As a New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright’s contributions to the modern theological canon are almost unparalleled. From his work on helping Christans rethink the idea of Heaven to his meditations on the Psalms, Wright has had a major role in shaping this generation’s popular understanding of the Bible. And now, his new book God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, is poised to help this generation sort through the theology and praxis of one of an era-defining crisis.
N.T. Wright sat down with RELEVANT senior editor Tyler Huckabee over Zoom to talk about why he felt like the book needed to be written, how the Church can cultivate the practice of lament and how he feels about those C.S. Lewis comparisons.
So why a book about COVID-19? I don’t normally take you as someone who writes to respond to current events.
N.T. WRIGHT: I wrote a short article for Time Magazine, and then I got yelled at on Twitter. I don’t see Twitter myself, but I was told that people were coming back and saying, “But surely N.T. Wright knows that in the Book of Amos, it says such and such.” We need to grow up in terms of how we read the Bible.
So I then had to do a lecture for a church in New York online about this. And in preparing that lecture, I realized there were several lines of thought which really needed to be explored. So I said to my publisher, “What about it?” And he said, “Go for it.” So I sat down and hashed it out.
Did you find it rewarding to “hash it out?”
In a way, in a way. Obviously, I love the Bible. I love exploring the way in which the biblical narrative works, the way in which so many things about the Old Testament come rushing together in the story of Jesus and the gospels. I get frustrated that a lot of Christians, when they think of what does the Bible say, don’t actually go to the story of Jesus. Or if they do, it’s just for one verse here or there. They’re pulling out things at random from elsewhere without understanding how the whole story works.
So I did enjoy doing that. I’ve had some very good feedback on that, including from some people who I would have thought would have known all this stuff before, but apparently not.
What were some of those things? The misconceptions you’ve noted.
I think the first and most important one was people saying, “It’s obvious that this is God calling us to repent” and then proceeding to tell us what we were supposed to be repenting of. And guess what? It turned out to be the things that they’d been worried about and preaching about for years anyway. Which made me think, so God sent the pandemic in order to underline the point that you’ve been preaching about? To give you a megaphone, to say what you wanted to say anyway? It’s a little odd.
Yes, in the Old Testament, there are bad things that happened because the people of Israel have sinned. And in the book of Amos, it’s not just Israel, it’s the other nations as well.
But there is a whole other strand in the Old Testament and this was what really struck me. In the Book of Job and in several of the Psalms and various other passages, it’s clear that really bad things happen and people didn’t deserve it. Job didn’t deserve it and that’s part of the point of the book. Psalm 44 is all about the righteous sufferer saying, “All this has happened to me, but I have not played false. I have not worshiped idols. So what’s going on?”
That generates the whole biblical tradition of lament — lament without a note of penitence because, at the moment, there’s nothing to repent of. It’s like when the children of Israel were in Egypt. At no point in the whole story of the slavery in Egypt does anybody say that they were in Egypt because of punishment or they’d sinned. It was just one of those things that happened.
And then in the New Testament when bad things happen — like the great famine, in Acts 11 — the Church does not say, “Oh, this must be because we’ve sinned or because our rulers have sinned or something.” They’re very pragmatic. They say, “Who’s going to be at risk? What can we do to help? Who should we send?”
So I’m exploring the way in which the biblical strands rushed together on the cross of Jesus. He is the one who bears the curse, but he is also the innocent sufferer who prays Psalm 22 on the cross. “My God, why did you abandon me?” The sufferer who didn’t deserve it. And that’s part of the point of the story. This man has done nothing wrong. So when we see the Bible as much more multilayered, I find it’s much easier to ease ourselves into the great tradition of lament.
It seems like there’s a great resistance to adopting the tradition of lament in the West. We either don’t know how to do it or maybe we just don’t want to.
You’re absolutely right. I was talking to one of the senior leaders in the Church of England a few weeks ago about this. He said, “Tom, the church doesn’t do lament very well, but it doesn’t do celebration very well either. What the church mostly does is just complacency.” And I thought, “Ouch, I think he’s right.”
I think this is part of living in what we call the post-enlightenment modern Western world. We just assume that everything is going to be reasonably comfortable. If something really bad happens, well, maybe we’ll shed a tear. Maybe we’ll put our arm around somebody’s shoulders and say, “We’ll get through this.” But really, the aim is just to push it to one side say, “That was very nasty, but now let’s move on.”
The ancient world would have known better than that. And the ancient Jewish world would have known better than that. They knew about mourning. They knew about crying. A lot of our problems in society, I think, come because we don’t have the courage to face up to the terrible things that have happened and that are still happening and so we are then condemned to repeat them.
In America, we tend to outsource our lament to pop culture institutions. Taylor Swift plays a sad song or something.
Isn’t that interesting? In my tradition, we do Lent — the 40 days before Good Friday, quite thoroughly. It’s as though we concentrate our lament and our sorrow and our repentance on that period. We’re not quite sure how to do it. One of the things which I’ve often said is we need to reinhabit the Psalms. Maybe a quarter to a third of the Psalms are either total laments or partial laments. And they’re there for a reason. The Psalms were Jesus’ prayer book and Jesus quotes Psalms of lament in passages like John 12 and when he’s on the cross. If Jesus had to do that, seems pretty likely we need to learn that as well.
What else were you struck by while working on this?
One of the things that I was really struck by when I was working on this book is a passage in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets when Eliot realized that all the kinds of knee jerk reactions of what we should hope for in terms of victory in the war weren’t getting to the heart of the darkness. It was just, “Oh, please stop the nonsense and go back to life as normal.” And he says — and he’s quoting from a great Christian writer from an earlier century — “I said to my soul be still and wait; without hope for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; Wait without thought for you are not yet ready for thought.”
That’s hugely important. One of the things I detected was, and I’ve seen this again and again actually, is that people are wanting to find a rationalist explanation. “We can see why God is doing this and the line would go, God must be sovereign, so he’s either decreed this or at least allowed it. And if we understand God, we ought to oversee why he’s decreed it or allowed it.” There’s no mystery anymore. We would just get on, OK, here it is, here’s the answer. Eliot is saying to us, and I think the Psalms are saying to us: “not so fast.” Let’s have some humility here. Let’s have a season of waiting and lamenting and struggling. Out of that may come something which at the moment we are morally and emotionally incapable of seeing.
I don’t want to be too optimistic. Some people have been saying, “Oh, we will emerge from this as a kinder, wiser society.” Well, don’t hold your breath. We’ve had other crises before. We had 9/11, we had the banking crash, and we didn’t actually emerge from either of those as a kinder, wiser society. We’re just more confused and angrier about all sorts of things and more worried. It will be wonderful to think that we might learn some lessons from this and maybe we still will, but they won’t come from the knee-jerk reactions.
This Christian faith thing is a lot more mysterious and often a lot darker than we in the modern West have wanted to make it. And it’s by inhabiting that kind of space that God may work through his people in new ways. But at the moment, we can’t see too much of what that might be.
People are looking to faith leaders for answers right now, but the Church is in a tough spot. Pastors aren’t scientists, doctors or political leaders. What should the role of the Church be?
In Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity he catalogs how, when the Early Church was faced with an epidemic or a pandemic in a town or a city and all the rich and the well-to-do — including the doctors — would get out and run, the Christians would stay and would nurse people. People who weren’t even their own family, even people who’d been persecuting them. And the Christians would say, “We follow this man Jesus and he gave his life for us. So the least we can do is to do whatever it takes to look after and help our neighbors, whoever they are.”
There are lots of Luther’s letters actually, which have survived, which are addressed to people in this kind of situation. And I quote in this book from one of these. He basically says, “OK, God has allowed this to happen. We don’t know what it’s about. But what I’m going to do is to say my prayers, to fumigate and purify the air, to take medicine, to avoid places where I’m not needed so that I may not catch the disease myself and may not infect others.”
In other words, very practical, common sense. But it’s practical Christian common sense, which always puts the needs of the neighbor first without thinking selfishly about how can I be a hero for God. We’re very practical. If my neighbor needs food, let’s bring her or him food. If my neighbor needs medical supplies, let’s see if I can supply that. But let’s not do it stupidly.
Last question, and I hope you won’t think it’s frivolous.
Oh no, not at all.
You get compared to C.S. Lewis quite a lot. How does that make you feel?
Well, there’s many, many differences. He was Irish. I’m English. Although he did live here in Oxford for many years. And when I say here, I’m pointing down the road; the room that he had was about 400 yards just down the street here. When he went to have lunch in the pub with his friends, Tolkien and Dyson and so on, he would have walked right along the street outside the house where I’m speaking now.
So this place does have a lot of Lewis about it. Likewise, Lewis was soaked in the classics as a young man, which I was as well. But Lewis was basically a medievalist and I’m basically a New Testament scholar. There’s a big difference there.
However, Lewis was a great writer and I’ve struggled. I’ve learned a huge amount from him but I don’t think anyone will match his English prose. I learned from him that you can actually talk about big philosophical, theological issues in clear, sharp English prose. That’s what I’ve always strived to do. And so insofar as I’ve had success in that, I just defer to the master. Of course, I disagree with some of his conclusions. He wasn’t a professional theologian and sometimes I think, “Ah, you missed a point there or you didn’t quite catch that.” But heavens, he gave us so much. I should be unworthy to undo the laces of his shoes.
You can purchase N.T. Wright’s God and the Pandemic here.