Blogger of the Month for February 2009
Jim West interviews Bishop N. T. Wrong
“Bishop Wrong” was the author of the NT Wrong blog athttp://ntwrong.wordpress.com/.
JW: Bishop- thanks for agreeing to subject yourself to our questions. The first, because it’s top of everyone’s mind, is, why are you quitting blogging?
NTW: Well, let me first say that blogging has been tremendous fun — and I have enjoyed meeting and interacting with a wide range of personalities in the biblioblogging world. When I first began blogging under the somewhat satirical moniker of ‘N T Wrong’, I didn’t really expect it would last the nine months that it did. I almost stopped a couple of times, but then felt that I had a bit more to offer as ‘N T Wrong’. So my cessation of this blog was something I’d always planned. In addition, I have some other plans to busy myself with over the next year or so — some writing of an altogether more serious sort. And I can now reveal that I have a particular scandalous new internet project bubbling away, which I have been thinking about for a few months now, and which I’m rather excited about. Blogs tend to react, very quickly (which is their great advantage), to events in reality. The obvious development of this would be to ’speed up’ the process even further, to create a reality of biblical proportions in a website’s very creation. The project I am envisaging is precisely that of the map which precedes the territory, with thanks to Baudrillard (obviously) and (oddly enough) Balfour. I’ll be sending out invitations in a few months time which will include my biblioblogging pals, and which will make all of this quite clear.
JW: Now that that’s out of the way, what got you into blogging in the first place?
NTW: I started off by discovering and then regularly reading a bunch of biblioblogs, due to my interest in all matters concerning biblical studies. There’s one thing about biblioblogs — they keep you up to date. And as I also like to express my own opinion to anybody willing to listen, I thought I’d give it a whirl myself. As I had only been interested in the biblioblogs whose commentary or style kept me entertained, I thought I’d go for an overtly comical angle. Although, if truth be told, this angle is actually just a façade. I’m one of the most deeply serious people I know, and keep bringing up deeply serious issues even when people around me just want to talk shit. In fact, I constantly try to talk shit and also be serious at the same time. Humor is merely the Trojan Horse, so as to get in under people’s radar.
JW: Which blogs keep you entertained?
NTW: Ones which are informative, discerning, innovative, eloquent, humorous, honest, quirky, human, regularly updated, and exciting. In some or all of those categories are Jim West’s, James Crossley’s (Earliest Christian History), Roland Boer’s (Stalin’s Moustache), James McGrath’s (Exploring Our Matrix), April DeConick’s (Forbidden Gospels Blog), Antonio Lombatti’s (Pseudoscienze cristiane antiche e medievali), and Duane Smith’s (Abnormal Interests), off the top of my head. And there are some that I visit for specific reasons, too, such as Ekaterini Tsalampouni’s valuable Biblical Studies Blog for checking out the latest journal contents and conference announcements. I’ll still be reading these blogs, even if you don’t hear from me.
JW: You seem very knowledgeable about biblical studies. Might we presume that you have training in the field, or are you an amateur?
NTW: You can correctly presume that I have training in the field. (Wank wank wank!)
JW: Why blog anonymously?
NTW: It gives you a degree of freedom to say what you really think, without worrying about what those who might employ you think. I encourage everybody to do it. In fact, most books should be published pseudonymously, too. Who doesn’t want to write a scathing refutation of what they wrote ten years ago? I think it could encourage more open writing. It might also make it easier for people to approach works without bias against the author. It wouldn’t help with The Man’s academic publishing requirements — but you know what they can do.
JW: I’m certain you’re aware of the recent attempt to discover the ‘Historical Wrong’. What did you think of it?
NTW: This was one of the most absurd things I’ve seen in a long time. There were dozens of posts dedicated to discovering N. T. Wrong’s identity, thousands of words written, with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness. I loved it. I felt like I was watching from the box-seat at the theatre of the absurd. It was pure pathos at its most Pythonesque. Like waiting for Godot — who you deep down know will never come, but that’s not the point. Brilliant. Thanks to all who orchestrated it, and to those — even more absurdly — who took it seriously.
It also made me wonder whether this is how the Historical Jesus quest got started — as a joke which some slightly anal fellow didn’t quite get, and then it sort of snowballed from there, gradually gathering momentum until everybody thought it was actually very serious. Kind of Emperor’s New Clothes. I mean — why else would you exert effort for such a patently ridiculous endeavour, if not for the pure absurdity of it all?
JW: Now, why ‘NT Wrong’? Obviously it’s a swipe at NT Wright. So, I’m forced to ask, why portray yourself as the anti-Wright?
NTW: It’s a strange ‘discipline’, isn’t it, in which one of the most well-known practitioners of biblical studies ends up quite high up in the hierarchy of the group which should really be the object of his study. Now, there are a few anthropologists and sociologists who do something similar as a form of total immersion or for some reason (I’m thinking, say, of Barbara Tedlock, both academic anthropologist of mysticism and practising shaman). But the difference is that these people not only use the emic experience to inform the etic conception, but continue to recognize the benefit of an etic conception to inform the emic experience. In the case of so many biblical scholars today — and N. T. Wright is merely just one of the most visible ones (and not only because he’s wearing a bright purple frock) — the academic-religious mix only goes, tendentiously, in one direction. Biblical studies is considered to ultimately be a mere tool for the service of the Church, so that everything done within the discipline is not primarily for the sake of knowledge itself, but for constructing new apologetics.
It goes without saying that I continue to see a valid distinction between ‘use’ and ‘interpretation’ (and I like Umberto Eco’s theoretical approach here), and I place scholars whom I encounter somewhere along the continuum between them. Frustratingly, in reading the publications of biblical studies, there are too many of these scholars far closer to the ‘use’ end of the continuum, so much so that it is just annoying to have to continually second guess whether a particular biblical scholar is interested in discovering what is true or only has an interest in defending what is already believed to be true. The state of biblical commentaries — a ‘primary secondary’ source for biblical studies — is a simply appalling example of this. I genuinely struggled to think of a single biblical commentary which was not, at least in part, apologetic, despite the fact that many are published for an academic audience. I’m not saying that biblical studies has a monopoly on this, and I know that it is to some extent unavoidable for a human being to be self-interested. But there are, likewise, better and worse approaches to texts — along the same continuum I outlined — and this also goes for interests such as postcolonialism, feminism, racism, ecology, or queer studies. In addition, there are also very good grounds for jumping right in and (ab) using the Bible for your own ends — as long as you’re clear that’s what you’re doing.
There is already a place for apologetic biblical studies: theological seminaries.
JW: What do you really think of Bishop Wright’s work?
NTW: It’s too long. You might have guessed that I thought this, but so much of it is constructed from an attempt to make apologetic responses to moral and exegetical problems within the biblical text. And so much of the resulting product strikes me as contrived. For example, the entire idea behind his ‘New Perspective’ is transparently an attempt to resurrect a logic within Paul’s soteriology where earlier scholars had challenged the presence of any logic after the ’shocking’ discovery that all Jewish opponents weren’t really soulless legalists, Paul was in fact a Jew, and Paul didn’t have a sixteenth century mindset. But instead of the straightforward option of reassessing the nature of Paul’s concerns by beginning with a close reading of his own writings, you get this 1980s- Apartheid-Protestor approach which interprets everything in light of some externally imposed idea of Paul’s concern with what has become known as ‘boundary markers’.
And in that we see the basic problem of the apologetic approach to biblical studies. It’s motivated by apologetic concerns, and it’s necessarily contrived as a result. The same apologetic motivation is there for liberal humanists, incidentally, and the same contrived outcomes result there too.
If there is anything that is a testimony to the failure of the New Perspective, it’s the unbelievably contrived stretches which result when Wright tries to apply his ideas in a full commentary on Romans (in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary). It’s like watching a defender of the Ptolemaic view of the universe adding epicycle upon epicycle. His very defence of the New Perspective shows something must be wrong with it. Talk about hoist with your own petard.
The same trajectory from apologetic response to contrived results can be seen in his approach to eschatology: the Bible sounds a bit nasty, doesn’t it?; let’s interpret it so it goes away (and after a brief period somebody like Edward Adams comes along and points out that the problem hasn’t gone away… and then the whole apologetic edifice is constructed anew by another generation of apologetic biblical scholars).
Although the Bishop of Durham claims to take a critical approach to the Gospels, in actual fact he would go so far as to defend the historicity of the most patently unhistorical events, such as — as a random example — Matthew’s zombie-saints.
JW: Have you ever benefited from it?
NTW: Yes. For example, I quite like his focus on symbolic meanings in the Gospels, which rightly counters a modern overemphasis on the written text. Some of the examples he gives are very good.
Although I have many complaints, I still read evangelical biblical scholars alongside non-evangelical ones. It would be foolish to ignore them. Somebody always makes a correct observation that you’ve missed. There’s treasure in some funny places. Remember the lesson shown to the prophet Balaam: God sometimes chooses to speak out of His ass.
JW: If you were asked to co-author a volume with Wright, would you do it?
NTW: Of course!
NTW: I genuinely enjoy and gain from exchanges with most people. And think of the naming opportunities! ‘The Battle of Wright and Wrong’; ‘The Wrights and Wrongs of the New Perspective’; ‘Wrong for all the Wright Reasons’…
JW: If Wright isn’t your ‘cup of tea’, which scholars, ancient or modern, do you consider your models?
NTW: Hmmmmm… who would I have on ‘America’s Next Top Model Scholar’? (Now there’s a ratings flop waiting to happen.) Assuming we can bring some of them back from the dead, I’d tend to favour the ones who weren’t constrained by prevailing paradigms or who have inspired me to work harder. In no particular order: Albie Schweizer, Nic Wyatt, Philip Davies, Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette, Julius Wellhausen, Emmanuel Tov, Slavojiek, and James Crossley (the latter not only for the piss-up afterwards).
JW: What, may I ask, are your professional goals?
NTW: To reconfigure the manner in which biblical studies is carried out in the entire world.
JW: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
NTW: I read fiction. I recently quite enjoyed Darkmans by Nicola Barker. I quite like music such as Nick Cave, Conor Oberst, Iron & Wine, and Lily Allen. I like a good movie, too — I recently blahed out on Tom Tykwer movies on DVD. I do a bit of gardening, and aim to create a self-sufficient vegetable garden, and am currently preparing soil for the upcoming season. I also enjoy the occasional subversive art attack on cityscapes.
JW: Do you have any secret hobbies or interests that our readers might find surprising?
JW: I’ll presume you have some typing disorder and meant to type ‘fishing’. So, do you have a family?
NTW: No, I’m sui generis and arrived here ex nihilo… Okay, you got me, I do in fact have a family. I’m married, too.
JW: Does your wife read your blog?
NTW: She has, but she wasn’t that interested. She’s very indulging of my foibles, though.
JW: If you were shipwrecked on a desert island, what single book would you take to read until you were rescued?
NTW: Charlesworth’s OTP. Unless Davila’s updated version had come out before my shipwreck, and I’d take that.
JW: One last question, and of course you’re free to ‘take the fifth’ – who are you?
NTW: A biblical scholar. Thank you for the interview, Jim. And I’ll see some of you at SBL New Orleans, which is less than 10 months away now.