(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
"Listening to John forces you to experience the narrative more like a symphony than a book."--William Hamblin, "Introducing John"
It's not news to any of my usual blog readers that if you were to ask me to rank the Gospels in order of my "likes," it goes like this:
Mark (it's raw, uncut, full of naked emotion, and the chronologically closest Gospel to the actual events of the life of Jesus)
Luke (a very close second--I love the emphasis on healing, being a physician myself, and it's a wonderful "point-counterpoint" to the pathos in Mark)
Matthew (too "chattery"--I like the parables but there's just too much conversation in Matthew)
...and a very distant fourth...
Historically, John is just too much "out there in the ether" for me. I've always had a problem with the fact several stories in it are not in the Synoptic Gospels, and I've never liked the...well...attitude...Jesus seems to have in John. In the Synoptics, I feel like we are allowed more humanity to Jesus. I wonder to myself, "How much did Jesus really "get" that he was the Messiah? When did he figure it out? How did that feel to him?" I feel Jesus' stress about this more in the Synoptics. Jesus as portrayed in John is a bit of a know-it-all about it, and he's kinda haughty in spots about it. It's clear in John that Jesus is divine from the get-go, and the fact so many people in the stories don't get that he is, sticks out.
I've also never historically liked how some fundamentalists seem to treat John like it's a "Why you need to get saved," kit. I've heard it called "salvation in a box." Fundamentalists often treat John as a "larger" Gospel than the other three. But in all fairness, I think for one to embrace a more evangelical outlook, one needs a Jesus that is a little larger than life than the Synoptics can offer. So, I can be okay with that--for them. But not for me.
This was always a bone of contention between one of my former priests and me. He'd get all wide-eyed gooshy about John and I'd just sort of wrinkle up my nose and go, "Oh, there's just too much existential BS about John." Then he'd more or less pat me on the head and say, "Oh, well, John is a pastor's Gospel. Not so much a lay person's Gospel," which of course, my bruised ego, the part of my ego that likes to be the smartest pupil in the room, (Yeah, I admit to that little devil sitting on my shoulder), would interpret as, "You're just too dumb to get it, because you don't have my theological education," and my ears would burn...I would just clam up and scowl...and I liked John even less.
This year, in my EfM class, I had to go head to head with the Gospel of John for two weeks.
It was not a pretty two weeks.
But in a parallel universe to Hamblin's article and its suggestion, having always had the feeling John read like an epic Greek story rather than a more rabbinical, Talmudic-type story (as the synoptics tend to read), I asked myself, "I wonder if it's meant to be heard rather than read?" I thought to myself, "Maybe I am projecting a little in this dislike of this particular Gospel. Maybe I am reacting more to how I feel when people try to "save" me, and how I felt put down about not "getting" John
So I found a series of dramatic readings of John on YouTube. You can link to the first one here, and follow the links to the successive ones on the YouTube page.
So several hours later, when I had gotten through the dramatic readings, something had changed inside of me. I liken it to sticking a Jamshedi needle into the hip bone to get a bone marrow biopsy. Something about the dramatic readings--about hearing the Gospel of John rather than reading it--allowed my thick bony cortex of "attitude" about John to be breached and the marrow of it finally aspirated and put on slides so I could "see" what John was about.
Here's what I had missed from merely reading it:
1. I missed the message of hope in John. Hearing it caused a feeling of connection to worm its way into my heart--that there was nothing inside of me or any of us that was not capable of resurrection. I had been too busy staring at the characters like a train wreck.
2. Having just recently been to the theater to see the remake of True Grit, I was reminded how this remake of the Charles Portis novel is closer to the way the novel reads (I read it years ago.) One of the things that sticks out in the novel and the remake is that contractions are rarely used in the dialogue. This, of course, is nowhere near to "reality" of how people spoke in this time frame of American history. All of a sudden it dawned on me: The characters in Portis' novel take on a new sort of reality because they have been stripped of the reality of the language at the time. The Gospel of John takes on its own reality because we see a Jesus stripped of the encumbrance of his human reality, and see his divinity more clearly. What I had chalked up to an "unlikable attitude" was actually the reality of his divinity.
3. Finally, I came to a new notion of "The Beloved Disciple" (and possibly a slightly heretical one at that.)
It is this third point on which I wish to expand a little more.
So much commentary has already been written on "Who was The Beloved Disciple," and most of it eventually is most suggestive that it was John himself, whether that's really true or not. Hamblin makes some points in his article about why it may not be John. But our "default mechanism" is that it was John, and John was more or less trying to be modest.
What if the author (or authors) of John, whomever they may be, kept the identity of this beloved disciple vague for an entirely different reason?
What if the identity of this disciple is hidden on purpose so we can think of ourselves as the Beloved Disciple?
Think about this one a spell.
When we attend worship, in some ways we tend to think about how we are bringing our most human parts to be in the presence of God, but we are also bringing that spark of our divinity along for the ride. We tend to ignore our own divine sparks, but rather, connect to the corporate-sized divine spark we see in the worship process. Our humanity tends to blind our own divinity, and in some settings of Christianity, we are told to even consider our own divinity is a bad thing.
It's only bad if we revere IT more than God himself. The sin is in disconnecting it from the rest of divine Creation.
One of the things I have learned as a lay worship leader is to never undercut the presence of people bringing their most holy selves to worship. That yes, I am leading the worship, but I am not the central focus point of the worship. God is. As the 12 step people say about the leaders of 12 step meetings, the leader is the "trusted servant."
But that piece of ourselves that we use to worship God, when we are worshiping in a group or in private, loves Jesus every bit as much as The Beloved Disciple did. We desire to connect to all that is Divine. In these moments, when it all seems to be working right, we truly feel that our sins have been forgiven. Yeah, we might step outside and feel them again, but there's no denying that feeling when we feel weightless in the presence of God rather than the usual weight of our sins on any random day.
So in that sense, I believe The Beloved Disciple is us.
Yeah, John is still my least favorite Gospel. I still have to work at "getting" John. But the gap between it and Matthew for me got a lot narrower.