Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jamie Smith on N.T. Wright

In a post at The Twelve blog, Jamie Smith (a self-described "Tom Wright enthusiast") fairly describes what it is about Wright that bugs a lot of people that otherwise admire him. It's not the substance of his arguments, but the way he presents them as a "new" discovery of what everyone else has missed. Musing on Wright's latest book Smith writes:

. . . For example, notice the subtitle: Wright is offering us the "forgotten story of the Gospels." This may be a publishers' ploy, but having heard Wright talk about this argument in several different contexts, he clearly affirms the claim: for hundreds and hundreds of years, we have not been able to properly read the Gospels. And now Tom Wright has come along to give us what we lacked: the backstory of Second Temple Judaism, the historian's read of Israel's expectations, the secret keys we need to finally read the Gospels. (This reminds me way too much of Brian McLaren's title, The Secret Message of Jesus--wherein the "secret" was that Jesus cared about poverty and oppression and injustice, which was only a "secret" if you were an a-political pietist or a right-wing fundamentalist.)

There's another layer here that adds to my frustration: Wright regularly faults the catholic creedal tradition as the villain that tempted us to miss this "forgotten story." Nicea and Chalcedon are blinders and screens that prevent us from seeing what Wright, "the historian," has uncovered. The creedal tradition, on Wright's account, was fixated on ontological questions about divinity and humanity and thus missed the backstory of Israel's covenant which really makes sense of the Gospels. And so when he frames his argument, even if he doesn't reject "Nicene Christianity," he certainly dismisses it and sees little if any value in it. For those of us who have been struggling to get evangelical and Reformed folk to remember they are catholic, it is disconcerting to have yet another teacher come along and promise a new "secret key" to unlock the Bible.

I agree with Smith. For all his marvelous scholarship Wright risks becoming as parochial in his reading of Scripture as he accuses his critics of being. No man (or theologian) is an island.

No comments: