At the University of St. Andrews a central part of the postgraduate experience is the weekly New Testament, Old Testament, Theology, Religion and Politics, and ITIA (Theology, Imagination and the Arts) Seminars. These are not “classes” per se but are more like official academic “hang-outs” where scholars from all over the world come and give papers. Following the paper, discussion ensues amongst the community of postgraduates and faculty. It is an excellent time to not only learn but to grow as practitioners of our respective academic disciplines through observing how others make and defend their various hypotheses. It is also often a welcomed break from thesis research and writing.
This past week I had the amazing opportunity to give a response to Professor N.T. Wright, the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, and Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity here at St. Andrews. The paper I gave was in response to Chapter 11 of his forthcoming book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God.” Aside from saying that the conversation and chapter deals with Tom’s parsing out of Paul’s eschatology, I can’t say anything else, as the book has not yet been released and we’ve been asked to keep discussions of the content within the seminar group at the University. This post is just my reflections, mostly for my own synthesis of the event, because it struck me as I was in the seminar that this was quite a unique opportunity. I didn’t want to miss out on learning whatever I could from interacting with such an accomplished exegete, pastor, author and teacher. I’ve put the main points in bold and italic, if you just want to skim. But feel free to read the explanations too if you think it might be helpful to you.
(1) At some point during the Q+A Tom was telling an anecdote about Karl Barth. It struck me at that point that I’m sitting next to one of this generation’s “Karl Barths.” By this I mean, every generation has a handful of scholars that really stand out. They are not perfect or infallible (though we sometimes try to divinize them, as we do with other high profile figures in the arts). Not in any way applying this type of idolization to Wright, I do, however, hold him, in a real sense, to be one of, or perhaps, the, top New Testament scholar alive today. His work on resurrection, Jesus, and New Testament hermeneutics, as well as his popular books are considered by scholars, students, and worshipers alike, across the denominational and theological spectrum to be helpful, theologically-rich, and thought-provoking. And, this is not meant to be empty flattery. I have nothing to gain from saying such a thing. He’s not my supervisor, and I’m not seeking anything from him etc etc. I just really do think that he’ll be perceived as a “Barth” type figure in terms of his scholarly, ecclesial, and pastoral impact. So, I was grateful, humbled, and keenly aware at that moment of the gift of being able to interact with him on this new, yet-to-be-released work on Paul. It was truly a privilege.
(2) Despite the aforementioned high regard and status I attribute to Professor Wright, I nevertheless found myself totally comfortable during the presentation. I was not nervous at all, which is weird. But good! Perhaps, it was Wright’s own inviting nature, or, maybe just my own comfort after dwelling in the academic realm and being at, and presenting papers etc, at these sort of things for the past three years. Probably both. I think, however, that my experience of comfort and enjoyment was also because I felt like the presentation I delivered itself was authentic, and thus I felt that I myself was being authentic. I felt like I was in my living room or something. It was incredibly cool and refreshing. I wasn’t terribly worried how “the guild” perceived me, and because of that I felt free. Precisely on account of this, I feel like the work I delivered was able to be honestly critical, while still being respectful, and honestly praiseworthy, while doing so not on the basis of a desire to flatter Professor Wright. I really hope I can pursue this same type of authenticity as I go forth. There is sometimes a feeling of “proper” academic flattery and protocol in academia that I find to be a bit repulsive and stuffy. On the other hand, there can be a passive-aggressive, or just plain aggressive (!) type of critique in academia especially in evangelical circles which also isn’t me, or at least isn’t who I want to be and how I want to critique others. I’ve learned a good deal of what it means to be frank and cruciform, honest and on the level, from my mentoring relationship under Fr. Sam Schutz, my sponsoring priest towards ordination in the ACNA. Sam is always on the level. There is never ulterior motives that need to be discerned from “beneath” his words. I don’t have to do hermeneutics on his conversations with me to see what he “really” means to say. To me, this is so freeing. So Gospel. So, again, refreshing. I want to humbly pursue this “way.” None of us will ever get it “perfect” but it seems to me that pursuing this “on the level” type of speech, in all of life, as an exercise of the cruciform love of Jesus in our words, and just plain honesty, is a worthy goal indeed, and a completely freeing discipline.
(3) I’ve really learned a great deal just from observing how Wright responds to his colleagues comments and critiques. There is a certain art to answering questions, and watching and listening as Tom responded to my thoughts on his work was itself a valuable learning exercise. And, it’s not just Professor Wright. These seminars are learning cohorts in a sense for people who are doing, and trying to learn how to better do, serious scholarship. I’ve benefited just as much from listening to my postgraduate colleagues and others formulate, deliver, and defend arguments as I have from doing my own intense thesis research. This is THE pulse and lifeblood of UK style Ph.D study.
(4) I got a few chuckles out of Wright. Victory!
(5) I think Paul and the Faithfulness of God is going to be received really well. It’s the Paul version of Tom’s book on Resurrection. Totally stunning in its breadth and cohesiveness. I’ll not say more on it at all until its published, but it just seems to fit together everything Wright has discerned and discovered in his study of Paul in a way that is easy to follow and even entertaining. This is quite rare for books written in the Biblical Studies genre. Conversing with Professor Wright after the seminar, I noted that I really enjoyed his style of writing. That it seemed like an adventure to me rather than a chore, and how it’s the perfect thing to read as I go back to to the final edits on my own bloated and boring (in my opinion) thesis. Wright noted that theses by their very nature are a bit less open to that colloquial style and tend to be more scientific sounding by necessity (which made me feel good…and allowed me to justify the geekiness of my own authorial voice in the thesis somewhat). He conveyed to me that at some point he allowed himself to write in the style we all know, somewhere around age 40, when he began to write New Testament and the People of God. Wright could easily deliver a jargon-laden geek masterpiece but he doesn’t. Instead he delivers his work in a style that has the charm of C.S. Lewis but the depth of a superior exegete. I thought to myself, although I’ll likely never have the level of skill or wit as an author that Tom Wright has, nevertheless, I’d love to take the same approach down the line. Deep and rigorous scholarship written in creative and engaging words. I’m taking the first steps with this in my conference paper for Ecclesia and Ethics, which is a weird mix of super technical exegetical and socio-rhetorical criticism mixed with an exegesis of blogs, all focused around the theme of cruciform blogging. I won’t always be able to be so free, but Wright provides a great model and guide toward making scholarship an adventure rather than a chore.
Well. There are about 100 other things I could say, but this is already far too long. However, one of the reasons I started this blog was to force myself to not miss the weight and worth of profound moments, thoughts, and experiences, but rather to synthesize them through reflection. To me it is an exercise in spiritual formation. I’ll end by just saying that I don’t take these opportunities for granted, and I am eager to grow, learn, and contribute to these conversations as a part of a community of interpreters and exegetes. In this community, rarely, maybe once or twice in a lifetime, we get the opportunity to sit with someone like a Tom Wright in a setting like this. I guess what I’m saying is that when you do, you realize that the experience is always a profound and a gracious gift. Thanks to Professor Wright for allowing me and my colleagues here at St. Andrews to engage with his work in this way.