N. T. Wright—hailed by Time as “one of the most formidable figures in Christian thought”—first captured my imagination with the early volumes of his series  Christian Origins and the Question of God. In them, he frames the Christian story precisely as a story, a grand narrative, the greatest epic, and all the greater for being true. As Wesley Hill noted in our most recent issue, there can be peril in such readings of Scripture, but also great promise. In a recent interview with J. John of the Philo Trust, Wright explains why he views the complementarity of the sexes as essential to that story, and to marriage itself. Below is an unedited transcript.

What do you think are the major challenges to the church and the Christian message in the light of the current legislation on the redefinition of marriage?

N. T. Wright: Obviously huge issues there, and there’s no way we can lay them all out tonight. I do want to say a word about a word. When anybody—pressure groups, governments, civilizations—suddenly change the meaning of key words, you really should watch out. If you go to a German dictionary and just open at random, you may well see several German words which have a little square bracket saying “N.S.,” meaning National Socialist or Nazi. The Nazis gave those words a certain meaning. In post-1917 Russia, there were whole categories of people who were called “former persons,” because by the Communist diktat they had ceased to be relevant for the state, and once you call them former persons it was extremely easy to ship them off somewhere and have them killed.

In the same way, there was a letter in the Times Literary Supplement just a few weeks ago saying that when we’re talking about assisted suicide, we shouldn’t actually use words like “suicide,” “killing,” and those sort of words because those imply that you shouldn’t do it. Whereas now our civilization is saying that maybe there are reasons for that. I find that sort of stuff chilling, the attempt to change an ideology within a culture by changing the language.

Now, the word “marriage,” for thousands of years and cross-culturally has meant man and woman. Sometimes it’s been one man and more than one woman. Occasionally it’s been one woman and more than one man. There is polyandry as well as polygamy in some societies in some parts of history, but it’s always been male plus female. Simply to say that you can have a woman-plus-woman marriage or a man-plus-man marriage is radically to change that because of the givenness of maleness and femaleness. I would say that without any particular Christian presuppositions at all, just cross-culturally, that’s so.

With Christian or Jewish presuppositions, or indeed Muslim, then if you believe in what it says in Genesis 1 about God making heaven and earth—and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

If you say that marriage now means something which would allow other such configurations, what you’re saying is actually that when we marry a man and a woman we’re not actually doing any of that stuff. This is just a convenient social arrangement and sexual arrangement and there it is . . . get on with it. It isn’t that that is the downgrading of marriage, it’s something that clearly has gone on for some time which is now poking it’s head above the parapet. If that’s what you thought marriage meant, then clearly we haven’t done a very good job in society as a whole and in the church in particular in teaching about just what a wonderful mystery marriage is supposed to be. Simply at that level, I think it’s a nonsense. It’s like a government voting that black should be white. Sorry, you can vote that if you like, you can pass it by a total majority, but it isn’t actually going to change the reality.

The other thing I find worrying is that I was struck this week—this is a memory, and you may not agree with the judgment that precedes it—but eleven years ago, no, actually ten years ago, almost right now, we were about to go to war against Iraq. I sat in my kitchen and I listened to Tony Blair making the great speech on how we should go and bomb Iraq (it was the day before they actually started). I thought at the time and I still think that that speech was absolutely full of holes. It was begging questions, it was missing points, it was slipping cogs in the logic. Yet all the papers were on board, almost everyone in Parliament was on board, with only a few grouchy people, and I remember thinking at the time: This is absolutely crazy. We should not be doing this and there’s all sorts of what-ifs which we haven’t thought through. I have to say, over the last ten years I have seen no reason to change that judgment at all.

I sense something of the same mood this week. All the press is on-side, most of Parliament’s on-side, and people are saying—get this—that unless you support this, you’re on the wrong side of history. Excuse me. Did you see University Challenge last night? There was a nice question: Somebody said, who was it who said in 1956, “History is on our side and we will bury you”? One of the contestants got the answer right: It was Nikita Khrushchev. When people claim, “We’re going with the flow of history,” that’s just a rhetorical smokescreen. So, that’s where I am.

Articles by Matthew Schmitz

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