Why are 1,100 People Going to a Conference about N.T. Wright?

Next Friday and Saturday the annual Wheaton College Theology Conference in Illinois will be devoted to the subject of N.T. Wright’s contributions to the study of Jesus (Friday) and Paul (Saturday). “A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright” will consist of a series of presentations by some of the world’s top biblical scholars and theologians, a panel with the presenters and Tom Wright each day, chapel with Tom preaching, and a concluding lecture each night by the good bishop.

Why are 1,100 people, including yours truly, attending? Why did 900 come to my seminary to hear him, and in the process buy $13,000 worth of his books in about a 24-hour period? He may well be the most widely and influential New Testament scholar of all time.

A few thoughts:

1. Bishop Tom is a first-rate historian, New Testament scholar, theologian, churchman, and rhetorician all rolled into one. He is the total package.

2. As an historian and interpreter of texts, he is enormously insightful in his analysis and creative in his synthesis.

3. He has almost boundless energy and is simply a spellbinding speaker. As one noted speaker said when introduced as the next presenter following the bishop’s magical presentation, “No one should have to follow Tom Wright on a program.” Amazingly, he can do what he does often with little time for preparation—for instance, a riveting lecture or sermon prepared in a few minutes early in the morning and delivered before the rest of us have begun to think for the day. As one good friend of mine says, it’s a question of theodicy, of the justice of God, that someone can do that.

4. He is sometimes traditional and sometimes progressive, and often both at the same time.

5. He brings theology and Scripture to life, making the connection between them and the role of Christians in the real world.

6. Finally (at least for now) he has helped to revolutionize and solidify our understanding of many things about Jesus and Paul and the mission of the church. That’s not to say anyone, including me, agrees with him all the time. But he must always be taken seriously.

What else about him is worth noting?

24 Responses to “Why are 1,100 People Going to a Conference about N.T. Wright?”

  1. Jason says:

    This is the consequence of the attributes you mention: the amount of writing he does is sometimes staggering!

  2. In addition to him being a first-rate speaker and a prolific author, it is the quality of his writing that often gets overlooked. His prose is mesmerizing even when we disagree with his interpretation(s). I think Joel Willitts said something along these lines the other day, mentioning his apt turns of phrase and that no one is better at this than Wright. I agree.

  3. Matt says:

    I think it’s because he’s able to write academically without using jargon, and when he does use jargon he’s able to define his terms in an elegant way.

    Writing style goes a long way!

  4. Andy Rowell says:

    Great job, Michael. I will see you there! I have linked to your post at my:
    Resources for Wheaton Theology Conference on N. T. Wright
    http://www.andyrowell.net/andy_rowell/2010/04/resources-for-wheaton-theology-conference-on-n-t-wright.html

  5. [...] the 1100? Mike Gorman, N.T. Wright and a crowd emerging… Michael Gorman has commented on the fact that 1100 people are registered for the Wheaton Theology conference that [...]

  6. MJG says:

    Jason: sometimes?

    Matt and Matt—agreed; he is a superb writer. And he comes up with the same brilliant turns of phrases while speaking, even extemporaneously.

    Andy—yes; catch-up time!

    One thing I forgot to mention—his voice. Let’s face it: for us Americans (and especially tenors!), it’s part of the mix.

  7. It seems Bishop Tom is determined to be as accessible as possible, doesn’t it, both as a writer and as a speaker? He has quipped that he only seems to be in such great demand, but we know that cannot be the truth! When he spoke to a gathering of pastors in our presbytery last year, I stated my admiration that he could and does write so well and so much. His answer was that the fact of his writing so much is even odder, given that he would rather spend the time among people. He is truly a gift to the Church.

  8. If it is true that he is the most influential New Testament scholar in recent history: let us just praise God! To have someone so faithful, competent and brilliant in such a role can only be good for the church.

    On top of all the things that have been listed, I think it is important to remember that he is a gentleman who seems always to have time to chat. I have had the pleasure of meeting him a few times and he is positively welcoming to people engaging him with questions (or just chat) after he has spoken- that speaks of a hospitality that is rare in and of itself!

  9. MJG says:

    Bill and Kevin—agreed.

    People should take a look at Nijays’ comments, too (see link four comments above).

  10. Michael says:

    Michael, if the first section of # 3 is correct, my IBR paper is gonna be a downer.

  11. MJG says:

    Yep. :-) Sorry.

  12. MJG says:

    Well, maybe not in your case, since you also have boundless energy.

  13. mike w says:

    can i add that he oozes grace towards those he disagrees with

  14. MJG says:

    Mike W—

    I tend to agree that this is generally true, but I know some who would not agree, especially about certain hot-button issues.

  15. T says:

    Don’t forget the man’s last name. It matches some of his amazing qualtities with a slightly eerie providential accuracy. I don’t even think it would have been better if “Wright” had been his middle name.

    And while I’m on the lighter side, I think it’s good that he’s bald! If he had a full head of hair to go with all these other fabulous qualities, he might actually have crossed the line and be too good to be taken as true. Seriously. If the man looked like Elvis, I’d really be tempted to believe that there had to be a horribly dark flaw in there somewhere we were just missing. It would honestly be distracting from what he has to say. Thankfully, his God-given inability to win any beauty convinces me me that he is really human!

    Plus, as a fellow baldy, he does us credit.

  16. T says:

    Sorry I meant “win any beauty contests”

    And I’m not saying he’s ugly! It would just be a little spooky if he could model in his spare time. :)

  17. Leland Vickers says:

    As others have mentioned, I am most impressed by the combination pastoral care for his flock and his writing/speaking skills. These two certainly complement each other and are seldom so balanced in quality. Perhaps someone should comment on how wide awake he appears, even though he must be writing through most nights!

  18. Wright is gloriously kind even while completely disagreeing with someone. I think of his treatment of Schillebeeckx while describing the meaning of Easter in RSG. Wright gives a brief overview of Schillebeeckx’s argument in which Schillebeeckx basically suggests that after a conversion experience “resurrection” stories developed. Wright’s assessment is typical, “This view is ingenious and subtle, but demonstrably wrong on almost every account” (RSG, 703). I think also of his assessment of Crossan in the opening chapter of JVG.

    Wright is ecumenical without capitulating his beliefs. I think of his work with Marcus Borg, “The Meaning of Jesus.” Wright sitting down with a Jesus Seminar guy, taking communion before writing about Jesus. Reading Borg and Wright side by side is an interesting exercise, but it shows how open to dialog Wright is. While having a conversation with anyone, Wright maintains his convictions based on sound historical argument and admitting his faith perspective. He will not, however, allow his faith to be reason for his academic opponents to dismiss him.

    He’s pretty tall too. I don’t know how one would quantify that characteristic, but if this is an exhaustive list . . .

    I can’t think of someone as influential in NT studies who got the attention while alive since Bultmann. His major works, NTPG, JVG, RSG and his much anticipated book on Paul will be talked about and referenced for decades to come. I’m looking forward to the conference with great anticipation.

    Wright will be fantastic, but I’m also looking forward with great anticipation to hearing from Richard Hays and Marcus Bockmuehl. Hays is an amazingly clear writer. Bockmuehl, though newer to me, I think merits serious attention.

  19. MJG says:

    Tyler and Leland—

    Well said. Maybe we will meet at the conference, Tyler.

    T—

    I’m glad he’s rather bald, too, apparently for the same reason. :-)

    Some years back over dinner during a visit at Westminster Abbey I proposed a book to edit with him called “The Wright Answer,” a compilation of his correspondence. Maybe some day!

  20. Michael N. says:

    Thanks for the post Michael and I am enjoying the comments as well!

    I had the opportunity to spend around two hours interviewing him during the time the Da Vinci Code book was in full swing and a few thoughts come to mind.

    1) He is amazingly deft at switching gears between academic banter and answering questions in a non-technical way.

    2) As others have mentioned he is extremely gracious with his time. I remember interviewing with Richard Bauckham before Bishop Wright and Richard asked me how I was able to get time with Tom as he was very busy with church business, his book, and upcoming conferences. Bishop Tom mentioned that the Discovery Channel, History Channel, and PrimeTime had been there the week before and yet he made me feel like I was just as important.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts from the conference. Thanks again.

  21. MJG says:

    Michael—

    Right on both counts, in my experience.

  22. Christian says:

    Here’s something no one’s mentioned yet:
    Wright’s New Testament exegesis is buttressed by a well thought-through Jewish Biblical meta-narrative framework. More often than not he lands on what turns out to be the exegetical high ground, because his interpretation of a NT text seems to have breathed in more Jewish first century air than other readings.

  23. MJG says:

    Christian,

    True. Thanks. But sometimes, especially on the issue of exile, and also on some other points about the form and content of that metanarrative, he is charged with fitting the data into a predetermined theoretical construct. Of course no one else does that. :-)

  24. [...] Wright beskrevs nyligen av Mike Gorman som kanske den mest inflytelserike nytestamentliga forskaren någonsin. Det är starka ord, men [...]

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