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More than a brain

Q&A | Controversial theologian N.T. Wright is also a father, a pastor, and a teacher

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

The books of N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, and one of the world's leading theologians, are influential. (His latest is After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, published by HarperOne.) His ideas, particularly his work on "the new perspective on Paul," are controversial. Interviewers normally treat him as if he were a disembodied intellect, a brain on a stick. I don't want to ignore the controversy about his writing, but those debates are widely available elsewhere-so I asked questions about his life. The following is an edited version of some questions and answers.

How did you feel called as a child to go into Christian ministry? I grew up in a very ordinary English middle-of-the-road Anglican family, so church was just part of the scene. When I was 6, 7, or 8, I remember a very intense experience. I must have heard a sermon or sung a hymn or something, but it suddenly all made sense about Jesus dying for me. I had a sense of overwhelming love and gratitude, and said, this is it, this is how my life is going to be shaped.

And at age 12 you went to summer camp. Somebody invited me to a holiday boys' camp where we climbed mountains, canoed, stuff like that-and where there were morning and evening prayers. Very short and basic, but one of the leaders would give a simple talk on a passage of Scripture. It was the kind of thing I was absolutely ready for. I started reading the Bible regularly, and without knowing it was absorbed into a much more overtly and explicit evangelical way of doing things.

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You married right after your graduation from Oxford. How did marriage and four children within seven years affect your thinking? I had to relate my theology to the real issues of what it means to have a young family. Most of my life I've been either in the church world or the junior academic world, in neither of which you make a lot of money. When we bought our first house, in Canada, the mortgage rates were 24 percent, and knowing what one now knows, that is just crippling for a young family.

How did you raise your children? We had a lot of fun and played a lot of games, but sometimes difficult decisions have to be made. When you find that the telephone bill comes in with a 3½-hour phone call, there are some questions to be asked-"What precisely was this about?"-about the cost and the exam that the person had to do the next day. It was never a list of rules. It was, "We're in this together, and we're trying to make it work." Sometimes I would just sit down with them when they were grumbling because there wasn't enough money for what they wanted to do, and say, "Here's our family balance sheet. This is what we've spent this month; here's what's come in; you tell me what things we should have cut in order to give you more cash."

How did you teach your children about Jesus? We took them to church. We had a children's Bible and we would take turns reading and saying a prayer about things with them. That was a part of our life. I think there were times when I tried to be a bit more formal and do something more solid, but we moved house so often, and they would be moving schools, and our family life would be so disrupted that it wasn't ever easy to settle down and say, "This is our pattern," because soon we'd be off and doing something else.

You mentioned in one place the regular comment of your children, "Dad, you're going to have to say it clearer than that in order to get hold of me." Particularly when they were in the 8 to 18 range, we'd be discussing something at a meal and I would launch in to try and explain something, and they would stop me in full flight and just say, "Sorry, Dad, I just don't know what that language means."

You developed your most significant insights into Jesus while teaching at McGill in the early 1980s? I was lecturing on Jesus and the Gospels that semester at McGill. I started getting really interested in the history of the first century in general, and in putting Jesus within that history as a real human being. That was enormously exciting. My second year at McGill I was teaching a course which was basically about that, and I was unprepared for it in the sense that I didn't know where it was going. There were no major books that I was following. I was feeling my way forwards in the dark, really. I kept week-by-week reading texts that I knew, but from a different angle, a historical angle, and seeing that they all fitted together. They didn't diminish the theology, but rather brought it up in three dimensions. And that was tremendously exciting.

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