14 October 2011

A lunchtime with Tom Wright

A few weeks ago, I caught wind that Tom Wright was in town. Regular readers will be aware that I have a lot of respect for him. I first came across him when he was made the bishop of Durham in 2003, where I was living at the time. There was a chap at my church who described his job as “reading books on behalf of the bishop.” For the last 20 years he’s been writing his “For everyone” series of the New Testament (NT). This is a series of easily accessible commentaries on each of the books of the New Testament, where Wright has provided his own translation of each book. He has now finished the series and this talk was to publicise his complete New Testament, “The New Testament for Everyone.” After the talk there was to be a Q&A session, before signing some books.

The talk was scheduled for lunchtime, though it was over a mile from my office, so I had to get my skates on a bit. It also happened to be a very hot day in late September, so by the time I got there my shirt was rather sticking to my back and all I could think about was grabbing a cool drink. All that was on offer though was wine, and this was the last thing I wanted on a hot day. As it turned out, I got there a little bit early, which was a slight relief, as I had envisioned bursting in late, sweaty and out of breath. As it was, I burst in early, sweaty and out of breath!

The location, the London Centre for Spirituality, is a slightly odd place. Situated just a few yards from The Bank of England, right in the heart of the City, you are greeted by a small bookshop as soon as you walk in. But at the back of the bookshop is a highly ornate Anglican/Catholic style church building, replete with stained glass windows. There were very few chairs out, maybe around 30-40. Most of those at the back were taken so I perched myself on the front row.

I was expecting to stand out as the only bloke there under 45, but I was pleasantly surprised to find there was a really healthy mix of ages there. They ranged from about 4 or 5 (a young girl brought by her mum) right up to a few who I’d estimate to be in their 80’s.

We got going a few minutes late with a brief introduction from the guy who seemed to be running the bookshop giving a very brief introduction. There then followed a second introduction from Simon Kingston, the head of SPCK Publishing. The thing most noticeable about all this was the odd behaviour of the bookshop owner who, when he wanted to clap, held his arms out at full length in front of him, elbows straight. The other thing to notice was Simon Kingston’s waistcoat, which was brilliant. I wish I had a photo of it, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

Anyway, the main topic was the translation of the NT and the “for everyone” series. Wright had been approached when he was the Dean of Lichfield to write a commentary on every book of the NT. The idea was that it was supposed to be for the person “in the back pew.” In his description of the background and target audience, Wright certainly betrayed his Anglican tendencies, given talk of “pews” and “laity.” In his estimation, only a minority of Christians ever read their bibles, finding an old dusty AV on the shelf to be an intimidating prospect. While this may be true of Anglicans, it is not something I’ve found to be in the case of the various Baptist/charismatic/Pentecostal churches I have been to over the last past 3 decades.

The intention was to make the NT accessible again. One of the things Wright drew on was one part of the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus talked about “giving us our daily bread,” as opposed to merely giving us some bread once and for all, allowing it to go stale. From this, Wright proposed that every generation ought to have its own translation of the bible.

He then talked a little about the difficulties of translation, where one can try and find a one-to-one mapping (i.e. word-for-word) translation such as the King James Version or something that is more phrase-for-phrase such as the New International Version. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Wright’s view is that you have to try your best to aid the modern reader in understanding the author’s meaning. So when a translation is phrased in archaic language that ultimately turns people off, then the message of the gospel is lost.

One little anecdote he threw in was about the first commentary which was on the gospel according to Mark. He was sat in a church next to someone who looked at him sideways and said, “Are you Tom Wright?” to which he replied, “Yes.” This chap then thanked Tom for Mark for Everyone, as it helped him get through his first year theology exams. Tom slightly despaired at this, as it was not intended as an in-depth theological book. Personally, I haven’t got any of the guides yet. My intention is to wait until they are released as a box set and then get the lot at once.

When we got to the Q&A section at the end, there was an interesting mix of questions, from the bland to the look-at-me-for-being-able-to-ask-a-clever-question. One of those on the bland end was something like, “which was the hardest book to translate?” The questioner may have been angling for a talk on the apocalyptic style of language found in Revelation, though a follow-up hinted that it may have been more aimed at ascertaining (or casting doubt upon) the authorship of 1 & 2 Timothy.

The answer that Tom gave was slightly surprising. In his opinion, the biggest difference between any two books in the Pauline corpus was between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. Wright’s hypothesis was that Paul may have suffered some kind of mental breakdown, taking the second half of the first chapter as his evidence towards this. He also said that Paul’s usual writing style was highly fractured, with a totally unorthodox grammar, like someone struggling in their search for an appropriate phraseology.

I managed to get my own question in. As you will have seen from my recent post, I have not yet tackled Wright’s Jesus and The Victory of God (JVG), though I have done both The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG)as well as The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG). Together they form the first 3 volumes of Wright’s magnum opus, Christian Origins and the Question of God. Sharp-eyed readers will be aware that the correct order is NTPG then JVG then RSG. I am reading out of order, but I still wanted to know when his much-anticipated work on Pauline theology would be ready. The working title is Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). At the start of this year, the expected publication date was November 2011. This was then put back, according to ntwrightpage, to 2012.

Keen to find out when it would be, I simply asked Tom, “Now that the For Everyone project is finished, what’s next?” The first answer was that he wanted to improve his golf handicap, now that he can play at St Andrews. This has dropped him a peg in my estimation, as I am not a fan of golf or its adherents. He went on to list a few other books that were coming out shortly. Some were revisions/modifications of earlier works but the one that took my interest was Simply Jesus, a follow up to Simply Christian. Only then did he get on to talking about PFG. The latest expected publication date is now “sometime in 2013.”

Probably the question that elicited the most interesting answer was when someone asked how Wright ensured that his own prejudices would not creep into the translation. Aside from getting it checked by Greek scholars who he knew and trusted (as well their research students!) he described some of the more traditional differences. This was of particular interest, as the chap sat behind me was a minister at, apparently, the only German-speaking Roman Catholic church in London. I wouldn’t have expected Wright to be flavour of the month amongst Catholics, given some of his views, so having a catholic there seemed a little (and I stress little) like Fred Phelps going to Greenbelt. Wright recounted how he was, “the Anglican observer at [some meeting of Catholics] at the Vatican,” in 2008. His description made it sound like a Catholic version of an Anglican synod, though I am not particularly well versed in the intricacies of high church hierarchical bureaucracies.

At this meeting, some of the African catholic leaders were advocating a move away from the Latin Vulgate, which has been a sticking point for centuries. Tom just mused what might have happened if this smidgeon of open-mindedness had been present in 1525, which prompted a round of nervous laughter from those present.

Overall, it was well worth making the effort to go down. I got my copy of RSG signed and I did decide to buy a copy of the NT translation. I’m not sure if Tom was annoyed that the book I asked him to sign was one that I hadn’t just bought, but then again he may have been pleased to see it had very clearly been read.

If you’ve managed to read this far and still have no idea who I’m talking about, then please see below a video of him talking at a Veritas forum a few years ago. His topic is very much in line with his book, Surprised by Hope, which I have almost finished reading and I hope to post a review of it online next week. Some of his ideas (not least, those on “hell”) have been quite controversial. He touches on that here briefly, though whether or not you agree with him, I think the video demonstrates him to be very learned, erudite and in possession of a very English wit.

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