Is N.T. Wright in his Right-Mind?

N.T. Wright

Scot McKnight’s recent reference to it has reminded me of N.T. Wright’s treatment of right brain/left brain dichotomies in his treatment of readings of the Apostle Paul, especially as they relate to his use of the Old Testament. This isn’t the first time that Wright has made such claims, and I seem to recall him making similar references to the MBTI in the past.

As far as I am aware, Wright’s most detailed discussion of right and left brain thinking is found in his inaugural lecture at St Mary’s College in St Andrews: ‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’. Here is an extended quotation:

One final element of our modern world which has militated against imagining the kingdom in our reading of the gospels, and much else besides, is the triumph of left-brain thinking over right-brain thinking.… [T]he apparently left-brain activities of analysing, calculating and organising have steadily taken charge of our world, squeezing out the apparently right-brain activities of imagination, story-telling, and intuitive thinking, I find it uncannily accurate as a description of our world in general and of biblical scholarship in particular.…

McGilchrist does not refer to the world of biblical scholarship, but the following paragraph jumped out at me as a pretty accurate summary of how the discipline has often gone:

‘We could expect’ (he writes) ‘that there would be a loss of the broader picture, and a substitution of a more narrowly focussed, restricted, but detailed, view of the world, making it perhaps difficult to maintain a coherent overview . . . This in turn would promote the substitution of information, and information gathering, for knowledge, which comes through experience . . . One would expect the left hemisphere to keep doing refining experiments on detail, at which it is exceedingly proficient, but to be correspondingly blind to what is not clear or certain, or cannot be brought into focus right in the middle of the visual field. In fact one would expect a sort of dismissive attitude to anything outside of its limited focus, because the right hemisphere’s take on the whole picture would simply not be available to it.’ (428f.)

…All too often the microscopic analysis of details, vital though it is in its place, has been made to seem an end in itself. ‘Objective facts’ are all the rage, and whether you’re a left-wing hunter of objectivity, determined to disprove the gospels, or a right-wing hunter of objectivity, determined to show that they are after all ‘factual’, you may still be missing the point and losing the plot. Facts are left-brain business; vital in their place, but only part of the whole…. Only when the detailed left-brain analysis can be relocated as the emissary to the right-wing intuition, with its rich world of metaphor, narrative and above all imagination, can the discipline become healthy again.

Wright revisits this theme in Chapter 15 of his immense Paul and the Faithfulness of God, claiming that right-brain thinking has been resurgent in recent years in New Testament theology, especially through the work of Richard Hays. He contends that such right-brain thinking is more alert to the narrative big picture, more attuned to ‘echoes’ within the text, and less inclined to the ‘proof-texting’ readings that are most clearly exemplified by such documents as the Westminster Confession of Faith.

I discussed a number of issues that have relevance to Wright’s claims within my recent post on the problems in many uses of personality typing. Wright is a theological hero of mine, but I have far-reaching issues with his position here. The following are a few more thoughts:

1. The right-brain/left-brain dichotomy is a myth. Much ink has been shed and many trees have died in to secure our freedom from such questionable pop psychology. Let us honour their sacrifice.

2. Tying theological positions so closely to personality type offers a subtle invitation to Bulverism. There is a dangerous temptation to attribute theological positions to the fact that they are held by ‘left-brain thinkers’, and by so doing to substitute for close theoretical engagement with them.

3. Reifying certain hermeneutical sensibilities and locating them in the brain is problematic. Brains don’t read texts: people read texts, and they do so in terms of such things as principles of language, society, and textual meaning. Dealing with reading in terms of neuroscience instead of these things is a product of a fundamental misunderstanding of the manner in which the act of reading operates and can easily function as a means to avoid dealing with texts and their readers on less compliant yet more appropriate terms. This is not to deny that neuroscience can occasionally shed light on dimensions of our reading practices and hermeneutics. However, the popularity of reductive neuroscience has great potential to lead us astray here. Understandings of texts seldom follow so straightforwardly from the psychologies of their readers.

4. I wonder whether Wright’s characterization of the field of New Testament studies is in danger of losing sight of the dialogical, conversational, and contextually responsive nature of such a discipline. Wright may often pursue his theological project in a more monological manner. However, most scholars are not committed to such a daunting and ambitious venture and regard themselves more as voices within a conversation. Judiciously speaking into an ongoing and contextual conversation is a rather different art from building a monological system of thought: one often cannot straightforwardly deduce the shape that the latter would take from merely attending to the former.

Certain theologians may be more inclined to focus on neglected details in response to ‘big picture’ types, but this doesn’t mean that such words that they speak into the conversation provide a clear picture of the broader edifice of their thought. Many of us move between big picture and fine detail with some regularity, very closely relate the two, and do so primarily in response to other people within a conversation and context. I would be very concerned if people started to regard my comments on this blog as definitive and comprehensive pronouncements and representations of my thought on various issues, for instance: they are more typically context-bound and responsive remarks in continuing conversations. When I focus on the fine details it may not be because I am a left-brain thinker, but may be because I think that, in their zeal to describe the forest, my interlocutors are forgetting that forests have trees. Mutatis mutandis when I focus on the ‘big picture’.

5. Like other popular dichotomies—Eastern/Western, Hebrew/Greek, foxes/hedgehogs, female/male, heart/head, feeling/thinking, etc., etc.—the right-brain/left-brain dichotomy is deeply seductive, yet holds immense obfuscating potential. Many of us love it when the world divides up neatly, but the reality is typically much more complicated and less congenial to our rhetorical excesses. In most of the examples given above, simple polarities or dichotomies are hard to maintain and the reality is considerably more complex. The dichotomies answer less to the actual reality than they do to our desire for easy categorization.

For instance, those who push the feeling/thinking polarity typically neglect how deeply intertwined thinking and feeling are. As I have argued on various occasions on this blog, it is imperative for effective thinking that we maintain a healthy emotional relationship with the issues that we are studying. Thought can easily become reactive rather than responsive and ossify into self-delusional rationalization where this does not take place. The thinking/feeling dichotomy also neglects the role played by such things as imagination and desire. Furthermore, as we rest so much on the category of ‘emotion’, we lose the capacity to provide a more finely textured account of our selves, one that might employ a wider palette of categories such as appetites, passions, sentiments, and affections and discourage such simplistic oppositions between feeling and thinking.

6. Following on from the previous point, Wright associates narrative closely with the ‘right brain’. Is the reality really that simple? ‘Narrative’ strikes me as a rather questionable agglomeration and reification of several different processes. Dealing with narrative requires a package of skills, skills which cannot simplistically be attributed to one side of the brain. The presence of some of these skills is no guarantee of one’s facility in others.

Narrative literacy requires the skills of condensation and exposition, the ability to express the ‘point’ of a story and to narrate a story in detail. This sort of literacy requires recognition of the subtle differences between narrative, story, and plot and the ability to handle each in their appropriate manner. It requires the ability to identify and employ genre, to handle referentiality, to process emotional components of speech and discourse, to employ and understand intonation and emphasis, to recognize structures, patterns, sequences, and chronological order, to construct sentences and coordinate their elements, to handle verbs, nouns, qualifiers, tenses, conjunctions, etc., etc. Some narrative skills are skills of writing, while others are skills of speech.

The skills required for story-telling are not necessarily the same as those required for story-processing or analysis. For instance, the sort of Greimassian structural analysis that Wright employs in the course of his work is a rather atypical means of handling narrative, requiring a set of skills that probably differ from those required for most story-telling and processing.

What is missing in the lateralizing accounts of such as Wright is appreciation of the necessary coordination between the two sides of the brain in processing and producing narrative and the array of skills required in developing adeptness with it. There is literature out there on this subject (for instance, here).

7. I have made this point on a number of occasions recently, but it is important that we never forget that biblical narrative has striking differences in form, content, and function from the sort of narratives with which we are more accustomed. Wright has a propensity to employ narrative as a generic category (in what some might regard as a characteristic tendency to miss the trees for the forest), failing to pay sufficient attention to the differences between what narrative means for us and what it meant for particular ancient societies (although he does pay some attention to this).

8. When handling narrative in Pauline theology, we are often operating at the level of the structural logic of a narrative. Paul’s letters are less of a narrative than they are a second-order discourse about a narrative. Is it really the case that recognizing and processing the logic of Pauline arguments about narrative requires that one be that closely attuned to narrative more generally? Alternatively, could it be that the reason why many Pauline scholars have underemphasized narrative has less to do with the fact that they are ‘left-brain’ thinkers than it does with the fact that the text in front of them doesn’t take a very pronounced narrative form and has too often been functioned in a degree of abstraction from the parts of the Scripture that do?

9. Wright closely associates ‘rationalism’ with left-brain thinking. However, aren’t such methods as Greimassian structural analysis prone to a sort of ‘right-brain’ rationalism? Isn’t ‘left-brain thinking’ often a force that arrests the rationalistic tendency of the ‘right brain’ to ‘procrusteanize’ everything into a tidy big picture or narrative? Wright’s own fondness for broad brush characterizations—‘Enlightenment’ being a classic example—and tidy stories—Jesus and Caesar, return from exile, five act drama, etc.—has the effect of effacing many salient and significant details that, if attended to, would yield greater, if somewhat chastened, insight. Is Wright’s extreme emphasis upon the category of ‘narrative’ for understanding the Scripture and his tendency to place an extreme accent upon the unity of this—in an exceptionally bare bones form—just another manifestation of this tendency?

10. The presence of a ‘proof-texting’ mentality is not always apparent on the surface of things, nor is the proof-texting mentality usually helpfully defined. The same people who decry the supposed proof-texting of many conservative Christians can regularly reference a text such as Galatians 3:28 or Matthew 7:1, while offering only minimal account of their meaning within their context. How this isn’t subject to the same strictures isn’t entirely clear.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, which is paradigmatic of the proof-texting mentality for Wright, wasn’t originally produced with proof-texts and only included them at the request of the House of Commons. As Wright should appreciate from his interactions with other Pauline scholars, one man’s ‘echoes’ or shorthand gestures towards more detailed exegetical arguments are another man’s ‘proof-texts’. It remains to be demonstrated that the ‘proof-texts’ of a text such as the Westminster Confession of Faith were designed to function as decontextualized facts, rather than as signposts to sites of contextually sensitive exegetical argumentation in support of a particular doctrinal claim. If the charity that Wright wants us to Paul in understanding his uses of the Scriptures were also extended to texts such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, our judgments upon them might be somewhat mollified.

Also, aren’t many proof-texters ‘big picture’ theological system-builders, for whom a profound intuition for wholes undergirds their use of biblical texts to form the logical scaffolding of these structures? The difference between such persons and the narrative-attuned types may be harder to locate than Wright suggests. It may have more to do with the degree to which narrative is perceived to function as the organizing principle of biblical theology than it does with some neurological bias towards it.

Finally, Wright’s tendency to attribute hermeneutical postures relatively tidily to brain lateralization doesn’t resonate with my own experience. My hermeneutical postures have evolved very significantly over time and I currently function quite naturally with a sort of hermeneutical approach to the text that felt entirely alien when I first encountered it. When I’ve taken brain lateralization tests before (out of curiosity, while not believing in their purported scientific basis), I’ve always come out as a relatively pronounced left-brained type. However, in many respects, I would go further than Wright himself in many of the things that he attributes to the right-brain.

I agree that we possess natural inclinations that affect the way that we approach certain endeavours. However, self-familiarity has taught me that these inclinations are nowhere near as determinative as many presume. Most of us have the capacity to develop a hermeneutical approach that is appropriate to its subject matter, even when it doesn’t come so naturally to us. Developing such a hermeneutical posture can be akin to learning a second language. Students of a second language can be alert to features of the language—to its distinctive elements, grammar, vocabulary, and logic—to which many native speakers may be oblivious. I believe that those of us whose hermeneutical posture has been consciously, mindfully, and deliberately developed, rather than merely passively assimilated or thoughtlessly assumed, are often in a much better position to appreciate the limitations and strengths of various approaches and the problems inherent in the modes of thinking and reading that come most naturally to us. Those who have never taken the effort to develop beyond their mental ‘mother tongue’ do not merely lack understanding of other ways of seeing the world, but will never truly understand the character of their own.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, N.T. Wright, NT, NT Theology, The Blogosphere, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Is N.T. Wright in his Right-Mind?

  1. whitefrozen says:

    What would be an example of #7? I’m reading ‘Jesus/Victory of God’ and when he goes into the sections about the stories/parables of Jesus, and what they meant in the overall narrative of exile, it seems as though he’s doing the opposite of what you’re claiming he does – it seems to me that part of his whole project would be spelling out exactly how/why these small narratives, located in a big narrative, are understood differently in the ancient mind as opposed to the modern.

    • I am thinking particularly of the way that ‘story’ functions as a category within his critical realist epistemology in The New Testament and the People of God. Wright makes some great points about the different ways that narratives functioned for ancients when dealing with the specific texts, but this recognition never effectively leavens his methodology, which operates in terms of ‘story’ as a fairly generic concept.

  2. Matthew N. Petersen says:

    Would you be more sympathetic if he’d said that the N.T. scholars need to learn basic literacy? (http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2012/05/03/rediscovering-literacy/)

    • It depends how much and what kind of conceptual load-bearing such claims were designed to perform. Venkatesh Rao’s piece has a lot of hyperbole and some caricaturization (Slavoj Žižek is another example of a thinker who operates in such a manner). However, those acquainted with Venkat’s oeuvre know that the sort of work that his claims are designed to perform are rather more modest. There is a place for ‘ideal types’—which Venkat uses rather a lot—but problems come when people forget that ideal types are fictional.

      An example of the ideal type in theology might be the ‘Hebrew thinker’ as opposed to the ‘Greek thinker’. Certain uses of such types might be fairly benign, maintaining a clear awareness of their fictional character. However, the serviceability of such ideal types can rightly be called into question, especially when they have a complicated history, within which their fictional character was routinely forgotten or when they have tended to produce more misunderstanding than insight.

      The right-brain/left-brain dichotomy is especially problematic as it does not typically purport to be about ideal types, but about the concrete structure and functioning of the brain and to provide us with a conceptual framework for understanding our process of thought. Now, the point that Wright is trying to make by invoking this is more modest and I am sure that he would happily make much the same point in less problematic categories. However, a lot of unhelpful baggage is introduced to the conversation nonetheless.

  3. Paul Baxter says:

    I always say, “There are only two kinds of people in the world: people who think there are only two kinds of people in the world…”

  4. Andrew says:

    I haven’t looked at the lecture but from the quotation Wright appears to be using the work of Iain McGilchrist, have you read his book The Master and His Emissary?

    • I haven’t, although I’ve read shorter articles on it and seen his TED talk.

      • Andrew says:

        I finished it recently, it’s an interesting read. It’s worth reading even to disagree with it.The evidence he presents for some kind of difference between left/right seems pretty solid, although at this stage hardly conclusive. Dominance is more difficult. I had bigger problems philosophically with some of his claims (probably nominalist), or at least the language used (attributing agency and so on to the hemispheres). He also tends to treat human history as some kind of dialectic between the two hemispheres, with a pretty favourable assessment of mimesis as the mechanism.

      • Interesting. That was the impression that I have received from what I have read and watched of his material. While I wouldn’t dispute the existence of differences between left and right, it is the way that certain things such as ‘narrative’ are neatly lateralized in arguments such as Wright’s that causes all sorts of problems. Besides, there are far, far better ways of discussing the need to establish a proper relationship between big picture and detail in our thinking than in speaking of it in terms of the coordination of brain hemispheres.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        I would also like to strongly recommend reading The Master and His Emissary. There is considerable evidence that the two hemispheres do have different tendencies, and I am moderately sympathetic to the idea that different people may favour one hemisphere or the other. I don’t think that is quite as dead an idea as you imply. But this should be done with considerable caution, more caution than is usually given in applying the left vs. right brain paradigm.

        And, secondarily, yes, absolutely, literary analysis is highly analytical, and might easily be shoehorned into the stereotypically left brained category. (Hilariously, I have to say that, from my admittedly limited experience of reading Wright’s introduction to Christianity, he himself appears to be an abominable storyteller.)

        (I haven’t read McGilchrist’s Against Criticism, but it appears he does have many reservations about literary analysis himself, though he acknowledges that Against Criticism is itself a work of literary criticism.)

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      It is interesting though how much hay Wright has been able to make applying even the relatively crude category of “story.”

      But it is likely time to move on to more refined categories. There are, as you note, many qualifications that need to be added.

  5. rayjk says:

    Thanks for these recent posts Alastair, very stimulating as always. I’ve learned an awful lot from reading your blog and digging through its archives over the past year or so, and figured it was about time I let you know as much🙂

    Greetings from Canada,
    Raoul Kingma

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