N. T. Wright is one of those thinkers who fall into a binary: Either people have never heard of him, or they believe him to be one of the most influential figures of our time. The magazine Christianity Today has called him “the most prolific biblical scholar in a generation” and “the most important apologist for the Christian faith since C. S. Lewis.” The British theologian is credited with writing more than six dozen books, many about the apostle Paul, and has reached the stage of fame where publishers are repackaging his work into new volumes, akin to a pop star’s greatest-hits album. He’s spent a large portion of his career in academia, but his work has also reached far beyond the Ivy Tower: He served as the Anglican bishop in Durham, England, in the early 2000s, and on the 2004 Lambeth Commission, a body set up to provide guidance on contentious divisions within the Anglican Communion over same-sex marriage and homosexuality.
Wright does not fit neatly into the oversimplified categories often used to describe American Christianity: liberal versus conservative, mainline versus evangelical. Over his career, he has won the admiration of those who follow what they describe as orthodox teachings, but he has also called on Christians to more actively seek out opportunities to lift up the poor and the marginalized. In addition, he’s quite familiar with the religious and political environment of the United States, having spent significant time in the country over the years. But while Wright is ultimately a foreign observer from across the pond, the problems he sees in America are distinct but not altogether dissimilar from the problems he sees in Britain: He believes most people have no framework to help them navigate a time of political turmoil and division. Without the guiding story of Christianity, he says, conflict and moral confusion proliferate.
In November, on the eve of Wright’s retirement—or semiretirement, because he just got a plum gig at Oxford, and he’s not likely to stop writing anytime soon—I met him for lunch in New York City. He’s an amiable fellow, balding and mostly gray through the beard, who’s given to cracking self-deprecating jokes about how his children and grandchildren don’t take him seriously. We discussed the crisis of American Christian identity and the decline of Western morality as we ate—light conversational fare for a theologian and pastor. Our conversation, below, has been edited for length and clarity.
Emma Green: Do you worry that the strong association between Christianity and politics in the United States—and specifically the alignment between the religious right, evangelicals, and the Republican Party—will permanently shape the image of Christianity?
N. T. Wright: Part of the problem here is the word evangelical. I know a lot of people who have basically abandoned it since the whole [Donald] Trump phenomenon.
In England, people are a bit embarrassed about the word. But I’ve taken the view that the word evangelical is far too good a word to let the crazy guys have it all to themselves, just like I think the word Catholic is far too good a word for the Romans to keep it all to themselves. And while we’re at it, the word liberal is too good a word for the skeptics to have it all for themselves. It stands for freedom of thought and exploration.
Everything gets bundled up together, whether it’s abortion or gun rights or homosexuality or whatever. All issues are seen as either you’re on that side, and it’s the whole package, or you’re on this side, and it’s the whole package.
Green: Do you think most Christian leaders, especially in the U.S., operate primarily from a place of fear about being pushed out of the culture?
Wright: That’s a good question. I do not know. There are many places where people are quite upbeat, and where Christian leaders are seeing God doing great things in their communities. And there is fear, because some huge cultural imperatives can’t fit with the Church’s traditional teaching.
Green: What cultural imperatives are you talking about?
Green: I think the LGBT issue is a major tension point in people’s perceptions of Christianity, or at least conservative expressions of it. On this issue, people seem to feel that Christianity’s messages are primarily about judgment and condemnation.
Wright: In the early Church, one of the great attractions of Christianity was actually a sexual ethic. It is a world where more or less anything goes, where women and children are exploited, and where slaves are exploited often in hideous and horrible ways. In the Greco-Roman world, if you’d already had one daughter, and then you had another, the regular thing was either to sell her into slavery or literally to leave her out for the wolves.
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SOURCE: The Atlantic, Emma Green