short, and reading time too precious, and the big books too good, for me to read the little ones with the regrettable passages. Your response to the Wright literary persona may be different; I admit this is subjective. But in the future, I’m not going to let my Wright annoyance factor cheat me out of benefiting from Wright’s plentiful good stuff.
3. NT Wright’s big idea is smaller than I thought. Somewhere in the second hour of panel discussion, it became clear to me that what Wright is insisting on in the justification debate is that there is such a thing as conversion, getting saved, and being forgiven by God, but the dikaio- word-group doesn’t refer to it. Here is a parallel: There is such a thing as growing in grace as a Christian, moving on from being oppressed by sin to living in victory over certain sins. The New Testament knows of that process and progress. But it doesn’t call it sanctification, as Protestants tend to in popular discourse. In other words, the hagio- word-group doesn’t refer to it in the NT. “Sanctification” in the NT tends to refer to a divine action in which he sets something apart for special use, or renders it appropriate for God’s presence. Now, I’ve noticed that, but I don’t correct people when they say things like “After being justified, do you go on to make progress in being sanctified?” I especially don’t correct them over the course of thousands of pages in which I warn them that they are seriously distorting the biblical message and are enslaved to traditions. Again, I speak here as somebody who is barely paying attention, so I could be wrong about everything. But I have provisionally made a different decision about how much it matters that the dikaio- word group does not map onto traditional Christian usage in a straightforward way. I decided it is not one of the major issues facing us today. I’m well aware that New Testament experts speak with greater precision than the rest of us about things like this, and I’m glad that they have epic battles amongst themselves about very precise matters. I want to learn from them, and to be accountable to them as the relevant experts. But precisely because there are hundreds of such arguments, I don’t norm all of my communication by the standards of that guild.
4. NT Wright is definitely not helping me think about justification. I’ll keep listening to the ongoing discussion, because I don’t really have a choice with the way the airwaves work. I’m on a long drive and NT Wright and his critics are what’s on the radio. But when I do make time to read Wright on justification, or New Perspective on Paul stuff in general, I can never quite keep the tune in my head long enough to hum it afterwards. I might just be too dense and too hidebound to be talked out of the rut I’m in. I might be one of those benighted souls who can’t quit thinking the sun goes around the earth (as portrayed in the opening pages of Wright’s Justification book). But I might also just be persuaded by something more like the classic Protestant interpretation of Paul’s writings, as represented by its current advocates who have studied this more responsibly than I can.
I wasn’t able to stay for all of Tom Schreiner’s paper on justification, so I asked a friend at the conference to tell me the bottom line. “The bottom line?” he said. “Basically, it turns out that what you think justification is, is what justification is.”