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.