Trevin Wax: Would you tell us about your spiritual journey, how you came to faith in Christ?
N.T. Wright: Interesting. The phrase “spiritual journey” is one that I’ve only become familiar with comparatively recently. We wouldn’t have put it like that when I was a kid.
I grew up in a church-going family, a very sort of ordinary, middle-of-the-road Anglican family where nobody really talked about personal Christian experience. It was just sort of assumed like an awful lot of things in the 1950’s were just sort of taken for granted. So you went to church. It was assumed you said your prayers. You read your Bible.
Within that context, and with having lots of members of my family who were in ministry in one form or another, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that at quite an early age, I was very, very conscious personally of the love of God.
I remember one particular moment (I don’t actually know how old I was, but I guess around 7 or something like that) when I remember actually weeping. I was by myself in a room in the house, and I was just crying because I realized how much Jesus loved me. I have a clear memory of me as a little boy doing that. I’ve no idea whether it was [because] I’d heard a sermon or something in a hymn or just something had come home to me.
I knew around that time that I had to be a preacher. I had to be a minister, which was a puzzle to me because my dad was a businessman. It was a family company and I assumed that I would take it on from him. So I kind of agonized as a small boy about how that was going to work. And then when it became clear that in fact my father was saying, “It will be interesting to see what you want to do when you grow up,” I realized that there was no pressure on that front. And I remember huge relief: Hey, I can go and do what I really know I have to do!
Throughout that time and then different stages through my teens… Through my teens, I was very much in contact with the evangelical movement through Scripture Union and Boys’ Camps that I used to go on as a teenager and then through into my early twenties. And that would be twice a year… go off to Scotland and stay under canvas and go climbing and sailing and canoeing and all that stuff… but really good Bible teaching, morning and evening. And gradually I started to take a part in leading Bible studies and all of that.
Through my teens, my own personal Christian experience was just growing in a variety of ways – and basically learning how to pray and finding my way around the Bible. Funny but, for me, the Bible was a hobby before it was a serious study. It was the thing I’d sneak off and do on the side, feeling rather guilty because I wasn’t doing my real school homework or whatever… and never thinking I would make it a life’s work.
So I was enormously fortunate in all of that. I was ordained in my mid-twenties.
I guess, as an Anglican, there’s always room to move, which can be a dangerous thing, but also a very healthy thing, because bits of the great biblical tradition which you haven’t fully plugged into before you’ve got the space to grow into… not least, the sacraments. You know there’s very little about the sacraments in the teaching I received when I was in my teens, but in my twenties, working with folk for whom that was actually really very important, in a very biblical way… it gave me the space, enabled me to grow.
That’s probably far enough I guess. I don’t have a Damascus road experience to record. I don’t have anything like that. It’s kind of a steady growth with some wonderful movements in the middle of it.
Trevin Wax: Why is it that you have never pursued exclusively an academic post? Why have you chosen to remain so connected to the local church?
N.T. Wright: It’s a good question. When I was at seminary in my early twenties, one of my teachers said to me, “You’re going to have to decide. Either you’re going to be an academic or you’re going to be a pastor. You can’t be both.” I remember thinking, Rats! I want to be both! Why are you telling me I can’t do these two things?And so I have kind of oscillated to and always wanted to do both.
It’s partly that I’m an extrovert and that I like being with people. If you shut me up in a library with nothing else around for weeks on end, I’d go mad! I have to sort of go out… and…
When I’ve had sabbatical time when I’ve really had the whole of sort of three months to organize entirely as I want, I could stay in the library or at the desk all the time, but by the middle of the day, I’ll find myself wandering downtown and going and sitting in a café with a notebook just to get the buzz of some people. So I’m a people person. I like being with people. So I like being a teacher, and so on.
For me, actually, being a bishop in a bishopric where there’s an academic tradition (going back to people like Lightfoot and Westcott and so on) gives me this fascinating, challenging, but open invitation to say, “We want you to be a scholar. We want you to go on doing this. But do it as a bishop!” And looking back to the earlier centuries of the church, most of the great teachers were also bishops and vice versa. It’s only fairly recently that the church has had this great divide.
Of course, that means that there’s lots of stuff that I can’t do. I don’t do much book-reviewing, for instance, which ordinary scholars do quite a bit. I’ve just had to say to myself, I haven’t got time to do that. And I miss that. I should be doing that, but I’m not. So, it’s a choice.
In terms of personality type… I don’t know if you know the Eneogram and that sort of thing, but on the Eneogram, I’m a number 7. One of the images for number 7 is the butterfly – the little creature that hops from plant to plant because it’s so fascinated by this one, and then it’s so excited by that one, and then it really likes that one too. And that’s very much who I am.
Trevin Wax: How is the worship of the church central to your calling?
N.T. Wright: That’s like saying, “Tell me why breathing is so important to you.” I think if I stopped doing it, I would fall down, or something. I have to look in the mirror and say, “Why is worship important?” Well, it’s what I do. And it’s only comparatively recently, in the last maybe 15 to 20 years that I’ve reflected on why worship is important, which is like somebody who’s always enjoyed eating all their life suddenly reading about the theory of how food works or that sort of thing.
The theory now, which is the sort of intellectual “why,” is that when you worship the God in whose image you’re made, you are renewed as a human being, as an image-bearing creature. I now know that with my head, but that simply corresponds to what I know as a lifelong thing.
And I’m fortunate in that I’ve grown up in a worshipping tradition which is quite rich musically (and music is very important to me) and has a wonderful resource of hymns from all sorts of different parts of the Church… and to go to church and be able to sing that stuff and listen to a Bach motet or indeed some charismatic choruses. I’m very eclectic, musically as in other things! But also to frame the hearing and knowing of Scripture within a context of worship, which is what Anglican liturgy does, just seems to me such a very complete and compelling thing.
Continue Reading: >> Wright on “the gospel”
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