I am back from the NT Wright conference at Wheaton College in Illinois: “Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Dialogue with N.T. Wright.” I plan to offer my reflections in three parts: general, Friday (Jesus), and Saturday (Paul).
To begin, here are some general and rather random thoughts about the conference as a whole.
First of all, it was simply big, impressively big: lots of books, lots of people, lots of interesting people, both on stage and off. There were 1,100 people registered, plus some Wheaton students and faculty and, in the evenings, the general public watching in the gym on big screens. I have no official count, but it would not surprise me if there were 2,000 people in attendance Friday evening. The crowd was fascinating. Though mostly white, there was some racial and ethnic diversity, but there was definitely a wide span of ages. Lots of younger folks of course—college and seminary students, the newly ordained, etc.—but also people my age and older. The crowd was also denominationally diverse, with some Catholics, Orthodox, and even a Jewish rabbi sprinkled among the Anglicans and Protestants and post-Protestants of various stripes. I kept bumping into both younger and established biblical scholars and theologians, including some rather legendary figures like Kenneth Bailey and René Padilla. I spent some time with Nijay Gupta of Ashland (and soon Seattle Pacific), Woody Anderson of Nashotah House, Rodrigo Morales of Marquette, and Andy Rowell of Duke’s ThD program. I also saw Todd Billings of Western Seminary and met numerous other professors from various fields and places.
Second, it was stimulating: lots of good presentations, lots of interesting and even important conversations. I was particularly happy to get to interact with a few younger students who are preparing for ministry and/or considering doctoral work. I always relish those opportunities at SBL and elsewhere, but there were far more students here than at SBL.
Third, it was well organized and executed. Nick Perrin (NTW’s onetime research assistant) and Jeff Greenman, both of Wheaton’s faculty, did an excellent job, and the many orange-shirted student volunteers giving directions, etc. could not have been more helpful.
Fourth, it was doxological, which is what theology should be. Each session included sacred music by gifted instrumentalists, prayer, and congregational singing (chiefly Taizé and Iona pieces). Grant LeMarquand of Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh (and NTW’s former student) led the prayer and worship, ably assisted by musicians who were also from Trinity.
Fifth, the conference basically lived up to its subtitle: a dialogue. At one level, this was a laudatory event, a love-fest for Bishop Tom, if you will, or at least a profound expression of appreciation. But even the most appreciative papers offered critique, or at least suggestions for improvement or new directions. There was time for feedback from the Bishop to the papers, time for interaction between him and the presenters, and questions from the attendees. That said, however, there probably should have been more time and space allotted to interaction between the panelists and NTW. These were major figures giving substantive engagements with his work about important issues, yet he only had about 5 minutes max to respond to each paper (15-20 minutes to respond to four papers, though he took a bit more time). His responses were therefore necessarily—for the most part—brief and even rushed, with some papers getting lots of attention and some a lot less. The actual give-and-take dialogue, though good at points, was not extensive.
It was unfortunate that Richard Hays, one of the conference organizers and the co-editor of the conference volume that will appear, had to leave (to preach as this father-in-law’s funeral) after giving the first address.
Sixth, the conversation was rather comprehensive: Jesus in relation to history and story/theology, Jesus and John (since NTW has focused on the synoptics), Jesus and economic justice today, Jesus and ethics in light of his eschatology; justification and union with Christ in Paul, NTW’s emergent-friendly ecclesiology, Paul’s individual eschatology, and righteousness in Paul.
Lastly, Bishop Tom was at his rhetorical best in his chapel address and in his two evening lectures. Not a lot of new ground, but vintage Wright on God’s mission and the church, Jesus, and Paul.
On a personal note, I was glad that my student Susan was able to attend the conference–and speak briefly with Bishop Tom—since she is doing an independent study on NTW and Paul this term. I was also glad that I could meet up with Fuller student Angela, who went to Greece and Turkey with me in February.
On a different note, presenter Markus Bockmuehl had a terrible and expensive time getting from Oxford to Chicago for the NTW conference—via trains to Paris and Zurich—and was fearing he may have to return via Africa! I am anxious to hear what happened to him.