Tom Holland meets Tom Wright

Justin Brierley has a lot to answer for.

He can’t just wheel out one video with an exciting guest and then be done with it. That would only distract me for an hour or so, then I could go back to everything else I’m supposed to be doing.

Instead, he’s launched a whole series called The Big Conversation, behind which the expert move is to manage to pair the guests (of which all are illustrious and exciting) in intriguing and profound ways.

Take the above, for example. You might pair Tom Wright with another, perhaps more conservative theologian, to discuss the New Perspective on Paul as has been done ad nauseam for a couple of decades now. You might pair Tom Holland, who famously wrote about how his ethic as a Westerner has been profoundly shaped by Christianity, against a suitably skeptical atheistic historian. Both would be interesting conversations.

But to put the two together put a new hammer to the anvil and sent sparks flying. The two Toms clearly enjoyed each other’s company and the marriage of ideas that resulted from meeting across the vastness of their discipline.

The fascinating thing about the discussion is that, while on the surface it looked like they had so much to agree upon – and they did (a ‘meeting of minds’ Justin called it, as opposed to a debate) – nevertheless only a short reflection is required to unveil an interesting difference between what the two scholars want to say to the Western world about Paul.

On the one hand – and I begin with Tom Wright, being more familiar with his writings – you have a professional New Testament heavyweight, key proponent of the (a?) ‘New Perspective’ on Paul, uncovering understandings of Paul lost on the modern Western world, explaining that all our post-this or -that worldviews have distorted our vision when it comes to Scripture, and that read with first century lenses Paul makes all sorts of sense we wouldn’t have gathered if we had remained merely 21st-Century post-Enlightenment-epistomology-fed Westerners.

On the other hand – and I emphasise because I think you can draw quite a startling contrast here – Holland has arrived quite publicly (and it is centred on during the discussion) at a position that he only really best understands the Western world, its mode of being and institutions, and especially its highest moral sensibilities, as an outworking of the thought of Paul. He sees Paul as ultimately laying the groundwork for much of what has evolved since in Western thinking concerning human morality.

Again: NT Wright says, Paul has been lost on the Western world; Tom Holland says, Paul is responsible for much of the progress of the Western world. Maybe that’s an overly simplistic way of drawing the contrast; I’m trying to get at the rub I see between the two.

Not that it’s necessarily a terribly fractious rub; nor that the two ideas (if I’ve expressed them sufficiently here) are necessarily mutually exclusive. The two Toms clearly fed off of each other’s ideas – with Wright especially muttering ‘fascinating’ a few times as Holland directed us towards a new metaphor or example here or there. Particularly powerful was Holland’s metaphor of Paul as a ‘depth charge’ beneath the foundations of the Western world, unseen by most, but with the ripple effects extending outwards time and again throughout the centuries.

Perhaps that metaphor is the best way of explaining the difference between what the two scholars are saying: they’re both uncovering something for the Western world to rediscover; Wright is saying what that really looks like, while Holland is demonstrating its effects.

That said, I felt there was some crosstalk on the matter of victimhood, and whether or not arguing from a position of victimhood is a derivable benefit from Christianity. Holland seemed to think it was, while I think Wright was trying to make the point that, as in the ancient world, victimhood is not something one naturally associates with victory, as the Christian faith subversively states. That probably is where the rubber of the two positions might have hit the road, had the car not been flying through the air at the speed of sound. Has Christianity shaped the Western world, or does it (should it?) continue to be a subversive influence today as it was in the first century?

Keep your eye on The Big Conversation. Justin Brierley is making sure it’s not just big, but surprising, delightful, entertaining and, gosh darn it, highly provocative.


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