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N.T. Wright: Why Good Leaders Misunderstand Jesus

Editor’s Note: In this interview, Frank Viola talks with N.T. Wright about getting the message of Jesus right, how to respond to leaders who abuse power, and what it means to serve the poor. This is a shortened version of the interview. You can view the entire introduction on Frank Viola’s blog.  

Frank: Tom, you have written a small library on the historical Jesus. What motivated you to write Simply Jesus, and how does it differ from your other volumes on Jesus?

N.T. Wright: I was asked to do it as a follow-up to Simply Christian. It’s over ten years since I last wrote a book about Jesus (The Challenge of Jesus); that one was really an attempt to say, much more briefly, what I’d said in Jesus and the Victory of God, adding a couple of closing chapters about the resurrection and the application of the whole thing to some of the tasks facing particularly young academics in the postmodern world (that project originated as lectures at an intervarsity graduate conference).

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This time, I stood back and reflected, after spending the best part of the last decade as a busy bishop, on what I was now thinking about Jesus and what he was and is. It wasn’t easy to keep it “simple” because Jesus is always challenging, and sometimes, we oversimplify him! But some of the earlier themes stand out more clearly – for instance, Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God, coming back to rescue his people and reclaim his sovereignty over the whole world. That then leads into some quite new reflections, in the last (quite long) chapter, on the “so what” issues – in dialogue, by implication, with a number of writers, not least James Davison Hunter in his To Change the World.

Frank: The following statement comes from the book: “Part of the difficulty is that Jesus was and is much, much more than people imagine. Not just people in general, but practicing Christians, the churches themselves.” (p. 4) And the publisher’s press release says, “Wright makes the startling claim that Jesus’ story has been mistold and misunderstood, even by those who think they are Jesus’ most ardent defenders.”

I agree with these statements and have made similar ones myself. But what do you say to those who would suggest that these statements are arrogant, and they imply that only now in the 21st century do some people understand the story of Jesus correctly while everyone has gotten it wrong?

N.T. Wright: There is always, of course, a danger of arrogance. But my point is not that everyone else has got it wrong and I’ve got it right, but that in recent years, there have been various cultural movements in the Western world that have distorted our reading of Jesus and the gospels and that we can witness this happening and do something to correct it. You can see it rather obviously in the fact that, for many Christians, it wouldn’t matter if Jesus had been simply born of a virgin and died on a cross, doing more or less nothing in between. His “identity” would be secure; he could still be our savior and lord. But the four gospels would protest: you’ve missed out the heart of it! Many would-be “biblical” Christians simply have no idea why “all that stuff in the middle” is there. I have been eager to find out, and to interpret the whole biblical Jesus, not simply the beginning and end of his earthly story.

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FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply, gain fresh perspectives on old or ignored subjects, and make the Bible come alive. Viola has written many books on these themes, including God's Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. His blog, Beyond Evangelical, is rated as one of the most popular in Christian circles today.