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Wright has ‘J. K. Rowling-plus’ appeal, says SPCK

20 July 2011

by Ed Thornton

A TRANSLATION of the entire New Testament by Professor Tom Wright, a former Bishop of Durham, is published this month. The pub­lishers, SPCK, hope that The New Testament for Everyone, along with the popular For Everyone com­mentaries, will confirm Pro­f­essor Wright’s position as the J. K. Rowling of Christian publishing.

The For Everyone commentaries have sold half a million copies in English, more than half of them in the UK. These alone represent an estimated £5 million in sales. In addition, SPCK publish another 24 books by Professor Wright, one of which, Simply Christian, has sold 160,000 (i.e. another £1.5 million in sales). He is now selling well on Kindle.


He is also published in 18 other languages, among them Korean, Chinese, Romanian, Farsi, and Arabic.


In an interview at the launch of The New Testament for Everyone at King’s College, London, on Wednesday of last week, Professor Wright said that he decided to translate the whole New Testament when working on the commentaries.


“The series is designed for people who would never normally pick up a biblical commentary; it’s designed for old Mrs Jones in the back pew for whom the word ‘commentary’ would be scary,” he said. “So I did not want to say: ‘The NIV is wrong at this point, or actually the NRSV hasn’t quite got the meaning.’ And the only way not do that was to do my own translation.”


The For Everyone commentaries can be traced back to the five-year period in the 1990s when Professor Wright wrote the Church Times Sunday Readings column. In the late 1990s, Simon Kingston, who is now general secretary and chief executive of SPCK, visited Professor Wright in Lichfield, where the latter was Dean of the Cathedral.


“Simon sat in my study and said: the William Barclay things are fine, but they’re way out of date, we need to do that again — and you’re the man to do it,” Professor Wright recalled. “The thing that gave me the courage to say yes was knowing that I had written 500 words a week for five years for the Church Times. So I thought, if I can do that, it’s just possible that I can do 800 words on each paragraph.”


The commentaries, on which work began in 2000, should have been completed by 2006, Professor Wright said, but his appointment as Bishop of Durham in 2003 meant that “grabbing time to do that serious writing was much harder”.


He said that he was greatly helped in the translation process of The New Testament for Everyone by Dr Michael Lakey, “a brilliant Greek scholar” who lectures in New Testament at Ripon College, Cuddesdon. “Over this last year, Michael has worked right through the text, millimetre by millimetre, and pointed out all sorts of places where he says, ‘I don’t think you’ve quite got the nuance here, or the meaning there’; or, in some cases, I’ve missed out whole phrases with­out realising it.”


In the preface to the translation, Professor Wright says that it is “a translation, not a paraphrase. I have tried to stick closely to the original. . . There is no ‘safe’ option: all translation is risky, but it’s a risk we have to take.”


The most challenging New Testament books to translate, Professor Wright said, were “the General Epistles, and Revelation — the commentary on which is released in September, completing the series. I’ve never written on them before, except as odd little bits here and there, so I really had to dig deep and dive into the commentaries.”


The New Testament book that gave Professor Wright “the most sheer excitement” was Acts, “which I had never taught right through before”. He completed the trans­lation in eight days, while he and his wife, Maggie, were having a summer break at their cottage. “I was working from about 4.30 in the morning until about 10.30 at night, and it was just exhilarating.”


The translation and com­ment­aries are “not about trying to market a particular brand of Christianity, it’s just . . . what I think the New Testament is saying.”


The translation has won approval from scholars outside the Evangelical circles in which Professor Wright is most popular. The senior com­missioning editor for SCM Press, Dr Natalie Watson, an Anglo-Catholic, said that The New Testament for Everyone was “faithful to the Greek text, and good at communicating to the present day. It could be read in church. He is the Barclay for this generation.”


Mr Kingston described Professor Wright as “J. K. Rowling-plus”, because he has both popular and scholarly appeal. “He can convey things simply and effectively to large numbers of people, but also tackle robustly the most complex of issues. . . . It means that when we publish his books for a more general audience, we do so confident that [the] theology is really thought through.”


One of the reasons for Professor Wright’s prolific output, Mr King­ston said, is that he is “by nature an outgoing person and a person of extraordinary energy. You can put before him tasks that would make anyone else faint away, and he will really consider it.”


The Revd Stephen Kuhrt, Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden, and author of Tom Wright for Everyone: Putting the theology of N. T. Wright into practice in the local church, which is also published by SPCK, said that one of the reasons for Professor Wright’s popularity is that “he writes in a remarkably similar way to the way he sounds when he talks; his lucidity and common touch is very important.”


Mr Kuhrt said that Professor Wright’s books have given Evangel­icals a theological basis for a “holistic gospel”, and helped them overcome a false divide between social action and evangelism.


“So many things that Christians have intuitively known are right, like the fact we’ve got to be at the absolute forefront of fighting in­justice, Tom has shown that, of course, the Bible supports that, and that’s central to the gospel.”


Mr Kuhrt believes that many conservative Evangelicals are still “not engaging with the overall paradigm shift” brought about by Professor Wright’s work. “You’ve got a lot of people who like what Tom says, and who are attracted to it, but who know they’ll lose friends if they push it strongly.”


With the For Everyone series complete, Mr Kingston said that neither Professor Wright nor SPCK is short of ideas for further books. “It is a question of what we choose to do next from among a large range of ideas, not what can we come up with next. My worry is he won’t live to be 110 to write what I would like him to write.”

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