I Still think James Cone is better than N.T. Wright!

A few months back I stirred up a lively discussion on facebook on why I prioritized James Cone over N.T. Wright as a theologian.  I STILL feel the same and this is why…

N.T. Wright is a first class biblical scholar, he is brilliant, and I have learned much from his works. However, N.T. Wright lacks the emotional response necessary to bring the full weight of many New Testament texts.  Wright dissects and analyzes with historical insight and cultural awareness but he seems to be limited in what he can offer as an exegete. While he probably could be considered semi-postmodern, his approach is one in which he attempts to bring objective reasoning (as much as is humanly possible) to the text through lively and courageous study of the ancient culture and context from which the book he exegetes arrives out of. But this is too removed and distant from the text. I believe the best reading of the text arrives out of the emotional response of the text from those at the bottom.  First and foremost, the biblical text is “good news to the poor” and to “the least of these” in society. Education is good and definitely enhances the reading (I am pro education and am finishing up my MDiv this semester.) However, it is a modernist bias to think that a scholarly interpretation trumps the emotional and intuitive response of uneducated and marginalized people.

This is where James Cone can teach western scholars much about doing theology. Some fault Cone for his anger and passion that drips of his pages. It is these apparent vices according to dominant society that actually allow Cone to stay true to Jesus’ gospel and message, which is directed first to those at the bottom rungs of this world.  He gets it, and unfortunately too often academia does not. Cone is not perfect, and I have some differences in opinions on some theological points, but I believe he is passionate about the things God is passionate about. That is where I believe we all should be moving.

I will continue to read and learn from both Cone and Wright, and will be the better for it.  However, I hope that I my own ministry has the intellectual and emotional spirit that Cone offers us. Cone is the most important theologian of the 1900’s in my opinion.  Do you agree? Why or why not?

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

7 thoughts on “I Still think James Cone is better than N.T. Wright!

  1. I guess it depends on what is being addressed, but I am in very much agreement with your line where you say “it is a modernist bias to think that a scholarly interpretation trumps the emotional and intuitive response of uneducated and marginalized people.”

  2. Both Wright and Cone have been among the most influential theologians for my own thought… I wouldn’t say one is “better” than the other, though… just that their objectives are different and they take different strategies to make their arguments. I think that in theology, which as you said, has such a tendency to become disinterested or aloof, or to show bias towards the intelligentsia over the experiences of real people (esp. the poor), we need the voices of those like Cone. But we also need Wright’s approach, and his (admittedly imperfect) attempts to objectively examine the text– it depends on the audience, and also the kind of argument being made.

    But, yeah, whatever. Fact is, my theology would look radically different without either of them. They’re both must-reads.

    (For the record, I vote either Moltmann or Gutierrez as most important theologian of the 20th century… Cone would be in top 8, and Wright would be top 10 or 15; he’ll be more important as the 21st century progresses…but that’s just me spitballin’….)

    Since we’re talking about lifting up the perspective of the marginalized, btw, perhaps we should consider the prolific “life-based” theological witnesses, as well as the writings, of the likes of Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu… and consider them among the top “theologians” as well…. (Our theology needs their approaches as well.) Thoughts?

  3. Thanks for your thoughts yall.. I’ll be honest, I picked Cone and Wright specifically because I thought they were symbolic figures who represent larger traditions. So folks like Gutierrez fall within the Cone argument for me. Given that, I should modify my statement and say that I believe Cone is the most important AMERICAN theologian in the 1900’s. He passionately addressed the primary ills of the society he lived in and experienced.

    Folks like Dr. King and Mother Teresa must be considered as well. Unfortunately, some of the best sources are from people who have embodied theology who have not been privileged to stop and write at all. The fact that we have even read any of these folks, means that they have gained some sort of privilege (as we have as well if we have read them). I have had the benefit of sitting and hearing the stories of several civil rights freedom fighters, and their theology and wisdom is overwhelmingly powerful.

    Lastly, I really am not hating on Wright at all. I think he is a scholar and worth reading. I just don’t think that approach is as valuable and as organic as Cone’s, and those who allow thought, feeling, and intuition to emerge out of their experiential response to a particular event or concrete reality. It is one’s marginalized subjectivity that informs us the most when doing theology.

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