Interview: NT Wright Talks God and the Coronavirus, Hope in Exile, and What He Hates About Zoom Church

Theologian Discusses Themes of Book ‘God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath’

The Right Rev. Professor N.T. Wright
The Right Rev. Professor N.T. Wright.

The Right Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright provoked some Christians when he offered a perspective on the coronavirus for Time magazine in an op-ed published under the headline “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” However, Wright argues in his new book, God and the Pandemic, that is simply not true. It’s just that Christians may be looking for answers in the wrong places.

Wright, a New Testament scholar, an Anglican bishop, and author of more than 80 books, said he had no intention of adding to his Time editorial until friends told him about the negative responses the essay was attracting.

“I wasn’t gonna say anything about it (the coronavirus pandemic) at all. I’ve got plenty of other work on the table,” Wright told Faithfully Magazine.

But it wasn’t long before Wright got the go-ahead from his publisher to extend his 800-word essay into a 90-page short book—God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath. Released June 2 and published by HarperCollins imprint Zondervan, God and the Pandemic quickly became a bestseller on Amazon. In “the little book,” as Wright describes it, the scholar makes his case in five chapters, under headings like “Where Do We Start?” and “Where Do We Go From Here?” He argues that in their search to make sense of the health crisis and loss caused by the coronavirus, Christians should look to the Book of Lamentations, and not the Book of Revelation, for answers.

In the following Q&A, Wright addresses the place of prayer and lament in a crisis, where hope can be found during uncertain times, and what he sees as negatives and positives about Christians relying on technology for religious practices in our new normal. The interview was conducted June 9, 2020, via Skype video. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Faithfully Magazine: Okay. All right. So how are you doing?

Wright: Oh, it’s a busy time, to be honest. I’ve got several projects on the go. I’m supposed to be semi-retired, but you wouldn’t know it.

FM: You’re in high demand.

Wright: Well, but it’s also partly because of this crisis. And then the little book which just happened by accident, really. And so now they’re sending me all around the town, metaphorically speaking, to talk to people about it.

FM: Alright, so I know we have about 30 minutes so I’m just gonna jump in.

Wright: Okay.

FM: And if you want to take a sip of water or tea, whatever that is you have, please go ahead. It’s okay.

Wright: It’s that time of day in Britain.

FM: (Laughter). Tea time. Okay. All right. You mentioned there briefly that this book, this little book, as you call it, came out of that Time article. [Wright holds up the book, God and the Pandemic] There it is.

Wright: That’s right. Yes, it did.

FM: And so it wasn’t something you had planned. I guess it was just the responses, the reactions to what you would put in that Time piece that compelled you to maybe take your argument a bit further?

Wright: That’s right. I wasn’t gonna say anything about it at all. I’ve got plenty of other work on the table. But then the editor of Time magazine, who I’d worked with before on a different project asked me if I would just write a short piece, which I then did. And then, I mean I don’t look at blog sites normally, but friends were telling me, ‘Hey, you’re getting a lot of traffic here. People are getting back at you and saying ‘has N.T. Wright never read his Bible?’ And this and that and the other. I thought, whoa, wait a minute. So I started to look at it and then I did a few interviews and did a couple of talks for friends on Zoom and so on. And before you know what had happened, I’d sketched out the arguments. And I said to my publisher, ‘Is it worth trying to do this?’ He said, ‘Oh, get on with it.’ So I did.

FM: Was there anything among the responses and reactions to that Time article that personally stuck with you? I know, some of the arguments must have been very dismissive and kind of crazy or whatever. But was there anything among them that made you go, ‘You know what, this is a valid point and critique?’

Wright: Well, um, not really. But the article was only 800 words. So you can’t possibly say more than a very short bit, obviously. The one thing which was a little funny was that the headline to the article in Time was something about ‘Christianity doesn’t have answers. It’s not supposed to.’ Now I didn’t write the headline. That was done by a sub editor somewhere, and I wouldn’t, of course, have put it like that because I do think there are answers. But it’s just not the kind of answers that people were reaching for.

People were saying, ‘If God is in charge, then He must have wanted this to happen. Therefore, we must be able to figure out why He did this.’ Or, ‘At least He’s permitted it to happen. So we should be able to figure out why He’s permitted it.’ And then it’s all about, ‘It’s a call to repentance because of this, or that or the other.’ Whatever particular sins, that person happened to think that we needed to repent off. And I wanted to say, just stop right there and go and read the book of Job and Psalm 44. And look at what Jesus says, and look at how the early church treated big crises. And then you’ll see there’s a much more interesting, actually hermeneutic, that’s a way of reading the whole Bible as a whole, not just little bits here and there, which I think is the way of wisdom. And it leaves us with the task of lamenting as the first thing rather than saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got the answers to it, and here they are, and we’ll give them to you.’ That is always a dangerous position to be in.

FM: You bring up the issue of lamenting and you say that it should be the initial response among Christians anyway. In the U.S., that term has been coming up quite a lot, specifically for us in discussions about race and racial injustice. But sometimes I wonder if we fully grasp the concept or the practice or exercise of lamenting. Some of us seem to just think of it as just weeping maybe about our own problems before God. But what is the full context or fuller context of lamenting?

Wright: Yes, I think for a full context, you would need to take all the different psalms of lament plus the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, and simply work through them because it’s a many-sided thing. Obviously, at its heart, it is a matter of grief. And the point about grief is that something has been lost, which you’re just not going to get back, or not straight away or not in the way you would want it. In other words. getting reconciled as it were to that loss was so much in our modern society all about ‘get it fixed.’ You know, if the car has smashed, well, we get a new one, or we’ll get that fixed or we’ll sort it and we’ll mend it. And the idea that ‘No, actually, that has happened. This person is not coming back. This tragedy is affecting the world. And the future.’

Somebody wrote in the London Times today that whatever the world looks like after lockdown, it is not going to be the same as it was before. We’re not going to be able to put it back like we remember it, and this year will go down… And that’s a matter of grief because a lot of us are quite comfortable in the world the way it was. Now, a lot of people weren’t. And I’m not saying that the new world will be any better. It may just be bad in different ways. But this should call forth a sense of, ‘Lord, here we are, and we believe that you have a new creation waiting. But it ain’t here yet, except in the person of Jesus and the breath of the Spirit that does do new things already.’ But most of us most of the time, we are chafing, we are lamenting, and it seems to me, that’s the stance of humility, to say to God, we don’t have the answers, we believe that You do and we just have to trust You.

I preached last weekend, Trinity Sunday on that lovely verse in Isaiah (40:31), ‘those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,’ and waiting is the thing we find hardest to do. And in the book, I quote from T.S. Eliot, ‘I said to myself be still and wait, without hope, for hope would be hope of the wrong thing.’ Doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. It just means that in order to get to the right sort of hope, we have to be humble enough, reticent enough to put our own immediate hopes, our sort of hurried hopes on hold and say, ‘No, shut up, sit down, just get out of the way and let me lament.’ And out of the lament, there may grow a new and different hope. And that, of course, is what Romans 8 is all about, which I talk about a bit in the book.

FM: To be frank, since we’re on the subject of hope—and I’ve read a review of God and the Pandemic that says your approach is very myopic.

Wright: Interesting. I haven’t seen that. So tell me what these people say. (Laughter)

FM: Basically, it’s a favorable review, in a sense. But the one I was looking at last night, and I don’t remember the gentleman’s name, he basically felt that you were just kind of… I guess I would express it like, you’re talking about hope but coming away from the book, it doesn’t feel very hopeful.

Wright: Interesting. Yeah. I mean, of course, I am hopeful God’s new creation has burst in in Jesus Christ. That God’s new creation is active by the Holy Spirit. And God is going to make His new creation full of Justice and peace and mercy in His own way, in His own time, but it just won’t look like a steady crescendo out of developed Western society as we know it. And there have been many Christian movements of different sorts, which have rather implied that ‘We’re on track, we know the way things should be. We just have to carry on doing what we’re doing and we’ll get there.’ That kind of thing. Or, that there’s no hope in this world and that God will have to snatch us away in a rapture or something. And both of those… I want to say that were neither of those are the fully biblical hope.

But the biblical hope then, as with Jeremiah, who was a gloomy prophet at one level, but a very hopeful prophet at another level, he resisted the easy blandishments, so ‘people saying peace, peace when there is no peace.’ But he did have hope. He went bought a piece of land in the vicinity of Jerusalem because he believed that after the exile, there would be a return. And so in the same way, we need to be metaphorically buying blocks of land in God’s new creation. We need to be saying no, God is going to do great new things. But it won’t be by Him waving a magic wand and saying, ‘Oh, well, let’s pretend that pandemic didn’t really happen because it really doesn’t matter. We’ll get out of it soon.’ So this is the business of waiting without hope. T.S. Eliot had a great deal of hope. And in the four quartets from which I quoted, it ends with a stunning vision of hope. But to get there, you have to go through the lament. Eliot was of course writing at the heart of the Blitz in the Second World War.

FM: Okay. So turning to prayer, that’s another big emphasis for you in the book, you write: “When the world is going through great convulsions, the followers of Jesus are called to be people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain.”

Wright: Yes.

FM: So I’m wondering if you can comment on that a bit. And also, you know, when we have disasters happen, the simple comment some of us will put out is that “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” So there’s that pushback, ‘We don’t want your thoughts and prayers. Can we have some action?’

Wright: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

“I’m here to tell you, you know, I’ve been a practicing Christian all my life. I’ve been in ministry for nearly 50 years. I was a bishop for 10 years. Prayer changes things. And part of the deal is you don’t know what it’s going to change and how it’s going to change it.”

FM: But for Christians, there’s an effectiveness or strategy sometimes with making prayer priority. So where are you coming from on that?

Wright: Action will follow from prayer. But again, if we rush in thinking we know exactly what sort of action it should be right from the start without bothering to pray, we may just get it skewed, we may get it wrong. We’ve seen that again and again. And the two major disasters of the last 20 years, September 11, 2001, and then the big financial crash. In both cases, the Western powers gave knee-jerk reactions. In the first case, they went and bombed Iraq, which was disastrous and scared up an entire new generation of far worse Islamic terrorists even than bin Laden. And then after the financial crash, what they did was they bailed out the rich bankers and businessmen. They did for the very rich what they’d refuse to do for the very poor, to help the poorest countries. And as a result, the banks and the businesses said, ‘Oh, thanks very much. That’s okay.’ Went back to business as usual. It’s time to stop the sense of, ‘Oh, we know what to do. Let’s quickly get the system back on, up and running.’ Or, ‘Let’s go and have a war and then it’ll be all right.’ And whatever we ought to be doing here, it won’t—it shouldn’t be that kind of thing.

So prayer is absolutely vital. And that’s the funny thing about prayer. People looking from the outside will think, ‘Oh, you’re just kneeling down saying a few prayers and nothing’s gonna change. It’s just, you may feel a bit better as a result.’ And I’m here to tell you, you know, I’ve been a practicing Christian all my life. I’ve been in ministry for nearly 50 years. I was a bishop for 10 years. Prayer changes things. And part of the deal is you don’t know what it’s going to change and how it’s going to change it. William Temple, the great Archbishop of Canterbury said, ‘I’ve noticed that when I pray coincidences happen, and when I stop praying the coincidences stop happening.’ And that’s been the testimony of many, many people down the years.

God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath by NT WrightSo, in prayer it’s a sense of taking the situation and, (as) somebody in the Bible says, spreading it out before the Lord. Just saying, ‘Here it is. This is a mess. We don’t know what to do. We assume that You might just be able to help here.’ And sometimes as we do that, it seems that nothing has changed. But then an hour later, there’s an unexpected phone call and a new way forward, or somebody turns up with some fresh information, or something. This happens again and again and again. And when you live like that, you kind of smile and you say,’ Yep, okay, good. Now we’ve got to go with this.’ And it may be difficult. It may be that the nudge you get isn’t what you wanted. It’s quite likely not to be what you wanted. But I’ve seen that in my personal life. I’ve seen it in church life. I’ve seen it sometimes in larger scale life as well. So prayer is…Yeah, I understand the business about our thoughts and prayers are with you, which is a way of saying, ‘Actually, we haven’t got much else to say. But this is what people like us normally say on these occasions. So here it is,’ you know. Well, probably better than nothing. Better than saying, ‘Oh, well, there were too many kids in that school anyway or something dreadful like that,’ you know. But it doesn’t help…it doesn’t do what people want it to do. But the lament prayer, and the holding of the situation before God in prayer corporately, (the) churches should be doing this. And OK, we can’t meet in churches at the moment. But we can have services online, we can do it through zoom or Microsoft Teams or whatever. But we have to hold the situations in prayer together, and individually. And I do not know what God is going to do as a result of that, but I trust that new things will emerge.

FM: We don’t have to go deeply into this, but as you were talking about prayer and that the overall posture should be humility… In the U.S., I’ve seen examples of aggressive stances of prayer where some people feel like it’s a matter of spiritual warfare. Some people view the coronavirus pandemic as kind of like an attack and say we need to dig our heels in and be aggressive. Is that posture also okay or recommended?

Wright: There a times when something like that may be appropriate. I would only ever go that route if I had already agonized and lamented and prayed about it, and came out with a strong sense that, you know what, this is how we have to approach this. And there might be times when that might be the case. I would not reach for that one to start with, because it rather implies that I am this great warrior, I have the weapons that are needed, I can go and command this disease in the name of Jesus or whatever. Well, maybe some people do have the charism, the gift of God, which enables them to do that. I don’t think that’s the norm for ministers, for Christian people. I think there is a humility about waiting and praying. And in a sense, lamenting something before the Lord is itself a way of saying, ‘This is wrong. But God is still in charge, even though we don’t see how.’ So the two are not actually as far apart as one might imagine. And I’m always a bit wary of the sort of militaristic language of the commanding it to depart or attacking, going on on the rampage against it, as it were. As I say, there may be times when that is appropriate. But I would be wary of doing that as a thing of first resort.

“I have had in my mind all this time, the great songs of exile, the exile of the people of God, ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.’ And the whole question, ‘How can you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land if you can’t meet together?’ You can’t really be a Christians because Christianity is a team sport. It’s not a Microsoft Teams sport. It’s something we are meant to do together and we do it well together, for better and for worse.”

FM: It’s been about two months since the lockdown, since we’ve been told to stay in our homes and minimize contact with family and friends, etc. So in those two months, we have seen people being a bit warmer toward others and taking on new relationships with their neighbors and people in their community that they hadn’t before. Soon it will be a third month and then who knows for how much longer? So for Christians in particular, what are some practices maybe or perspectives or disciplines, you would hope we would have developed coming through this?

Wright: Yeah, that’s very difficult. I mean, it’s hard for me to speak for more than my own situation. My own situation is rather odd because I live on a street where normally three out of every five houses are full of students. But there aren’t any students at the moment. So it feels very strangely empty. And our nearest ordinary neighbors, as it were, are three or four houses up the road, and they have four children. And because my wife and I are older, we are technically categorized as at risk. My wife has type two diabetes and so on, so she’s really not supposed to be in contact with anyone that might have the disease. So we wave at them up the street. We email from time to time, but we’ve hardly set eyes on them for this whole time, which is just weird.

So I think, likewise with church life that… On the great festivals, Easter and Ascension Day and Pentecost, and Good Friday as well, I went to the church where I normally worship and with the vicar of the church, we walked around the parish taking care that we were about 10 feet apart ourselves, praying for the parish, stopping at key points and reading Scripture and praying together. But it wasn’t a procession, people didn’t join in. But the whole thing was both a good thing to do, and a real lament because we couldn’t do what we would normally do. I have had in my mind all this time the great songs of exile, the exile of the people of God—’By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.’ And the whole question, ‘How can you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land if you can’t meet together?’ You can’t really be a Christians because Christianity is a team sport. It’s not a Microsoft Teams sport. It’s something we are meant to do together and we do it well together, for better and for worse. So in a sense, what what we’re learning is deprivation. We are learning, I hope, that actually we really do need one another. We do need people to smile at us. We do need people to weep with us. We do need people just to find out how we are in a more informal way and that screentime is not the same as being with people and I’m saying this on a screen to you right now, but it’s not the same.

FM: In God in the Pandemic you say to slow down with the end times talk and if we want to talk about signs, just look at Jesus’s ministry. There’s the whole fulfillment there, if you want to see what God is doing in the world and what’s ahead for us. But when you get to the Book of Revelation, it seems like you kind of just brush over a lot of things. You have a point to make, obviously, you’re arguing for a specific thing. But why can’t it be a bit of both? A bit of let’s not look so much for signs, and let’s also pray, lament and see how we can join God and what He’s doing right now in the world?

Wright: Oh, it’s always appropriate to say (let’s) see how we can join God and what he’s doing. The problem with that is that throughout history people, including devout Christians, have misread, as we can see in retrospect, what God is doing in history. I mean, the classic example last century was in the 1930s, when thousands of people in Germany really did believe that God had raised up Adolf Hitler to start a new way of running society, and that Christians should get on board with this because this is what God was doing in the world. And that’s when Karl Barth, the great theologian, said, ‘Absolutely not. We only find out what God is doing in the world when we look hard at Jesus Christ, and then see everything in the light of that.’ And quickly the pretensions of the Third Reich, of course, were blown out of the water by that, not that it made it any easier for the people who were in the middle.

In the same way, yes, we pray every day, if we pray the Lord’s Prayer, as I pray every day, ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’ We want Jesus to return to rule and transform this present world as he’s promised—not by the way to snatch us away from it. That’s a parody of the doctrine of the Second Coming. But if Jesus is going to do that, we should be praying for that every day. We don’t need more signs. And indeed, Jesus told us, there wouldn’t be signs of that day. He said it’ll be like the days of Noah. They were eating and drinking and marrying and giving a marriage and suddenly here comes a flood. Now, eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage means normal life carrying on, as usual. Not, oh, there’s a sign here, there’s a sign there.

So, however we read the Book of Revelation—and I’m sorry, you know, I wasn’t going to put anything about the Book of Revelation into this book. And then I thought, ‘Sooner or later somebody is going to come and say what about that?’ And even then there wasn’t space, I mean, that the book had to be the length it is. If I had gone any further, it would have been a whole other book. But the Book of Revelation isn’t a way of calculating when the end will come. It’s a way of images, layer upon layer upon layer of quite different images, not even in a chronological sequence, but just layer upon layer of theological images to talk about who God, is to talk about the victory of Jesus over all the dark powers of the world, and the promise of Jesus of new heavens and new earth and the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth. That’s what we have to cling on to. And that could happen at any time, not because we’re calculating signs of it. At the same time, Revelation is, of course, bundled up with the fall of Jerusalem on the one hand, and then the subsequent prophesied fall of Rome. And that gets very confusing and complicated. So for our purposes at the moment, that will be a long set of church Bible studies, perhaps, but not something you can put into a short book.

“[B]ecause I’m ordained, I can put bread and wine on the dining table and join in remotely. I don’t like that theologically and I can’t stand it practically, but it’s better than nothing. And it is a form of exile. It’s like being in prison. This is not how it’s meant to be.”

FM: In terms of how we’re doing church nowadays, it’s very similar no matter where we are. We’re relying on technology. We’re kind of being molded, in a sense, to get used to communicating like this and having church like this. Are you concerned about that at all?

Wright: Yeah, I’m very concerned about that. I mean, I live in Oxford now and the Anglican Diocese of Oxford, of which I’m a part, has a service online every Sunday morning with one of the bishops. It’s a large diocese. They have a bishop and three assistants. One of the bishops presiding at a Communion service in their own home with a spouse or somebody else there, because we’re quite clear, you shouldn’t do this solo just all by yourself. And we’re invited to take part at home. And because I’m ordained, I can put bread and wine on the dining table and join in remotely. I don’t like that theologically and I can’t stand it practically, but it’s better than nothing. And it is a form of exile. It’s like being in prison. This is not how it’s meant to be. When Paul talks about, ‘we are the Body of Christ,’ it’s something (like) ‘we’re all in this together.’ And the bread represents that body. And if he’s got his bread on the screen there and he’s breaking it and eating it, and I’m not sharing it, then the symbolism simply says all the wrong things. Now, I still think it’s better to go through that.

But it’s interesting. I don’t think the churches have ever discussed this, they’ve ever discussed ‘what should we do if this were to happen?’ We had no game plan, no strategy, and so we’re doing the best we can. I think when it’s all over, we will need to sit down and say ‘now, if this ever happens again, we want to have this in place and that in place.’ And that’s a major task, to think that through. But it is really not adequate. I teach, assist at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford an Anglican seminary, and we’ve had morning prayer every weekday morning on Microsoft Teams. Now, again, that’s much better than not having that. We can see each other when we turn the cameras on, and we can hear each other and we’re praying together and listen to the same scriptures. But it ain’t the same. It really, really isn’t. And I’m looking forward to getting back to the reality of fellowship, koinonia.

FM: So that’s one great concern for you. Conversely, is there one major positive you’ve seen?

Wright: Well, I think the extraordinary thing is, if it is extraordinary, that I gather from clergy around the country that quite a lot of people who don’t normally go to church have felt, ‘I need to pray, how do I do that?’ And ‘Oh, there’s something online. Let’s go there.’ And so people are attending e-church who don’t normally attend real church. Now, that’s great. How can we help them and woo them to become part of active congregations? Maybe we can’t, maybe we can. I think there are lots of clergy working very hard on that right now. The danger though, is that it gives people the impression that Christianity is simply a private hobby that you can do in your own room, like practicing the French Horn or something. And only occasionally you might get out and play in an orchestra. That is simply the antithesis of the truth. Christianity is something we do together. And then when we say our own prayers, privately, it’s because we are part of that larger body, not the other way around.


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