In April, my friend Keas Keasler sent an email discussing his plan to visit us in New Zealand this July. As a postscript, he added a link to a recent theology conference that he thought I might enjoy listening to. However, due to school and writing responsibilities, I hadn't had the opportunity to follow through on his recommendation. When the semester began to wind down a couple of weeks ago, I finally clicked that link and discovered a real treasure awaiting me.
The conference that Wheaton hosted in April 2010 was focused on the work of the British theologian and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright. Titled, "Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright," conference-host Nicholas Perrin invited different scholars to interact with Wright's writings - in particular Jesus and the Victory of God, the second of his three (soon to be four) volume "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series. Following each day's papers, Wright responds to the particular points from the different scholars during a panel discussion; each scholar is then allowed to reply, often resulting in a lively exchange. As the culmination of the day, Wright then presents his own paper: the first on Jesus, the second on Paul. It is a little hard to describe how provocative and moving it is to listen to such an amazing group of scholars (Jeremy Begbie, Markus Bochmuehl, Richard Hays, Edith Humphrey, Sylvia Keesmaat, Nicholas Perrin, Marian Meye Thompson, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Brian Walsh) interacting so robustly, critically, creatively, and charitably about something I care so deeply about. While listening to the different presentations, I literally caught my breath and/or laughed out loud several times.
(In fact, let me highly recommend listening to these talks if you are at all inclined. If you only listen to a couple, then choose Wright's day-ending addresses on Jesus and Paul. [His chapel address on Ephesians to the students at Wheaton is also great: short, funny, and encouraging; this is Tom Wright at a popular/pastoral level.] A third academic presentation, Kevin Vanhoozer's "Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and in Protestant Soteriology," is totally worth your time and undivided attention, too. These resources are free to either stream or download in audio or video formats, by the way. Thank you, Wheaton!)
Now, all that prelude to set up the point that the blog-post title references: listening to the first day's response, "Jesus and the People of God: Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies and the Life of the Church," Wright said something in the 43rd minute of his talk so out of left field to me that I could not believe I was hearing it. He had just finished summarizing the story of Israel and its fulfillment in the messiah Jesus. He goes on to describe the real world impact for followers of Jesus Christ in light of his resurrection from the dead.
"Jesus is raised bodily from the dead, therefore he is the messiah, therefore God's new creation has been launched. The old world of exile and sin has been dealt with, the new age has dawned and therefore we have a job to do. That is endemic in the confession of resurrection. It is not, 'We just have a nice future way, away, and by-and-by-in-the-sky,' or anything like that. It's 'Jesus is raised from the dead, therefore new creation has begun, and therefore we have a job to do.' And part of that job is to tell the story, the story of Jesus as the climax of the story of God, of Israel's God, and of the story of the climax of Israel - the means of the world's redemption."
So, because of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we are not waiting around to go to heaven after we die. Rather, we are called to participate in the new creation that has been inaugurated by Christ, the new Adam, who signals a renewed humanity amidst a new creation. Because humanity has been renewed in Christ, we once again are called, like Adam and Eve before us, to participate in the stewardship of creation. As Wright says, that means we each have a job to do, that God's kingdom may come, his will be done, "...on earth as it is in heaven." And according to Wright, part of that job of stewarding creation is telling the story of what God has done and is continuing to do in and through Christ. This is where Wright sideswiped me.
"Where do we go with all this? Many, many tasks are still remaining. The world of biblical scholarship is a difficult world, a complex world. As many of you will know, it is much easier to get a PhD in biblical studies if you're a details person, rather than a big picture person…In Myers-Briggs terms, it's much, much easier to get a PhD in biblical studies if you're a ISTJ. You'll never do it if you're an ENFP because you'll never finish it. You'll be having too much fun. But we need, we need, we need "N"s in this business as well as "S"s because we need big-picture hypotheses. It's very difficult to do that at PhD level because your supervisors and examiners will want you to nail down all the details (and you have to do that) but we need these big hypotheses."
So, first let me say this: Amen. I cannot tell you how true this is in my own experience of writing and interacting around biblcal texts. I am in the middle of my third biblical studies-type writing assignment. If I were to characterize my editorial struggles in each of these works, I would do so with reference to the challenge that Wright highlights above. The need for Old and New Testament exegetical editors to get all the details "right" constantly threatens the larger narrative scope within which the details reside. I am not complaining, by the way. Wright is right to say that such detail is important and this work has to be done. However, he is also right to name the fact that this work, by its inherently atomizing nature, threatens the very possibility of big-picture creative work. I am reminded of Daniel Pink's assertion in his article in Wired, "Revenge of the Right Brain," drawn from his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, regarding right and left brain competencies and how such competencies are harnessed within economic systems:
"If the Industrial Age was built on people’s backs, and the Information Age on people’s left hemispheres, the Conceptual Age is being built on people’s right hemispheres. We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we are progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, pattern-recognizers, and meaning-makers."
It is these notions about creativity, pattern-recognition, and meaning-making that I fear are endangered by academic and church cultures often over-focused on details and the technical aspects of learning and leading; that these cultures are also blind to their biases is not only a huge part of the problem, but illustrative of the very issue at stake (this is also why a person of Wright's stature naming this dynamic is so exciting to me). In a world flooded by information (read details), the need for people who can recognize patterns amidst the data-deluge is not just important, but critical for finding and making meaning in our lives personally and corporately. That Wright names the inherent bias of PhD programs and supervisors towards such left-brained, or "S", competencies is art of what makes me, a raging "N" (INTP, to be precise), so ambivalent about whether or not to begin such studies myself. I suppose this phenomena is also what is on display in the title of my book, Intuitive Leadership. In fact, hearing Wright say those things reminded me of something I had written in 2006 about the necessity of a new kind of leadership. It comes from my chapter, "Leading from the Margins: The Role of Imagination in Our Changing Context," in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope.
"We need men and women who have previously been on the margins to come forth and lead us. In focusing so exclusively on our cognitive capacities, we have lost our imaginations. We need mystics. We need poets. We need prophets. We need apostles. We need artists. We need a church drawn out of the margins, drawn from the places and filled with people and shaped with competencies formerly thought to be of little account. In fact, perhaps it is from such 'marginal' communities as these that influence will begin to spread outward into communities that have been domesticated in a modern world and thus rendered docile. We need a wild vine grafted into the branch. We need alternate takes on reality. We need a different kind of leader - one who can create environments to nurture and release the imagination of God's people."
It is in the same spirit that Alan Roxburgh likewise describes the need for alternative leadership typologies for churches beyond pastors who teach. In The Sky is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition, he does inspiring work naming and describing the offices of poet, prophet, and apostle as other possible roles critical to provoking and unleashing the imaginative life of communities of faith today. But naming these alternatives begs a larger question: where will such leaders be identified and trained? Given its trajectory, it is questionable whether or not it will be within the academy. That Wright, while nailing all of the details, still has the ability to see the big picture and name the challenges it faces, legitimizes the need and gives hope that it might yet be addressed.
And that, to me, is "good news."