It is not every day you get to sit down with one of the most influential living Christian thinkers. We are sitting in an inner-city church in London which a local vicar has kindly made available to us for filming. As a local primary school year group leave after receiving an RE lesson in the building Tom Wright arrives. Dressed in an overcoat and a Yorkshireman's cap he greets the small group of staff who have asked to sit in on the filming, cracks jokes, makes small talk. He is at ease in his own skin and puts others at ease in his company. This humble man is however the most prolific biblical scholar in a generation. Some say he is the most important Christian apologist since CS Lewis.
He has written more than 70 books, including the monumental series Christian Origins and the Question of God. He was formerly canon theologian of Westminster Abbey and Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. He taught New Testament at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford Universities and has been a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Gregorian University in Rome and many other institutions around the world. He was the Bishop of Durham before his current post as Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews.
There are a million questions I want to ask him. We talk briefly about his latest book The Day the Revolution Began (You can see my mini interview here and then we get talking about other books that have shaped this great scholar's life. First of all I ask which book from his early years as a Christian best helped him to come to grips with his faith.
Miracles by CS Lewis
NTW: When I was first studying theology, a wise friend told me I ought to read CS Lewis' book Miracles. It was controversial then and is controversial now; the question of "Did Jesus do miracles?" "How do miracles work?"
It was Lewis who really first alerted me to the fact that in the Gospels when all these strange things are happening this isn't just playing tricks or conjuring tricks within the old world, these are signs of God's new creation breaking in and in particular the resurrection stories which have been so difficult for people to understand. Was this really a ghost story or what? But Lewis grasped the fact that this is actually new creation, that Jesus has gone through death and out the other side into a new world, a new whole way of being. And he saw what many scholars actually haven't seen– that in the Gospels those stories are so strange, not because somebody's making it up 50 years later but because something new has burst upon the world, which they were struggling to grasp but which still can excite us with the promise of God's new creation today.
Secondly I ask him which book best helped shape his thinking as a scholar. My only limit was that it needed to still be in print.
The Language and Imagery of the Bible, GB Caird
NTW: My teacher was a man called GB Caird and he wrote a wonderful book (just before he died actually) called The Language and Imagery of the Bible and that has been an enormous help to me and I know to many other people. I was once in a seminar where somebody saw I had a copy of it and he said "That book saved my life." Because Caird loved the Bible and was soaked in it, he teaches people to appreciate the way that the language of the Bible works at every level. It's poetic, it's dramatic, it's all sorts of things and particularly when it comes to Jesus and language about the future, he taught us how to understand what in the trade we call apocalyptic or eschatological language. When the Bible says "The sun will be dark and the moon will be turned into blood" etc, this is not a primitive weather forecast, this is a way of investing major, future, what we would call sociopolitical events with their theological significance, their depth and dimension. Caird taught us how to do that, and that's been a real blessing and relief to me and many others.
Thirdly, now for something completely different:
Four Quartets by TS Eliot
NTW: I first discovered the poetry of T.S. Eliot when I was, I think, in my late twenties. I hadn't really studied modern poetry before then and particularly his Four Quartets which was his last great work and really partly for which he won the Nobel Prize. This has meant an enormous amount to me and many other Christians. It's one of those poems that's inexhaustible, I don't claim to have understood more than bits of it, but there's something about it which is like a great symphony. It carries you along even if you can't necessarily whistle all the tunes as you go down the street. And it's about coming back to Christian faith as a resolution of all of the questions that he's had all throughout his life. As a result of which, he talks about words and meanings – wrestling with those. And the poem itself is wrestling with words and it finally comes back – every phrase and sentence that is right, this is what we're actually aiming for. The last great stanza of the poem is so memorable: "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." And then he goes on, "All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, when the tongues of flame are enfolded into the crowned knot of fire and the fire and the rose are one."
I admit to Tom that I find reading poetry difficult. How should someone who finds it difficult to engage with poetry begin?
NTW: Reading poetry is one of those funny things which different people approach differently. There's a danger of allowing the left brain to take over and say "I want to know what the meaning of every phrase is" but actually with poetry, like with music, you have to tell that bit of your brain to shut up and just feel the music, feel the rhythm, hear and sense the words as a sort of physical reality. Meaning will emerge from that but it will come through a different bit of you from how you would read say a mathematics text book or something. So poetry works at several different levels and Eliot was exploring all those different levels and that's one of the reasons he's so exciting.
I have a million more questions to ask this humble scholar. He is generous enough to spend twenty minutes explaining his views on Paul's theology of adoption. But that is the subject for another day. In the meantime, for more insights of leaders and the books that shaped their lives, visit www.booksforlife.uk/leader.
Dr Krish Kandiah is founding director of Home for Good a writer, consultant, activist and executive producer of Books for Life.