On the whole, I don’t much care for John’s gospel. When teaching adult classes in years past, I’ve had something to say about parts of the bible I don’t like, and the response has been predictable: a hushed embarrassment that a member of the clergy, a teacher, would dare to say anything bad about the bible. Psalm 45, I once said, was appalling, and when I come to it in Morning Prayer, I skip over it. There was stunned disbelief as the group struggled to twist its text to squeeze out something of theological value. So, I’m reluctant to admit that there is a whole book I don’t much care for.
I know that John is just about everyone’s favorite starting place for their Christian journey. Maybe it was mine too once upon a time, but I can’t remember. It’s chock full of memorable lines, and there are elements in it that I treasure. The prologue for instance, the Samaritan woman at the well, a portion of John 5 that implies the possibility of universal salvation, the woman caught in adultery, Jesus as shepherd, the new commandment, Thomas, and the post resurrection lake side picnic. That sounds like a lot to like, and it is, but there are several themes that run through the text that make the whole of it less than appealing.
For me, and for many, the biggest is the way John hammers at the Jews with such consistent force that he inspired centuries of anti-Jewish violence all across Christian Europe, and a good deal of harsh bigotry in the Americas. John cannot be blamed for the Holocaust, or the many pogroms that preceded it, but he did provide the tinder, with the spark provided by preachers of every stripe. Of course it can be explained away by careful exegesis, but the plain meaning of the language is not lost on newbie Christians, those attending church in Lent, and anyone else who thumbs through the book. I feel compelled to offer several corrective sermons every Lent, and I don’t like having to do that.
On a more complicated level, I have problems with how John tries to weave his way through his take on light and dark dualism that brushes up against gnostic fantasies. He puts quite an emphasis on the separation of ‘the world’ ruled by Satan (or a prince we take to be Satan) that is in opposition to the heavenly realm of God. Jesus appears to be the only connective tissue between them, and one gets the impression that it might be a tenuous one at that. He makes it very easy for some Christians to imagine themselves as warriors on behalf of God in a fight with the devil, the outcome of which is still in doubt. It’s great science fiction but lousy theology. He also makes it easy for some Christians to claim that whatever cultural prejudices they have salted their faith with stand against the sinful world of everybody else’s culture. It’s the old ‘We may be in the world, but we’re not of the world’ nonsense that one frequently encounters.
In the end, John just makes it too easy for us to engage in bigotry and gnostic fantasy while passing it off as orthodox Christianity. Properly understanding John’s gospel, if properly understanding is the right way to put it, requires some very deep study of the text and its context. That’s not something most Sunday church goers ever do, or ever will do, and so, on the whole, I don’t much care for it.