Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The seductive lure of the big idea

Yes, I'm on my hobby-horse, and I'm not inclined to get off anytime soon. I'm determined to ride until I know the winner.

It seems no accident that historically we are enthralled by John, whom we cannot understand, rather than Paul, whom we can but would prefer not to.
Courtesy of the MadPriest, who gets all the credit; one consonant blog to another. Actually, Bishop Marshall's letter is a gold mine of thought, but I'm starting here. That hobby horse, you know.

The other day, for no particular reason (except maybe that it was a Sunday night, and I was bored), I saw both Joel Osteen and Robert Tilton on TV. Osteen was telling his congregation they all looked like "victors" instead of "victums" (that's the way he pronounced it, presumably to make the consonants almost rhyme), and assuring them God wanted them to have all the rewards of life: which presumably meant the American Dream of 2.5 kids, a 2 car garage, and an iPod in every ear. Pardon my cynicism, but I can never help but wonder how that line of preaching would go over in Third World countries, where people are the "victums" or the very system that makes people like Joel Osteen so very rich and materially comfortable.

But I digress.

And then there was Robert Tilton, assuring me even more bluntly that Jesus wanted me to be rich, and if I just ordered Tilton's book Strike it Rich, and read it, then Jesus would enter my heart (which, since high school, I've always thought was a rather confined space for Jesus to get into) and I would begin to experience the blessings God had in store for me. Very material blessings, of course. And, of course, though they never said it, the one gospel Tilton and Osteen and every Bible-thumping "evangelical" preacher has in common, is the Gospel of John. Indeed, their credo, doctrine, and theology seem to begin and end with John 3:16. It is no accident you almost never hear an evangelical preach from the letters of Paul, or mention the gospel of Luke (social justice), or Mark (the disciples are idiots) or Matthew ("Lord, when did we see you?"). They love John, however, even though, as Bishop Marshall says, we don't understand John at all.

It is no accident that Rudolf Bultmann's magnum opus is a lengthy, scholarly, and very philosophical treatise on the gospel of John. With Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments in one hand, and a running argument with fellow faculty member Martin Heidegger in the other ear, Bultmann delivers a tour de force of 20th century existentialist thinking almost wholly grounded in the 2nd century gospel. Bultmann deals with the three synoptic gospels in one volume devoted to their textual history, and almost entirely overlooks their distinctive theologies. His work on John's gospel is nearly three times as long, and it, not his later popular work on "demythologizing" the gospels, is his true contribution to Christian theology. The gospel Bultmann insists is the touchstone gospel for modern humanity is the same gospel evangelicals insist is the touchstone for their literal reading of the Bible and for the assurance that only belief in Jesus as savior and filus dei saves. When Bishop Marshall says we don't understand John, but prefer it to Paul, he's right on the money.

Paul, of course, is the popular whipping boy today for all that is wrong in the church. Despite the fact he traveled with and regarded women as his apostolic equal, he's blamed for all the misogyny Christianity has been heir to. Despite the fact it was Paul, not Peter, who wanted to make the preaching of the Gospel inclusive (we distinquish by race, national origin, or gender. In the early church, they distinquished by ancestry: there were the children of Abraham, and the rest of the world. Of course, for the Greeks and then the Romans, there were Greeks or Romans, and barbarians, or "everyone else.") and not set entry requirements to the worship of Jesus based on circumcision or food laws. I am, I realize, grossly oversimplifying, but the point is Paul, with all his prickly particularity and our tendency to mis-read him thanks to Augustine, is the influential Christian writer we prefer to reject, precisely because we understand him. And since we understand him, we have to wrestle with him. Far easier to read the gauzy gnosticism of John, and get it wrong, and claim we have the insight reserved for the elect, the chosen of God. It flatters our ego so.

I mentioned before that John uses the word "semeia" rather than "dunameis." The former is "sign" or, in the context of Luke 2:12, proof or evidence (what the angels announce to the shepherds, to prove their statements about Jesus). The latter is the word preferred by the Synoptic writers for Jesus' healings and other supernatural activities. The former is so much a part of John's gospel that scholars identify a document that was source material for John, like the "Q" document for Matthew and Luke, and they call it the "Signs" gospel.

But John doesn't use the "signs" as proof of Jesus' divinity. Indeed, in John, the signs seem to be counter-proofs, almost negative examples of the divinity of Jesus. Not quite negative, of course; and that's where the confusion comes in. But John is constantly confusing. Take, for example, the famous exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in the third chapter of the gospel. "Nobody can perform the miracles (semeia) you do unless God is with him," Nicodemus says. And rather than congratulate him on his insight, Jesus immediately tells Nicodemus something which simply makes no sense. Unless, of course, you already have the key, the gnosis:

"As God is my witness: No one can experience God's imperial rule without being born from above." Witnessing signs means nothing. The experience of the basileia tou theou is from God, not from human experience or even human understanding. When Nicodemus responds to this curious statement with a question, he speaks for the rest of us, and rather than explain it, Jesus launches into another set of odd statements:

"As God is my witness: No one can enter God's domain without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the human realm is human, but what is born of the spiritual realm is spirit. Don't be surprised that I told you, 'Every one of you must be reborn from above.' The spirit blows every which way, like wind: you hear the sound it makes but you can't tell where it's coming from or where it's headed. That's how it is with everyone born of the spirit."
John 3:5-8, SV.

Which seems to mean, or at least imply, that witnessing the signs themselves is"born of the human realm," living as we do in this material world. On the other hand, what is the purpose of the signs if not to show God's power? And yet it is the powerlessness of Jesus that is doubly reinforced in John's gospel, where Jesus banters words with Pilate just before his crucifixion, but meekly accepts the punishment the Romans mete out to him, because he must. But he goes on to tell Nicodemus that "everyone must be born from above" without explaining what that birth means, except in reference to the freedom and illusiveness of the spirit, which seems to mean that you don't know anything, and can't know anything, and won't ever know anything, because the spirit does what it wants to. Which leaves honest seekers like Nicodemus seemingly perpetually in the dark. And what of us? Are we wiser than Nicodemus? Do we know where the Spirit is blowing, and whom it is blowing in? Or does Jesus mean we can never know where those born of the spirit are coming from, or where they are going? Seems a very exclusive club, indeed.

It is all a darkness.

The rest of the chapter does little to clear it up. To Nicodemus' final question "How can that be possible?" (virtually the same question Mary asks Gabriel) Jesus is brutally dismissive: "As God is my witness: We tell you what we know, and we give evidence about what we've seen, but none of you accepts our evidence. If I tell you about what's mundane and you don't believe, how will you believe if I tell you about what's heavenly?" Notice, here, the emphasis that is the theme of John's gospel, and it is that theme which makes this one the favorite, even as we don't understand it: the necessity and importance of belief. But belief in what? In being "born from above" and in being part of the Spirit, coming from who knows where, going who knows where? But what does that mean? What is it I must believe in, and why is this belief so important? "This is how God loved the world: God gave up an only son, so that every one who believes in him will not be lost but have real life." All well and good, but what am I believing in, and how am I to know I believe unless I know what I believe? These are not idle questions, but John is not exactly anxious to answer them. The miracles of the synoptics are radically inclusive: those healed or blessed make no confession of either sin or faith before, or sometimes even after, their miracle. But in John's gospel, even those who honestly seek to understand, seem to be dismissed as hopelessly benighted.

But, of course, if we understand, if we penetrate the code of John's mysteries, if we unlock the ciper of John's stories and sayings, we have earned our salvation, we have proven ourselves worthy of God's secrets, fit stewards of God's authority. This is, of course, all of a piece with Greek epistemology, where only like knows like. It also flatters our egos. If we can achieve insight by our own efforts, it's better than being saved despite having no insight at all. Think of Luke's anointing, versus the one in John. In John the anointing has moved from the head (Mark and Matthew) to the feet, but the message is in accord with the synoptics: it's a preparation for death. John is obscure about spiritual matters, but underlines his themes of servanthood with a fine narrative hand. Mary washes Jesus' feet after Lazarus is raised, and later Jesus, rather than feed his disciples, washes their feet, like a good servant. It has the same effect on us as Luke's anointing: we overlook the fact the woman has shown no real "love," preferring to think she deserves the blessing she recieves (after all, blessings should not be unearned!). and we overlook the sacramental possibilities of the foot-washing in favor of the more familiar practice of being served a meal. Like knows like, and we know what we like. And of course there's the ego consolation that the knowledge John is giving us is spiritual, which means only those born of the spirit can understand it; and likewise, only those who understand it, are born of the spirit. So if you can't understand it, well....

And yet John undermines this teaching at almost every turn. When it comes time to feed the five thousand (evidence, again, that John's is the most recent gospel, and he knows the stories of the others. This gospel mentions this story as if it's a well-known part of Jesus lore, but look what John does with it.), it isn't just a miracle, but a sign: "When these folks saw the miracle he had performed they would say, 'Yes, indeed! This is undoubtedly the prophet who is to come into the world.' " (John 6:14, SV). But Jesus slips away for the night, as he knows they want to pronounce him "king," based on this sign. And the next day:

'I swear to God,' Jesus replied, 'you're looking for me only because you ate the bread and had all you wanted, not because you witnessed miracles. Don't work for food that goes to waste, but for food that lasts--food for real life--which the son of Adam will give you; on him God the Father has put his stamp of approval.'
John 6:26-27, SV.

Which seems fairly clear; except, like Nicodemus, we still aren't clear as to the nature of this food. And at the end, Jesus proves that he, too, eats and drinks (as Dr. King said, the distinction between the sacred and secular, between body and spirit, is not a Biblical one) when he appears to Peter and the others on the lakeshore after his crucifixion. It's the only resurrection story in which Jesus eats.

So John, like Luke, is another subtle theologian. But we flock around John's gospel and trample over the subtlety, sure we understand what it means, and pitying those who cannot understand our explanations, or who fail to understand its message of radical inclusion of those already chosen to be among the understanding. And we leave Paul alone to dirty his hands with his messy quotidian issues like who gets to eat at the table, and what worship is appropriate, and how to reconcile disparate beliefs and cultures. We who are born of spirit are above such things; and besides, being born of spirit, we all think alike, and are right in our thinking, and have no need of such mundance concerns. And when someone says it is all a darkness, we are sure it is only because they cannot see the light, which can only mean they are creatures of darkness. And we seldom question whether we are taking darkness for light ourselves. Perhaps because the alternative is too much like planting trees in concrete, Or perhaps because it just so much easier to imagine Jesus really does love us, and wants us to be happy, and wants everyone else to learn to think like us, so they will be happy, too. And this is a sign unto us: not the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (what kind of sign is that? Peasant babies are wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in mangers every day in 1st century Palestine!), but that we are happy. Because, after all, the quiet and irresistable pursuit of truth is just so much work! Far easier to believe we were born with the secret decoder ring, and that all we need to do is read the signs; the signs we are sure only a few special people can read.

Paul is just so quotidian. And where's the power and the glory in that?

Which means we should feel badly about ourselves? No. But just as religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all, without humility, there is no presence of Christianity either. And not the false, "aw shucks" humility that presumes you are worthy of praise but just good at humbly accepting it, nor the abasing humility of "We are not worthy!" No, the true humility of the servant, the one happy to be of service to others, the one who doesn't look for a reward, but isn't a doormat. Think of Mary, talking to Gabriel; or to her son, at the wedding in Cana.

There is a great deal more wisdom in Mary than most of us Protestants give her credit for. After all, she's not interested in big ideas. Her focus is mostly on the everyday, the ordinary, on other people; which seems plenty big enough for her, and for the rest of us.

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