Baker Academic

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Tom Wright and the Americans

I am not qualified to weigh in on Paul Holloway’s recent criticism of Tom Wright. Holloway is a Paul specialist as is Wright, and I am not. Whatever professional disputes they have should be assessed by someone else. I will simply take this opportunity to say what Wright has meant for me as an American.

I have never been comfortable with America’s militant hegemony. As a young adult this especially troubled me when it was yoked with Christian exceptionalism. My angst hit a tipping point when I began my university education in Canada. Canadians have a love/hate relationship with America. They are acutely invested in American wellbeing but see clearly (in my experience) our imperialist and fiscally amoral tendencies. In conversation with theologians, seminarians, and intelligent lay-folks in Canada, I found that my Christian identity and my American identity were at odds. I was a muddle of contradiction: sometimes defending the America that I loved against hateful comments (a Canadian roommate said to me on the morning of September 11th, “What do I care? It’s not my country”); sometimes railing against America’s sense of collective vengeance.

I discovered Tom Wright in my fourth year of living in Canada.

Wright and John Dominic Crossan didn’t agree on much in those days, but they had this in common: they both argued that following Jesus and supporting a military hegemony are incompatible. Wright especially provided me with a theological critique of empire at a timely moment in my moral development. Say what you will about Wright’s notion of the “Kingdom of God” in Mark (I agree with Helen Bond that we might have played this card too often in Jesus studies). But his work allowed me to clarify some of my misgivings about the unholy union of Christianity and imperial power.

Wright’s critique of the Christian mythology of heaven also helped me find theological placement for my environmental concerns. His critique (alongside Dunn and Sanders) of the Protestant misunderstanding of first-century Jewish soteriology undermined any latent notions of exceptionalism I harbored. His adaptation of critical realism provided a necessary foil for my own interest in historiography. I am no Wright sycophant; I probably disagree with him more than I agree (when I find myself qualified to do so). Even so, I appreciate and respect the importance of his voice for the field and for my own development.

Today I learned that an anti-religious gunman murdered three Muslims near the university campus at Chapel Hill. Two weeks ago Duke University reversed it’s decision to allow a Muslim call to prayer. Two days after President Obama exhorted religious hospitality, he has asked congress for approval and funding of another war against Islamic militants.

America is rife with holy war. We continue to be blinded by our Islamophobia and imperialistic tendencies. Given Tom Wright’s caché among American Christians, I want to hear his voice more, not less. We don’t have to agree with his warnings of American imperialism, but we ought to have him in the conversation.


ps. I find an interesting parallel between the ideological vitriol aimed at Wright and that aimed at Bart Ehrman and Rudolf Bultmann. One wonders if we might have a tendency to create contexts for hero worship followed by the destruction of these same idols.


  1. Your postscript is definitely true. We build people up to tear them down.

  2. Well said, this is how I feel about NTW as well. Also, his dialogues w. Borg were my first taste of historical Jesus studies. He's fallible as is anyone, but surely worth hearing on many subjects.

  3. Thanks, Anthony. I'm reminded of one of my teachers - Walter Brueggemann - who spent, still spends, a lot of thought on this. In a 2005 article in Christian Century, entitled "Counterscript," (v.122/24) Brueggemann lists his "19 Theses about the bible and the church". The third one is relevant to the discussion here, and Brueggemann unpacks the language he chooses:

    " 3. The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life. • I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

    • I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved.

    • I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that "if you want it, you need it." Thus there is now an advertisement that says: "It is not something you don't need; it is just that you haven't thought of it."

    • The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.

    It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated."

    Ten years later, this is still right on target - sadly.

    But then, who am I to call anyone out on this, when I participate in in every day. To borrow a quote from the movie The Mission - "Thus have we made the world; thus have I made it!" Some of my "angst" about it.


  4. BTW, as a Canadian, I am appalled that someone would say something like that about 9/11, especially on the day itself! It was a horrific act, and moreover one committed against one our closest neighbour. Not to mention, a lot of Canadians--myself included--have family who live in and around NYC, and on that day many of us were just as worried as any American about their safety.

  5. Thanks for this, Anthony. I think it is true of a particular strain of Christianity in most 'christian' nations (I see it in our own Prime Minister who touts his Christianity but has so many policies that, I believe, would make Jesus weep), but it is much stronger in the US. I wonder if this is a by-product of the fact that a higher proportion of people in the US are more actively involved in the church. Here in Australia, probably less than 15% of the population attend church on a regular basis and I don't think the UK or Canada are much higher. It is clear from the research that many of the US church goers are not biblically or theologically literate, so militant hegemony is going to appeal. :-(

  6. Folks may want to have a look at Brueggemann's article "The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity"

    and his latest book - Sabbath as Resistance.