Wri(gh)ting a Wrong
N.T. Wright is a good writer (it’s horribly hard to avoid terrible puns when commenting on this theologian) and a formidable theologian and historian. His work has caused angst among non-Christians (and some who profess Christianity) who want to dismiss biblical claims of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection; and his work has occasioned deep pain among Protestants who’ve seen congregations ripped apart in view of his opinions on soteriological justification. Wright’s is a strongly significant, rhetorically compelling voice in Christianity today, and he recently spoke up about the pandemic that’s defining our day.
Wright wrote (ugh!) an article, published by Time on March 29, entitled "Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To." With characteristic eloquence, Wright addresses our cultural moment of pandemic pain, and he rightly (there it is again) points us to the vitally important spiritual discipline of lament. His quiet advocacy of the Psalms as “the Bible’s own hymnbook” echoes his very helpful louder call in The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential (New York: HarperOne, 2013) for Christians to come back to the songs which God wrote, the most essentially Christian praise material by which to live worshipfully in this life. The Psalms let us think and feel our way into the heart of Christ his son and the “psalm-shaped world” (p.11) in which he understood his identity and vocation. Wright sums up beautifully the role these songs are meant to play in the Christian life, “The psalms are the steady, sustained subcurrent of healthy Christian living.” And so, very rightly (last time I'll complain about his name), Wright points readers to these songs in the midst of our pandemic pain, and he does so in a way typical of his work, both the helpful and unhelpful elements.
Even when Wright offers a relatively soft word against misguided hope and an ill-advised lust for answers, he is ever the provocateur. Hardcore advocates of “Classical Christian Theism” and its feature doctrine of divine impassibility may feel not too subtly called out by Wright’s mild chastisement of those who believe that God is “above all that,” and unaffected by the world’s plight; all Christians ought to cringe at his implication that God doesn’t know everything and that he is not “in charge of everything.” Wright’s baiting barbs here are relatively blunted but still prickly, just enough to irritate without making theological declarations for which he can’t claim plausible deniability. His rebuke of typical knee-jerk responses is on point, but just as predictable as the responses themselves. And is he not unkindly oversimplifying when he also rebukes the more sophisticated responses of those whom he labels as Rationalists and Romanticists? Who are these people? It seems he’s rhetorically shoving those who crave detailed answers when God offers none and on the other side pushing those who look for emotional comfort in the unreasonableness of it all. He means to make way between them for a truly biblical approach, one which, according to Wright, essentially offers no answers. “It is no part of the Christian vocation … to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact,” he continues, “it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain – and to lament instead.”
In taking shots at so many ill-defined streams of Christian belief only to lead the reader to a place of sanctified agnosticism, Wright echoes the “emergent” theology popular the last two decades or so within American evangelicalism (I’m not sure how it’s been for the Brits), thriving as it did on that unsophisticated postmodernism which criticizes everything but itself, especially streams of Christian thought which stake a claim to philosophical certainty in their doctrine. With a very thinly veiled absolutism of their own, leading advocates of Emergent Christianity offered an allegedly humbler faith by decrying dogmatism and baptizing agnosticism.
Wright’s work doesn’t play loosely with the Scriptures in the way Emergent theology did, i.e. insisting based on biblical passages that we definitely cannot know the truths of Scripture with certainty. Wright seeks to make arguments based on a responsible understanding of texts whose truths are knowable. Yet there is the unmistakable feel, especially as Wright wraps up his short piece on the pandemic, that he romanticizes having a lack of answers. It’s just one or two steps away from the tired mantra that the journey is more important than the destination, a very frustrating philosophy for any traveler actually trying to get somewhere. Whatever feel his words conjure, his intent is clear: to tell us that having no explanations for the Coronavirus is, epistemologically, the most essentially Christian place to be. But is the Bible’s approach to matters such as worldwide pandemic really to leave us without answers? Does the content of Christian faith merely leave us in unknowing mournfulness which somehow, according to Wright, is to issue forth in good works and practical wisdom to deal with the planet-sized burdens besetting us? Doesn’t the Bible speak to, and historically, even within, such tribulations? Yes, absolutely it does.
In pointing us to Scriptures especially pertinent to the experience of pandemics, Wright goes to the right place, the Psalms. Granted that his Time piece (see, I can make good puns) was short by design, he could not say everything that needs to be said on the topic. But necessary brevity – which I clearly don’t care about – only amplifies the urgency of saying thoroughly true things within the small space allotted.
Yes, so many, many of the Psalms are laments. Some scholars estimate that two-thirds of them are either lament by genre, or have elements of lament within them. But what Wright does not mention is what is so very often lamented within God’s hymnbook, in fact, what is most fundamentally lamented: human sinfulness. And, in keeping with Jesus’s teaching a millennium after David about taking the log out of one’s own eye before condemning the similar sins of someone else (Matthew 7), the Psalmists so often focus on their personal sins, treating their corrupt hearts as a microcosm of a corrupt humanity in a sin-cursed world. Without so much as a mention of sin - a rather massively important theme in Scripture! – and without emphasizing at all the Bible’s very clear teaching from Genesis 3 all the way to Revelation 22 about human sin, its worldwide consequences, and Christ’s redemptive work to make all things new, any counsel during times of pandemic, no matter how eloquently stated and sincerely felt, cannot be properly labeled as essentially biblical, and therefore cannot be labeled as sufficiently Christian. And what’s at stake there is not the honor of some ancient religion, but rather the honor due to the namesake and object of the faith, the reputation of the book which supplies the content of that faith, and the rightly directed attention our entire lives owe to Christ’s saving work in the world, to what he is saying in the world today through his holy word, and through God's painful providence.
In our day, having no explanations sounds quite spiritual. And there are times when we must admit our utter lack of knowledge. The Psalms themselves express such, "How long, O Lord?" (Psalm 13). Agnosticism in that sense has its necessary place in Christianity and is a mark of honesty and humility. But in itself, agnosticism is not a more authentic state of mournfulness, much less is it a more Christian state of lament. Agnosticism is truly appropriate only where truth is actually unavailable. Where truth can be known, but not exhaustively, agnosticism will have a real but deficient feel for the full sadness of the burden being lamented; it will therefore have a likely sincere but certainly shallower mournfulness in the face of pandemic pain.
When an X-ray comes back bearing bad news, the first year medical student may not know precisely what she’s seeing, and she shouldn’t claim that she does. She knows something is not right, but she’s at a loss to explain and remains appropriately silent, her heart breaking for the patient about to be told some very hard truths. But the studied surgeon, while she can’t explain all the how’s and why’s of the disease’s development or even how it came about in this particular patient’s life, has a much better sense of the history and typical behavior of such maladies. She's read the journals and talked with so many sufferers; she's much more epistemologically and experientially equipped to deal with mysterious illness. She recognizes when something is really bad and perhaps unpredictably dangerous. Unlike the med student who cannot claim as much knowledge and experience, this veteran surgeon takes more deeply into her soul the full gravity of what she’s seeing. She understands more fully the horror of what that spot on the film indicates, and she knows with more informed empathy what it will be like for the person whose life may be taken by that pernicious little mass, representing a silent, stalking murderer within her patient’s body. Imagine if the veteran surgeon willfully told the patient only what the first year student knows. There's something like that going on in Wright's article, if it means to give us a sense of what Christianity can and cannot contribute to our understanding of worldwide pain. While none of us should presume to know the mind of God concerning the Coronavirus, he has indeed revealed what he wants us to know regarding the condition of the world which makes such calamities not only possible or even probable, but pretty much guaranteed (Romans 8). God reveals the underlying cause behind every bad news X-ray and world-suffocating pandemic. Profound biblical scholar that he is, Wright’s silence on this essential biblical theme is tantamount to theological malpractice.
What Wright gives us in his well-meant piece, putting aside the aforementioned barbs is, at best, incomplete information. He’s given us enough of the Bible’s sense of pandemics and life’s pains in general to know that the Bible takes them seriously, and has provided for life-giving lament even as we mourn lives stolen away. But precisely because of the context in which he writes, his incomplete analysis is not ideologically innocuous. Wright has given us dangerous misdirection. He’s left us in the dark not because the Bible gives us every answer we desire about every global fright or every personal fear, nor because the Bible provides merely emotional catharsis which somehow satisfies in the stead of solid answers. He’s left us in the dark because the Bible does in fact tell us, indeed it begs us to hear (Psalm 78, Proverbs 8), the essential, constitutive principles of the reality of the world we live in; to know what God has done and is doing through the finished redemptive work of his Son to save it; and to have and embrace, so often through tears, the very real and realistic hope found in the risen Christ.
Equipped with biblical truth, instructive but not exhaustive, in times of mystifying, murderous pandemic, Christians can with full hearts cry, contemplate, serve, remain in silence when necessary and speak out when needed. We who are “sheltered in place” can reach across the chasm of social distance with prayer, empathy, as much truth-empowered presence and practical provision of need as we can muster, an expression of Christ’s always being present with us; if our callings take us to the front lines of this hellish conflict, we can fight for and participate first hand in powerful previews of the full healing Christ will bring to the cosmos upon his return. And if this plague should touch us or even take us from this world, we can know – with absolute certainty (John 17, 20) – that if we die in the Lord we shall be with the Lord (Philippians 1). Further, the Bible equips us with ethical maxims (Exodus 20, Matthew 5-7) which call us back from tempting, dehumanizing responses to human tragedy. Scripture calls us to faith, hope, and love, and actions in keeping with them, no matter the situation in this life, and in the risen Christ, proclaims an utterly realistic, totally true, knowable basis for all of the above. These truths frame our joy and our mourning, our spoken words and our silence, during days of plague and days which remind us of the peace and wholeness to come. These are pervasive, knowable, essential biblical truths which the Psalms express and allow us to sing.
If we’re trusting in Christ, we can know that Jesus Christ bore our sorrows and our sins, (Psalms 13, 51), felt our infirmities, including our loneliness (Psalm 88, 102) and gave himself over to miserable, brutal death for the sake of the life of the world (Psalm 22), rose from the dead for our justification, received by faith (Psalm 16, 32) and is seated now in the place of cosmic supremacy (Psalm 24, 45, 145), reigning over all things (Psalm 99) until he returns to bring shalom, wholeness, to this sin-broken world (Psalm 96, 98).
At this time of pandemic, as ever in this life, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, He is with us. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Truly Christian lament is humbly silent where God has not spoken; truly Christian lament cries, and it cries out, what his word teaches.