Our book today is the Gospel of St. John (we’ll use the New International Version, just to keep everybody reading and happy!), and it comes to us today courtesy of the dozens of you who emailed me from the heart of the Silent Majority about a recent posting lambasting Beverly Lewis’ “Annie’s People” series in general and The Englisher in particular. Some of you accused me of hating all religious fiction, and the rest wondered if there were any religious fiction I actually like (no Amish themselves wrote to me, since they’re cramped and narrow enough to believe God doesn’t want them to have the Internet).
I should stress that the point I was trying to make in that posting about The Englisher wasn’t that religious fiction as a whole is insipid or limiting, but rather that I hate the examples of it that are. In The Englisher (and religious novels like it that I’ve read), religious belief is an extremely thwarting thing, a constraint that will inevitably force you to lop off living parts of yourself. Characters “successfully” deny their sexual orientation, they spend their whole lives married to people they don’t like, they voluntarily enter a kind of mental servitude based on readings of a text that’s 2000 years old … in short, they do what Annie does in The Englisher: they take the beautiful paintings they’ve created, wrap them up tight, and store them in the attic. Forever.
I confess, I don’t see the payoff of ‘faith’ like that. How on Earth do you ever know it’s good for you? You live your whole life, die, go to Heaven, and there, finally, God pats you on the back and says, “I instilled in you the talent to paint and the lifelong desire to do it, and you successfully forced yourself to resist that longing every day that you were alive – good job!”?
Probably “Annie’s People” bugged me because it so relentlessly ennobles one of the most backward and repressive back-alleys of Christian faith I’ve ever encountered (I’ve spent zero time around snake-handlers, so I might not know what I’m missing here), and it keeps doing it, in book after book. But it need hardly be said (except maybe to Richard Dawkins and his ilk) that Christianity has been the inspiration for many, many great expressions of art, including many wonderful books.
And the first of these is John. He’s not the first Gospel – the shorter, more telegraphic ‘synoptic’ gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew were almost certainly all composed first – but his is the first Christian novel, the first book in which the author is doing something more than simply reporting the ‘and then He did … and then He did …” happenings of Jesus’ ministry on Earth. John tells that story too, but he makes it his – and so he sweeps us along in a way no other gospel does.
Despite five hundred years of exuberantly intense scriptural study, we can’t say with certainty when John’s gospel was written, or by whom, or for whom. “Sometime in the first century” is about the best that can be managed, with guesses ranging across the reigns of five different Roman emperors. The neatest narrative is that Jesus took John and James, the sons of Zebedee, as his disciples while they were very young men and that John lived to be a very old man, writing his testimony sometime toward the end of his life using as his guides and prompts all the other written accounts that had cropped up in the intervening years but enhancing and improving them as he went along. This is almost certainly not what happened, but like I said, it has the most attractive simplicity.
However it came about, we can say two certain things about the Gospel of Saint John: first, it reads nothing like the other gospels, and second, although we might not know the who, the where, the how, or the when of it, we most certainly know the why: John wants to preach the Word made flesh. Not for him the mere bare-bones tallying of miracles and sayings – he crafts a long, complex, and at times maddening narrative in which Jesus cannot possibly be construed as some random wonder-worker but is instead the way and the life, the door to salvation, the son and avatar of the living God (the synoptic gospels contain this element as well – more so than is often given credit to them, I think – but John is the only one that raises it to an art).
Which makes reading his book one of the ur-strangest literary experiences anybody – and especially any Christian – can have. Coming to the text fresh, as it were, you notice one thing before anything else: Jesus here doesn’t come across as the meek and mild Lamb of God. He’s confrontational, peremptory, enigmatic … one might almost say rude (if one weren’t leery of offending his Dad). In other words, he seems far closer to the heroes and demigods of Greek mythology than to the wan and lissome figure who emerged from Renaissance hagiography. He’s decidedly not quite human, and time and again, John makes clear that his semi-divine status caused his own disciples to get a little jumpy. They loved him and believed in him (most of the time), but they’d also never seen anything like him before, and many of John’s anecdotes preserve that fact, like the classic story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee:
When the evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
Readers will of course notice that it isn’t the storm or the rough waves that terrify the disciples – it’s the sight of a man walking on water and perhaps looking slightly transformed while he does it (or else, why the need to identify himself once he draws near?). Unlike the primary impression given by the other gospels, here is a Jesus who feels his own supernatural status immediately. He knows he only has a limited amount of mortal time, and he’s impatient with practically everybody for not straight away seeing what his words and signs (one of John’s favorite words) signify.
The Jewish priests and authorities form a Greek chorus of constantly grumbling throughout the book, constantly griping about the liberties Jesus takes in identifying himself with ancient prophecies. Who does this guy think he is, they’re constantly asking. Don’t we know his parents? Don’t we know where he comes from? John never misses and opportunity to paint a picture of the new confronting the old, and the resonances are made all the more thrilling in light of the subsequent 2000 years (of which John – and perhaps Jesus – could know nothing):
You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light.
I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Fathers’ name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?
But do not think that I accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?
Passages like that one also underscore something else: there was simply no way the Jewish authorities of Jesus’ time could let him live. And John’s account of the Crucifixion and Death is a small masterwork of tragic storytelling – and the scene he presents to us with such effusive artistic joy, the scene where a grieving and heartbroken Mary Magdalene is the first to encounter the risen Jesus, is virtually Homeric in its clarity and power.
I think Matthew, Mark, and Luke actually benefit by being read together – but you owe it to yourself to read John apart. There’ve been many lovely little paperbacks over the years of this gospel alone (some of you will remember the playful – and now intensely collectible – series of little hand-sized paperbacks that Penguin, naturally, did of each book of the Bible, including John), and that’s how you should read it. And then you should write and tell me your impressions – privately, of course!