Monday, December 02, 2013

Tom Wright Cometh...

I finished the Preface to N. T. Wright's long expected, 1500 page Paul and the Faithfulness of God. At 30 pages a week, that's at least a year of blog reviewing yet to come!!

Wright begins his 1500 page two book tome with an outline. He has arranged it in somewhat of a chiasm! A chiasm is a literary structure where the first element (A) corresponds to the last (A'), the second (B) to the second to last (B'), and so on until you reach the middle element. So chapter 1 correlates with chapter 16, chapter 2 with 15, and so on.

Wright does warn us, however, that it is not a perfect set up. While chapter 5 does correspond with chapter 12, the intervening chapters do not relate in that way. Part 2 (chaps. 6-8) gives us Paul's mindset within the worldview of his communities, but Part 3 (chaps. 9-11) gives us Paul's uniquely invented theology. "My proposal is that Paul actually invents something we may call 'Christian theology'" (xvi).

It seems hardly a coincidence that the heart of the book is chapters 9-11! Must not the Great Bishop mean us to think of Romans 9-11? Indeed, he mentions Romans 9-11 a little later in the preface as chapters Paul had in mind from the very beginning of Romans.

Wright also justifies taking a more synchronic approach to Paul rather than a diachronic one. A diachronic approach might have proceeded through Paul's letters and then synthesized them into a theology. Wright prefers a synchronic approach, one that looks at Paul's letters more or less as all teaching the same thing and thus, in a sense, Wright, treats them somewhat as a single text. He does not put it in this way, but he comes close when he says, "We should therefore expect to find that Paul says briefly and cryptically in one place what elsewhere he spells out in more detail" (xx).

Wright rejects charges that he first invented a picture, a "controlling story," and then superimposed it on the early Christian writers (xviii). Rather, he insists he has developed his understanding in constant dialogue with the primary texts.

The rest of the preface is filled with the sort of thing you might expect. He will presuppose his work in the earlier volumes--The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection and the Son of God. He thanks all of those who reviewed parts of the project. He gives some of the story of the writing. And, of course, he dedicates the book to Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School.

So much of these brief pages are exactly the picture of Tom Wright that we have come to know, love, and occasionally poke fun at. He has designed this project in the form of a chiasm! Brilliant!

I regularly tell my students that anyone who sees a chiasm of this scope in a biblical text is just plain wrong, that there is a certain personality that loves to go chiasm-hunting and they are always wrong. The massively complex and extensive chiasms some interpreters see in great swaths of biblical text are a sign of the brilliance of the interpreter rather than of anything the text itself was likely to mean. What original reader or hearer would have caught such complexity? Such interpreters unknowingly reveal that they are not really interested in the text as real communication between one person and another but as a mirror of their own ingenuity and as a canvas on which they might paint timeless truths.

So any chiasm someone sees in a text that is more than a couple verses, or more complex than two or three steps, is almost certainly wrong... that is, unless they are Tom Wright and they tell you up front! His is a beautiful mind. I have often humorously remarked that Wright is sometimes more brilliant than Paul himself. :-)

I did not have to read anyone else's critique to think that Wright sometimes reads an overarching story into Paul that goes beyond any metanarrative Paul himself conceptualized. There is no question that Wright has spent a lifetime in dialog with the texts and that he knows them absolutely. It is nonetheless still possible that, like so many scholars, Wright has throughout his career played out the great spark about Jesus being Israel that he had back in his Oxford days.

If you had asked me whether Wright would pick a synchronic or a diachronic approach, I would have guessed correctly.  Of course Wright is more interested in a coherent, even if complex ideological system than in a more historically particular and variable Paul. Wright is both theologian and exegete, and perhaps history will eventually tell us which he is more. What we know is that he is brilliant.

But don't let this fun-poking come off as disparaging but rather as the kind of jabbing a friend might make to another whose idiosyncrasies are beloved. A group of friends are sitting at a coffee shop together with a famous friend who is the center of everyone's attention. You know at some point in the brilliant conversation the quirk will emerge. Wait for it; wait for it.

It comes. Smiles come across the faces. Knowing looks are exchanged. And everyone continues listening.


Doug Chaplin said...

I hadn't noticed you'd changed the name of the blog, Ken. I shall enjoy following your interactions. I posted a few days back on getting to the end of book 1.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the link... you're way ahead of me. I just don't have the time to move through it that quickly. I'll appreciate your foretastes!