Monday Morning Confessional – N.T. Wright and Breaking Beautiful

Monday Morning Confessional – N.T. Wright and Breaking Beautiful May 27, 2013

Months ago I was asked to write six chapters to accompany a video series – a work for hire thing. The House Studio packages these great small group resources consisting of a set of video talks by a well known scholar and a short chapter written by some unknown author interacting with the video, some of the theological issues at stake, and discussion questions for the group. They have produced several – Stanley Hauerwas, Walter Brueggemann, Shane Claiborne – all of which I highly recommend. They do a couple of things well, including printing the transcript of the video before the chapter, which seems to allow better discussion. Plus, if you only buy the book, you still get the transcripts of the talks (I’m guessing most groups buy 5-6 books and only one DVD). This is my second project for this series, the first is Public Jesus. The videos are mine for that one.

The videos for which I was asked to write were of N.T. Wright. They were produced by Travis Reed at The Work of the People, who sold the rights to the House. It was all done contractually and legally. N.T. Wright signed a contract with The House Studio authorizing the use of the video and the production of the associated materials that I wrote. For my part, it was a work for hire project – 2 grand for six chapters… roughly $14.25 an hour. I wasn’t set to get any of the royalties from the project – those were slated to go to Wright and Reed. The House has done everything legally and above board.

These series are not big sellers, and I doubt very much if The House makes any money on them – especially Breaking Beautiful because it was so expensive. The packages are meant to entice people who would typically not read something by Hauerwas, Brueggemann, or N.T. Wright, to get some exposure to these important thinkers. Video based curriculum help folks who aren’t tempted to read theology to get caught up in theological discussion. They are solid gold in my parish and serve the church well.

I woke up to an email this morning from Tom Wright saying he had only found out about the project from a friend, stating that he had not given permission for it… ugh. Meanwhile a pretty snarky blog post about and subsequent Facebook posts came out from a Pauline Scholar saying the whole project is a scam. I think it’s safe to say his blog is getting some pretty good traffic today – I’m not going to mention the person’s name who has been stoking this, although he is a fellow Patheos blogger. I will say that we are friends on Facebook, my email and phone number are quite public. He could have contacted me at any point and did not. No email, no call, no message. Been in contact with Wright, the publisher trying to sort things out. More on that later…

Nevertheless, on the internet today I’m being called a forger, rip-off artist, naive, a liar, a law-suit waiting to happen, shameful, a dipstick (… is that still a thing we say?), and my personal favorite “less than subtle.” (Not to get too editorial here, but a pun is almost always a mistake)… among other things. I knew the SBL crowd was dog-eat-dog. I didn’t know that it was Facebook-cruel.

I want to clarify that I have had no control over how this project was marketed. I think “N.T. Wright with Tim Suttle” does not reflect what really happened. In fact the moment I saw the cover I said so publicly. Two months ago I made sure to post something to mitigate any sense that I was somehow collaborating with N.T. Wright – you can see it here. I’m terribly embarrassed by all of this and I feel like a complete idiot.

I’ve been doing Monday Morning confessional for a few years and I’m not going to stop today. So, my Monday Morning Confessional is this:

I confess that I feel terribly exposed and vulnerable today. I was really excited about a writing project that I put my heart and soul into doing. I thought it represented some of my best pastoral writing. Now it’s being completely slammed, and I’m being treated like a joke, and the whole thing may fall through. Last time I looked a blog post ripping me had nearly a thousand shares. If you know anything about page-views, a share is worth about ten page-views… I’m guessing 10-15 thousand people today were told I’m a big fraud. That’s a pretty awful feeling.

I confess that I have been immersed in Brene Brown’s work lately – so I know that the name of something like this is shame. I’m glad shame has been at the forefront of my theological and pastoral thinking lately, and I’m sure God is teaching me through this. Brown says it is important to know your physiological shame triggers. What does your body feel like when it undergoes shame? I’m pretty sure that I know mine now: sick stomach ache, sweaty armpits, a flood of nervous energy accompanied by a paralyzing impulse to hide. Shame triggers two ubiquitous tapes in our minds which play over and over in situations like this. They tell us: “You are not good enough,” and “Who do you think you are?” Those tapes are on repeat for me today.

So, I confess that I will summon the courage to say I’m really proud of the work I did for Breaking Beautiful. I’m doing my best to learn how to be a better writer and to do something with my life and my gifts that serves the church. I am dented and smarting, but ultimately undeterred.

I confess that more than anything I’m disappointed because I wanted this project to be good. I wanted small groups to sit down, watch N.T. Wright speak off the cuff, read the words I wrote about what he said, follow the ways in which I tracked what he was saying back to his other books and writings. I wanted people to think about why N.T. Wright is so important for our lives, and why theology matters for all of us not just the SBL/AAR crowd. I confess that I poured my heart into this project and I really wanted it to matter to people and now it feels like it’s going to end up being a joke. I feel like I’ve been made to look foolish in front of one of my theological heroes, too. It seems like a bad Brady Bunch episode or something – I’m cousin Oliver just to close the simile. I’m really bummed.

I confess that I think so highly of N.T. Wright and if this makes you even one bit curious, you should start reading his work and don’t stop until you have read it all. Listen to his talks and lectures, there are tons online. Watch his videos at Work of the People and revel in one of the greatest theological minds of a generation.

I confess that I’m always surprised by the glee with which Christians can tear each other apart. I confess that I’m sure I’m guilty of this at one time or another, and will redouble my resolve to keep Paperback Theology a place where that doesn’t happen. I also think maybe I’ve gotten just a tiny little taste of what N.T. Wright has had to deal with on a daily basis. He is a pioneer in the way we understand Paul’s writings. His work on justification in Paul is pretty ground-breaking. The New Perspective on Paul, at least the one Wright is putting forth, has become an important part of how I read the New Testament, how I preach, and how I encounter the gospel personally. I’m waiting for his big book on Paul with great anticipation. I know Wright has taken to end of grief for his involvement in shaping the way we read the scriptures. He’s gotten it way worse than I ever will and yet he keeps on writing. That’s what you call courage, my friends.

Okay, I made my confession. Now its time for you to make yours…

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  • mwkruse

    Awesome post, Tim. I figured publishing rights were somehow involved. You have ZERO to be ashamed of! I do think the book cover was unfortunate but that was not in your control. I have heard several stories of authors who had inappropriate titles given to books or cover art that contradicted the message of the book. (Ask Brian McLaren about the cover of his first book!) Hang in there buddy. Prayers for a gracious resolution to the misunderstanding.

  • brianleport

    Thank you for clarifying this. I wanted to believe that you weren’t trying to trick anyone, but at the same time this is something the publisher shouldn’t have done, because even if it wasn’t intended to deceive it comes across as trying to do that very thing. I am one of those who mentioned the book on my blog and currently I am writing a post trying to direct people to read your explanation. I am sure this is a bit embarrassing, but I believe your a good person trying to help popularize Wright’s books. That is honorable, and I hope you have the opportunity to do it, because like you I have benefitted from his writings and I know others will as well.

  • Steve Walton

    Thanks Tim; I have deleted the earlier post I put on fb. I still think your publisher has some questions to answer about misrepresenting what the book is, but you’ve clearly sought to act honourably.

  • Garet Robinson

    Thanks for the clarification and being so willing to be authentic about this whole episode. It is a cogent reminder that we should seek out people involved and ask questions first before making assumptions. Your willingness to bring this to a resolution is educational for all of us.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    Anyone who reads this post, Tim, will see your heart and your integrity. This too shall pass, my friend, and you have shown your honor. Onward and upward.

    • Nice of you to say so, Tim. Thank you!

  • Mark Farmer

    Thank you for walking in the light, and for helping us all to do so.

  • Ross Gill

    Good can come out of this. Yes, the publisher messed up and you are paying the price for it unfortunately. And sadly immature Christian people who too easily let their shorts get in a knot will vent their feelings without taking the time to reflect on what they’re doing. But the negative publicity from all this may actually result in one of your goals being achieved. Out of curiosity more people just may pick up the video and book and be exposed to the thoughts of N.T. Wright. That certainly isn’t a bad thing. I still have it on order from Amazon and fully intend to use it in my parish next Fall.

  • Craig Schuler

    I’m sorry for your pain, Tim and hope you can find encouragement today knowing that our Master’s honorable intentions were also misunderstood.

  • Deborah Kukal

    Thank you for the work you do here. Thank you for open-heartedness, for sharing fears and humanness. Your blog is on my favorites; you have provided comfort, enriched my reading, and provoked thought.
    You make a difference, even when times are challenging. Hold on!

  • heartsandmindsbooks

    I am an indie bookseller and we stock all the House Studio books and
    each of these DVDs as well. They are really good — a bit edgy in terms
    of cinematography, appealing to a hipper crowd, I guess, than some
    other DVD curriculums. (We recommend Zondervan’s “Surprised By Hope”
    and IVP’s “Evil” and “Resurrection” DVDs by Tom Wright all the time!) I
    often joke (well, only half joke) that when the Nazarene’s (ie House)
    produce Walt Brueggemann and these sorts of scholars, it is a big sign
    of the Kingdom coming! I’m glad you explained how they work, the DVD
    and the outside scholar.

    And now this. Sigh. For
    what it is worth, I hadn’t heard that you were criticized for your role
    in this project, Tim and I am blown away by your transparency, clarity,
    and integrity in this. I am glad for your good work, and respect you so
    much for this very fine post. Hang in there.