Thursday 12 February 2015

What's Wrong with Wright?

Paul Holloway
There's a storm raging in the hallowed halls of academic theology. Paul Holloway, professor of New Testament at the University of the South, has openly criticised evangelical poster-boy Bishop N. T. (Tom) Wright.
My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.
Tom Wright
This of course is bad form. The backlash has been a thorough lashing - a veritable forty nine strokes. Michael Bird has had a hernia and dear old Peter Carrell has been nigh cataleptic with righteous indignation. Bad show Dr Holloway, bad show!

Of course Paul Holloway is suffering under the weighty disadvantage of being right. Wright is an apologist (and has himself admitted that apologetics was the motivation behind his entry into the field). To call him a book-a-year apologist may be unkind, but inescapably accurate. Wright is a nuanced, articulate and occasionally inspirational apologist - if you're looking for that kind of thing. But apologist is what he is.

But it seems we can't say these things out loud. Plain speaking has never been a virtue in the theological community. Offend nobody, not the sheep in the pews, not the Sunday morning idiots who whine, strut and pout on television, and not ever those perceived to be fellow members of the inner circle of the semi-enlightened. Theology is all too often about dancing around a discussion by a series of feints, subtle pirouettes, and studied ambiguities. You may think Tom Wright's apologetics is garbage, but you may merely hint at that opinion, having wrapped it carefully first in a tissue of polite deference.

And so the evangelical posse has been unleashed, dogs baying. One can only hope Paul Holloway sticks to his guns. We need more people like him.

(See the follow up entry: Theology, hairdressing and Huns)


  1. "One can only hope Paul Holloway sticks to his guns. We need more people like him."

    Hear, hear.

  2. GREAT Halloween costume!

    What sane person could take seriously a man dressed up like THAT?

  3. What's wrong with Holloway? we might also ask. Apparently Holloway is very incensed about Wright's stance on LGBT rights. From an Anglican website, I took the following viewpoint that seemed to me appropos:

    ... "here's the gist of what Professor Holloway says: "N. T. Wright disagrees with my views on particular matters and he represents theological positions that contradict my own. That offends and embarrasses me. Therefore, Wright is not a real scholar and he doesn't deserve an honorary degree."

    I disagree with N.T. Wright on his characterization of the doctrine of grace. He seems to be slipping back into legalism. In that sense, I think he has a little in common with Armstrongism. But to oppose him based on his conservative stance on some social issues and his portfolio of degrees or the lack therefore just seems mean and irrelevant. After all, the doctorate is only honorary. Theology, unlike a hard science, has always been a free-for-all. Even the people who contribute to this blog have a right to an opinion. So where is Holloway coming from? Maybe Wright has made too much money. Holloway doth protest too much, methinks.

    -- Neotherm

  4. As someone who has focused on the Old Testament I am a bit puzzled, several NT scholars' blogs have taken NT Wright seriously as a scholar in their field, I've even heard people talk about a "new perspective on Paul". Why, if he is no scholar? That he also writes more popular works surely is not in itself to get him banned from the guild of scholars?

    1. I've always (ahem, wrightly or wrongly) regarded Wright as a fellow traveller in the New Perspectives camp. He is no Krister Stendahl in my somewhat jaded opinion.

    2. Hi Tim,

      I guess it goes to one's definitions of "scholar" and "apologist." Not everyone agrees with my definitions, I am sure, but I find that they make sense to me, especially when you understand scholarship as a collaborative effort based on trust--trust that the alleged specialist you are reading isn't holding back. Wright says that he has a little red light going off in his head and saying "You better not go there!" whenever the evidence points in a direction that contradicts his Biblicism.
      I have yet to see a footnote saying "My little red light just went off again." You are of course correct that writing in two genres does not disqualify. But that is not my point. Cheers, ph

  5. At first glance at the pictures before reading, I thought both pictures were of the same person.
    Heck, it could even have been Bob Seeger.

    One wearing conventional clothes, one wearing an elaborate and pretentious outfit, and both sans guitars.
    Upon reading, though, there's a relevant message concerning the devout sledgehammering of those who criticize. As a person who once thought he had firmly planted special Godly truths- with the attendant airs of superiority and righteous indignation at those who perceived otherwise- I can somewhat relate to the attitude.

    The act of firmly planting one's beliefs does tend to create another set of problems.

    Here's a question: Why do people who think they're Godly and Holy Spirity get so uptight when criticisms are given toward their cherished notions? Thin skin becomes evident, and a sign that perhaps they are defending what on some level they know are less than rock-solid truths.
    Heck, I remember once writing critical comment that I thought was rather innocuous, but it invoked the righteous anger of a true believer who then called me a blasphemer, suggested I had brain damage that caused the alleged blasphemy, and then warned others about me. Actually, his response made me realize I was probably on the "right" track.

    Let's hope that if there any "Kingdom skills" at all, they're more about the ability to listen to criticism rather than rejecting and becoming incensed by it.

  6. "... Tom Wright's apologetics is garbage..."

    Right. But no Ratzies for you, then:

  7. Gavin,
    Excellent comments. I've made my own comments on the affair at including a link to your article.

  8. Generally, people schooled in Science are familiar with a certain methodology, and therefore have strict threshholds as to what defines truth. In terms of cross-perceptions, although there doesn't seem to be a direct equivalent within science of the apologist, many Christian ministers treat all scientists as if the entire scientific community were apologists. That is a fallacy. Highly educated individuals are accustomed to peer review by similarly educated people, and greater information becomes part of the body of scientific knowledge as a result of peer review.

    To me, writers such as N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, and others are not expected to be sources of perfect knowledge. Cheerleaders? Perhaps. Occasionally unique thinkers? That, too, from time to time. But, basically they are motivational speakers for people of a certain philosophy, the Zig Ziglars of Christianity as it were.

    In Armstrongism, one embedded precept was that you had to identify "the one true" whatever, and immediately begin single sourcing your input on virtually any topic to that entity, as well as contributing financially to that entity. The problem with that is that the "one true" doesn't exist. HWA and the boys were so wrong on so many levels and topics, that they were not only useless, but also detrimental to a person's life. Yet so embedded was this need for a perfect, all-knowing guru that even today, if someone quotes, say Joel Osteen, as saying something that 95% of the general population would recognize as being inspiring, it triggers snide responses, such as, "Oh. Is he your guru, now? Is he the man you now pattern your life after? Well, he's a crook!" If, otoh, someone were to quote Stephen Hawking, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, remarks such as that would not, as a rule, be made.

    Most people would not attempt to hire their dentist to do their taxes. An accountant is better suited for that job. And if we tried to apply identical professional standards to both, the results would prove to be apples to oranges. Only a simpleton would even attempt to do that. HWA's minions attempted to apply the standards for good classical music to all of the other genres. Basically, that eliminated non-classical genres, probably his goal from the beginning. Get rid of all, but your own fave. No place for, "I have to give Beethoven's Fifth a 3, because it doesn't have a beat you can dance to, and you can't hum the melody". (When ELO's "Roll over Beethoven was popular, people would just stand there patiently on the dance floor through the Beethoven opening, and then cut in with some awesome dancing during the Chuck Berry part!).

    Scientists and apologists are both useful in our lives, so long as one does not confuse one for the other. Unfortunately, the apologists all too often encourage the blurring and confusion.


  9. Yes, Joel Osteen may say some things that the general population would claim as being inspiring, and that's a problem because his candy-coated teachings leave out way more of the general population's experiences than what he includes.

    I recently watched a sermon of his, in which he claimed that God will "Supersize" the requests you pray for. While he gave no proofs of the examples, he gave example after example after example of people's prayer requests that got "Supersized"- and such examples proffered were straight out of the playbooks of religious con artists that have preceded him- money and supernatural healing.

    Watching Joel Osteen say this garbage almost made me puke! What others had said about him had made me think he might be OK, but what he said was totally of the character of the long tradition of religious con-men that have preceded him.

    He gave no nod to McDonalds for the "Supersizing" thingy, nor to the much greater majority of people who pray just as fervently(as those who get Supersized) yet do not have their prayers answered.