(Fourth and final in a series of posts taken from Wes Howard-Brook’s introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of John, Becoming Children of God: Read the first post here. The whole introduction to this book, of which these posts are a small part, is terrific, and probably worth the price of the book alone. This is the last post I am making from the intro, so enjoy!)
Still another aspect of my own reading perspective is important to note at the outset. I am not a member of the academic guild of Bible scholars. My reading of the Bible generally, and the fourth gospel in particular, comes not out of the context of university conversation – whether secular or theological – but rather from the perspective of radical discipleship. That is, I am interested in the biblical texts not simply as objects of study and intellectual interest but as paradigmatic tales of God’s relationship to our ancestors and to us. If I did not believe that the Bible offered insights that are essential to our negotiation of our way out of the desert of the decaying American empire and toward a more hopeful future, I would quickly move on to some other pursuit and urge all listeners and readers to do likewise.
Of course, many academic scholars share a commitment to the power of the Bible to liberate people and social structures. I do not intend by this description of my own reading location to characterize academia broadly as an ivory tower or as otherwise irrelevant. Many of my own ideas have been the fruit of seeds planted by scholars, and many people in universities actively promote the Bible’s liberating message. What is central here is not a critique of academia but an awareness of the different but equally credible reading perspectives that flow from university and “grassroots” standpoints. The university environment is capable of nurturing conversation among other scholars, both within biblical studies and across disciplines. The radical discipleship environment is capable of nurturing conversation among people of various experiences and traditions about the value of the Bible for social transformation. Each standpoint has strengths and weaknesses too numerous to list here. But it is important for those who read the Bible without a doctorate to recognize that their own readings are not necessarily diminished as a result.
It is, of course, almost trite to note that Jesus was not an academic; nor were his first followers; nor were the first Christian preachers, teachers, and other leaders. The development of the perception of a privileged reading position by academics is a relatively recent phenomenon, based not on biblical criteria but on principles stemming from the Enlightenment’s notion of the primacy of “scientific” reason.
This is not, to be sure, to revert to the celebration of naïve or accidental interpretations that come from the fabled random opening of the Bible, with the expectation that God speaks through whatever passage one happens to land upon (Admit it – you’ve done this!). Bible study, whether from within academia or from some other social location, requires hard work for our generation, so removed from the Bible’s own worlds and ways of speaking and thinking. My own interpretation flows from the attempt to pay a respectful and sincere visit to the house of academia and then to share the insights gleaned from within with those whose daily lives do not allow the luxury of such a visit.
Finally, a personal element of my experience that cannot be separated from my reading of the fourth gospel: I grew up Jewish as a member of the first post-Holocaust generation. Although this upbringing was largely a matter of ethnicity than religion (perhaps, in the end, a false distinction, no matter what one’s beliefs about God), it seared into my consciousness a deep understanding of the capacity of human beings for evil as well as the ability of Christians to kill others in the name of Christ. It is a difficult social dislocation for someone of this background to learn to see the wisdom of Jesus and come to claim the Christian tradition as one’s own. It is particularly difficult to embrace the fourth gospel, given centuries of powerful misreadings that have found the text’s characterizations of “the Jews” as a basis for two millennia of mistreatment, mayhem, and murder. My own experience of being a Jew who has come to accept the power of the church’s memory of Jesus has given me a perspective on the experience of the first Johannine community that is certainly different from those whose Christianity came with their “first” birth. I engage John’s story of Jesus with the knowledge that this aspect of who I am both reveals and conceals.
I invite readers to consider how their own stance affects their reading process. This is not a matter of “confessing” one’s “sins” or “prejudices” as much as engaging in a reflective process that has been made necessary by insights gleaned by the deepest sort of philosophical and literary thinking. The powerful tool known as deconstruction challenges us to dig beneath any viewpoints that claim to be “objective” or “foundational” for the preconceived notions and commitments that underlie them. If we believe that God calls us to break down the altars of idolatry that pose as divine centers in our society, we should also be willing to examine both our own false gods and the images of the true God that animate us.