February 5, 2014

Wright's Monolithic "Paul"

A Theologian depicting the past is not a Historian, necessarily, and a great way to understand this distinction is to read Doug Chaplin's review of NT Wright's massive new work on Paul.

What Wright primarily does is to synthesize Paul's thought. For that, he only needs to bring in historical elements that might best help to explain Paul's ideas but even those - Augustus and Vergil and cult practice and Judean customs and so forth - seen to have no intrinsic value in themselves. They are intellectual foils for our hero, props and meaningful scenery for the main character to comment on or react against in his monologues. There is no action, no consequence, no development, and thus despite the swirling dramas of these things in Paul's speeches, there is no drama on display within Paul himself. As Story, this would be an awful stage play, but a great work of philosophy.

Now, depicting the past should of course include depicting Ideas from that past. There is little of consequence in history that was not ideologically conditioned in some way or another. Thinking affects people's decisions, it prompts action, and thinking can be changed by events also. Actions and Ideas can both cause change and result from particular changes. And that is precisely the point. The "Paul" in Wright's head is apparently unchanging, reacting to but unshaped by the first century world around him.

Read Doug's review, and prepare to be enlightened. Wright's immense popularity in Christendom today helps illustrate how the church shares his fixation and blind spot. By and large, we care too much for ideas, and too little for human dynamics.

I persist in believing that non-fiction storytelling, and historically conditioned awareness of first century events, can help bring about much needed change for Christians today. But if you think of "History" in the same way NT Wright thinks of history, then please bookmark this post and Doug's review and come back to wrestle with both again some time. Your future is waiting.

Anon, then...

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