An Interview with N. T. Wright on Effective Bible Study

N. T. Wright

“I was a musician before I was a theologian,” says N. T. Wright. “When I look at a piece of music, my mind is making connections between harmonic shifts. I’m seeing the patterns in song. When I’m reading passages, I’m asking, ‘How do the themes crisscross like a symphony?’ ”

Wright has been reading the Bible daily since the age of 12, so it’s no surprise that he has honed an intuitive approach. At age 13, he read the entire book of Revelation in one sitting. “It was like reading a mystery thriller. I didn’t know what it was all about, but I couldn’t put it down.”

As the author of dozens of highly praised resources on theology, Christian living, and Scripture, Wright’s appreciation of Scripture has only grown. And he has some advice for other Christians looking for ways to deepen their own appreciation of the Word.

Understanding the Sweep of Scripture

Each person must find their own path. If one book is difficult, Wright says, “do not be shy about saying to God ‘I can’t cope with this at the moment.’ That’s alright. This is a big book. Read something else and gradually—bit by bit, God willing—you will learn to find your way around the whole Bible.”

Wright himself is intrigued by Genesis, which he calls a story rife with the drama of human experience—with God right in the middle. “It’s just fantastic. I sometimes say to people, ‘Imagine if that book had been lost and we just dug it up in a scroll in the desert of Egypt or Libya, or somewhere.’ We’d say ‘Look at this book from thousands of years ago.’ I just want people to get excited by that great story.” However, he does not feel quite the same way about Leviticus for Bible beginners. “You’ll just get bogged down.”

He says it’s important to choose books wisely when you’re a newly minted Christian. “You have to be a bit canny about this—a bit shrewd about what you pick and how you pick it.” Wright suggests starting with the Gospels and the Psalms. “The Gospels are just extraordinary because every page has got something leaping off at you. The vividness of the stories will pull you along.” He urges new readers to read them straight through. “The Gospel of Mark will take you half an hour. John may take you an hour. Then let it wash over you. Like a swimmer, let the big waves wash over you. It doesn’t matter that you don’t remember two-thirds of it—get the big picture.”

Worried that Christians today may have lost touch with the Psalms, Wright urges new believers to inhabit them fully. “The Psalms were Jesus’ prayer book and if we want to be able to pray like Jesus (and what an amazing thing to dream of doing), then the Psalms are a great place to start.”

Communities Are Sharpened by Bible Study

Though Wright believes it’s every Christian’s birthright to read the Bible, he feels that individual study should be balanced with communal Bible study. “This might be a study group of five friends or a church group,” says Wright, adding that key parts of Scripture are often better understood during group interactions.

“There may be some people who have the gift of the eye who can actually see what is going on, but the eye is useless all by itself. The eye needs to hear from the ear and from what the hand is feeling, and how the heart is beating, and so on. And it’s only when you get together in a group that people with particular [types of] insight have [them] honed, sharpened, and shaped. One has to relish the corporate nature of that—and that isn’t to squelch the individual contribution. It actually enhances it. The individual is more because they are part of this group.”

Finding Your Own Study Method

As we become familiar with Scripture, we have questions about passages and their meaning, and this is where true Bible study begins. Wright says there are two approaches to Bible study—intuitive and analytical—with both being equally valid and beneficial.

He admits that the intuitive approach of just relaxing and going with the flow can “drive analytical minds mad because there’s no control.” Nonetheless, he suggests submerging into the text. “Take a passage—perhaps a bit of the Gospels, perhaps a bit of Paul—breathe deeply, slow down, and imagine yourself in this scene. If it’s in the Gospels, you’re in the crowd as Jesus is walking by, and then there’s somebody shouting to him. What are you thinking about this person? What are your own reactions to the story? Imagine that Jesus turns around and his eyes scan the crowd and he picks out you. What’s he going to say to you as a result of what you’ve just seen? What question is Jesus asking you? What invitation is Jesus offering you? Live within the text, and as it breathes out to you, discern what God might be quietly saying to you through it.”

But Wright doesn’t diminish the importance of analyzing passages. He tells the story of the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin. “By the time he was 16, he had played all the major violin concertos all around the world, and he was bored. He set himself to analyze those concertos note by note until he understood why Beethoven put that phrase there, and how it related to the whole structure. Only when he had done that would he play the concerto again, because he had now lived inside it.”

In much the same way, Bible study happens “when you find yourself compelled to get out pencil and paper and start figuring out things for yourself. Some of the happiest hours of my life have been sitting at the desk with a large sheet of paper and the biblical text and thinking, ‘How does this text divide? What are its main themes? What’s going on here?’ You are then looking into God’s workshop. God is in this text and you’re actually seeing how the Holy Spirit worked; that’s just amazing.” He also suggests having at least two Bible translations to help during the process.

Though neither method is foolproof, by working them in tandem we can begin “thinking biblically, breathing biblically, and intuiting biblically. I think that’s one of the primary ways that the Holy Spirit works. So I want to start from both ends and work toward whatever is in the middle.”

N. T. Wright on His Bible Study Method

Wright says that study guides, Scripture notes and a good Bible dictionary act as “great demystifiers.” There is plenty of material available, so much so that we are a bit spoiled today—but in a good way. “When I was a young Christian, there wasn’t nearly as much on the market. We had to forage for ourselves.”

Because his pressing schedule demands continual preaching, teaching and lecturing, Wright spends a lot of his Bible study in preparation. “In the morning, I read bits of the Hebrew Old Testament, I read some Septuagint [the Greek translation of the Old Testament], and I read some New Testament in the Greek.” He does not have a measured approach to preparation, admitting that it can become more like a frantic “hand-to-mouth” operation. But it always remains fun. “The Bible is inexhaustible. I’ve been spending my best waking hours reading, studying and praying Scripture since I was in my teens, and you don’t get to the bottom of it. There’s always more. It’s always more exciting.”

He often notes the “coincidences” between the passages he is reading and his daily life. “Sometimes it is so immediate and vivid, it almost makes me laugh aloud; I come with a particular problem, turn over the page and, ‘Oh my goodness, look at this.’ It seems as though it was put there especially for me today. From one point of view, it’s a coincidence. But one of my friends calls these things ‘God-incidences’ rather than coincidences. When you put yourself there, you are hanging around on a street corner where God has been known to show up.”

Celebrating the Kingdom on the Streets

“The Bible is not just a book that helps us to get it together with God. It’s a book that shapes us to be kingdom workers for God,” says Wright. “One of the glories of my job is to see communities that are doing the kingdom on the streets. They are doing the sort of things that Jesus did. People see God at work in little ways, big ways, healing ways, and ways of bringing hope to devastated communities. When Christians do that, there’s something subtly different happening: It is living within the Word of the Bible.”

“The congregation may start to be aware that something needs to be done in a community, and maybe that’s what God is calling us to do. That is the Spirit—through Scripture read and preached—and the Kingdom of God at work.”

Writing Is a Gift That Gives

Wright’s parents used to tease him about having the “gift of gab,” which he put to good use in writing. “Some of my school teachers did say, ‘This boy does know how to write English.’ It wasn’t that I’d been taught. I think it was intuitive, like music. It is a gift, and I’m grateful to God for it.”

Writing has become a necessary part of his routine and it has proved age-resistant. “I’m very, very grateful that I’ve had the kind of career path which has kept me fresh and cheerful and active through my 50s and 60s. An awful lot of people’s careers peak when they’re 39, or even earlier, and then they’re kind of shrugging their shoulders and just filling in time. I count myself very, very blessed.”

It was during the 1990s that Wright’s career as an author started to build momentum. His sermons were repackaged as books. In the mid-1990s, the Church Times, the main Anglican newspaper in London, asked him to write a weekly 500-word column. He did so successfully for five years. He was later given the opportunity to create a new study guide series by a friend at SPCK Publishing. He remembers being initially unsure, but then he realized that if he could create 500-word columns every week for five years, he could probably do 1000-word comments on individual passages. “So I swallowed hard, said some prayers and thought, ‘Actually, I think I’m going to do this.’”

Writing under the name of Tom Wright, he has since busied himself turning out the popular For Everyone series. Designed for those who would normally not pick up a biblical commentary, it is his own translation—which has its nuances, says Wright. “You appreciate just what a difficult thing translation is because English and Greek are not the same language, and there is no one-on-one equivalent. In some cases ‘a foot is a foot is a foot,’ for whatever language you’re talking about. But words like justice, faith, righteousness, gospel and kingdom have so many resonances in different languages that we’re always approximating.” He takes comfort in knowing that anyone’s translation is “a 65% best guess.”

Living with the Puzzles

Wright acknowledges that studying the Bible is a lifelong process. “The Bible is like a suit of clothes that is a bit too big for us. The challenge for us is to grow so we feel comfortable in this set of clothes.”

It’s key to accept that growth comes in different ways and at different rates. “If you find that the parables are really where you are, fine, get to know the parables within an inch of their lives. Study them in detail. Read commentaries, etc., but don’t forget the whole sweep as well. While reading Old and New Testaments, be prepared to live with the puzzles: ‘Well, Lord, I don’t understand this bit at the moment. I find it quite odd and dark and strange. Maybe I’ll understand it better next time.’ And it’s amazing how often, when you come back to that passage a year or five years later, you say, ‘I can’t see what I found so difficult in it.’ That’s a sign that I’ve grown. Don’t be afraid to ask why things happen in Scripture because that will open it up. It means that you are engaging with it.”

“Ask the question ‘why?’ and realize that when you’re asking that question, you are listening for the mind of God.”

This article was originally published in the May–June 2011 issue of  Bible Study Magazine with the title “In Tune: Developing an Ear for the Word with N.T. Wright”.  It has been edited for length and clarity.

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