A reflective, personal reading of John's Gospel.....
My fascination with John’s Gospel began in earnest many years ago. When I would mention the gospel to skeptical critics thirty years ago, they would assure me it was a second century forgery, or something cooked up by splinter group intent on communicating esoteric mysteries. I read on… Over the years, critics and scholars have become kinder to the book, more informed in their reading, and less confident in their earlier theories about the book’s origins, authorship and priorities. They now propose a much earlier date, one Biblical scholar suggesting that an early `draft’ of this gospel was in circulation prior to the collapse of the temple in AD 70. They are now also more confident that it is the work of an `author’ as opposed to an agenda driven editorial committee,….furthermore, that author was a self identified `eye witness’ and drew upon other, similar accounts. Further, many of these scholars now think it entirely reasonable to allow the author’s own stated intentions about the purposes of the book to guide their reading of it.
As for its structure and style, different writers have made different suggestions based on what we are learning about John, his audience, and their situation. Some suggest that John framed his narrative in the shadow of the Feasts of Israel. They point out that there is so much Old Testament imagery, symbol and material buried just below the surface of the gospel. The feasts and the temple seem to provide important keys to understanding the things Jesus said and did among the people at this time. Someone else suggests that John parades his individual characters and their stories through the gospel as if they are witnesses at a (Roman?) trial. Another scholar reads John, and suggests that the elevated language describing Christ as a direct challenge (at the time) to Imperial Rome. (So who is truly on trial here, in John’s account? Christ or Caesar?) Another scholar writes of the way the author shapes the stories in this gospel according to the conventions of Greek tragic drama….and someone else delights in pointing out the subtle uses of poetic structuring devices (in the Greek) that give a symmetric and reflective pattern to the account, or description of their `perfect’ subject. In many ways, various authors have explored the overall structures and the individual stories in this book in order to help it `speak’ from its time into ours. Others go further. Their goals are not simply to make the gospel alive as a literary event….but to make it alive in order to have spiritual impact upon the hearer/reader. They believe that this is consistent with the Gospel author’s own vision. He initially describes himself as an eyewitness, possibly alludes obliquely to himself as the unnamed companion of Andrew who followed Jesus in Chapter one, and then steps back in order to let the story (possibly refracted thru any combination of the cultural forms alluded to above) almost tell itself. Event flows into event, symbols, metaphors, speeches and actions seem to echo one another in a way that slowly builds a composite portrait of `John’s’ Christ before the eyes of the reader. For me, all the discussions about Christ and culture, mage and word and so forth find their alpha and omega in this book. In my opinion ancient and modern debates about Christ, church and culture can be answered, or at least discussed intelligently, in the light of our closer reading of this book. However, for most of us, there has to be more to our reading. We can appreciate maybe the discussions about author, text and original context. We might appreciate light the gospel sheds on cultural forms, issues and questions then and now. But if John’s own purpose in writing was to construct a `living portrait’ of Jesus, then that is where our reading has to begin.
I will be regularly adding entries from my own personal journal, as I visit and revisit John's text and my attempts to engage it. As indicated above, I have at least a passing awareness of some of the conversations `around' John that have gone on in some circles over the years. I have read (some) commentaries, ranging from the scholarly to the devotional.....That's all well and good (maybe.)
The two books `on John' I keep coming back to for my own nurture and deepening are:
`The Way of the Sevenfold Secret' by missionary Lilias Trotter (you can find a free pdf download at the end of the wikipedia article about her) and
`Drawn into the mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John' by Jean Vanier, published by Paulist Press. Others have said wise, good and helpful things, and if,on occasion, I borrow from them...I'll try to acknowledge this. My main task, however, is to try and keep my/our reading grounded in what I believe John was hoping to get across.
A note on reading: My own Christian experience in Evangelical circles exposed me quite early on to the concept of `the quiet time'.... the idea of a regular/daily `devotional' reading of Scripture, approached in attitude of prayerful expectation. I have heard this described as a practice essential for spiritual growth by some, and dismissed by others as a sort of legalistic church/ cultural burden that weighs the aspiring believer down with a `performance' centered religion.
My reading in, and exploration of other Church traditions has exposed me to the concept of `Lecto Divina'....a model of prayerfully reading, and reflectively `chewing over' the sacred text. I have seen this approach lauded by some as ancient, Catholic and trustworthy, and dismissed by others because of its different confessional tradition, or (worse!!) its `meditative `New Age' associations. However, both these (reading) approaches seem to resonate with each other and, on a really good day, draw from the same deep well. I am trying to learn from the best of both traditions.
It's basically going to be about `whatever works for you...' I'll be adding some reflections on my first readings in john Chapter One very soon......