Category Archives: Gospel of John

Grune 2

Celebrity Culture, Speaker Circuit & Church: Meet John (The Baptist)

This post draws on last week’s “Celebrity Culture, the ‘Speaker Circuit,’ and John the Baptist.

In that post I struggle over being an author who believes deeply in his message to the church, but feels uncomfortable with the apparatus for getting messages out to churches: booking speaking engagements, beefing up a network, using social media to expand a platform, etc.

Please note—I have friends in the speaker circuit who conduct themselves nobly and with integrity.  They do the practical networking stuff in a way that seems grounded in Christ-centered devotion.  I’m just expressing my own personal discomfort with the whole thing.

(Paul refers to “weak” believers who could not eat the meat sold in the Greco-Roman markets.  Some people held convictions that were unnecessary, but not necessarily wrong.  Maybe I am one of those sort when it comes to this.)

 

Celebrity (& Consumer) Culture and Mass-Marketing Divine Oracles

Beyond my own personal wranglings, the way the church and her “influencers” receive and relay messages is extremely important for us to think about.  Should we be examining the apparatus of message-marketing that serves as a primary means of shaping and influencing the church’s thinking?  Here is the question from the previous post:

How can we avoid the kitsch and the dangers of celebrity culture when God has assigned a public platform for so many members of the church?

To get a public message out to a wider audience beyond one’s own local parish requires public relations.  And that can get tricky for a Christian in a culture that loves (and loves to hate) local or regional or global celebrities.

What’s more, mass public messages to the church today are often in the form of purchasable material, like books (or speaker bookings, when can creep up into multi-thousand dollar figures per 30 minutes).

This means that the messages must be buy-able.

Which also means that public messages get intertwined not only with celebrity culture, but with the values and operations of our consumer culture.  I know I get squeamish quite easily.  But some of this is worthy of squeamishness.

 

A Voice in the Wild

Enter: John the Baptist.

I acknowledged in the last post that the prophets and the apostles (we could add Jesus Himself) offered public messages within a certain range of expected parameters for, well, ancient PR.  They were different from their contemporary public figures, and tried to draw distinctions: Paul could be easily looped in with the sophists, the (usually) itinerant crowd-wowers and cultural “influencers” of antiquity’s public square (1 Cor 1 offers a whiff of this).  Though different, they were using certain means of public communication already established in the culture.  Even in Jewish quarters like Palestine there was some understanding that a rabbi might take up followers and share his teaching in public with others.

By 1st century standards, John the Baptist was something of an off-the-charts sensation.

His fame, of course, cannot be understood thru our own pop-cultural lenses (in spite of the language I just used in the previous sentence).  But we can note that his was a household name.  Hordes gathered to him.  Were John ministering in a 21st century setting, his Twitter followership would have been enormous and his blog stats through the roof… assuming he would have used social media.

And actually, that is a big assumption, mind you, no matter how confident today’s media enthusiasts might assert axiomatically that he certainly would have been known as @JBap.

But maybe he would have—the man had a message.  He is described in terms of “a voice” (from Isa 40:3).  And he did not shy away from lifting that voice.  But before we jump to conclusions about how he might use modern-day PR methods, let’s consider this: his preferred attire was not that of fine robes (or designer jeans!) and his preferred venue was the barren wild, not the market or the palace lawn (on his dress and base of operations, see Mt 11:7-8).

So how did he manage his public persona?

Perhaps just as importantly, how did the Gospel writers present his public persona?

In all four Gospels, John the Baptist appears like a bolt out of the blue… and then he recedes almost immediately into the background, drifting backstage as soon as Jesus appears.

John’s Gospel, as I mentioned in the prequel to this post, seems most deliberate in presenting the Baptist as a loud, robust, vocal persona whose “platform” exists for one purpose only: to exalt another.  In Luke and Matthew, Jesus calls John the greatest man born of woman (Lk 7.28/Mt 11.11).

What we find in the Fourth Gospel is that the vocation of the greatest of all mortal men is to point to someone greater… and then fade away. 

Behold the Lamb! (Jn 1.29, 36)

He must increase, but I must decrease. (Jn 3.30)

John the Baptist is a good role model for anyone involved in public ministry.  To the extent that our books, “speaking events,” Tweets and blog posts are in direct service of the message we believe God has given us—these should point to Jesus while the author (the “voice”) intentionally recedes into the backstage shadows.

 

The Church of One Celeb

But there is something else to learn from John’s Gospel about today’s apparatus for conveying and receiving mass-marketed messages. Not only should we be concerned with the public persona, but with how the people of God receive and regard that “celebrity” figure.  One does not become “famous” without fans or “popular” without a populace.  How should the church behave itself in regard to our prominent leaders, “influencers” and messengers?

Like Andrew and the unnamed disciple in John 1:35-37—

The next day, John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When our prominent “influencers” point beyond themselves to the Best and the Highest, then we should follow the trajectory of their gaze.  As in the well-known work of art above, let’s follow the trajectory Grünewald depicts of John the Baptist’s long, re-directing finger.

 

 

 

 

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Incarnation: God as Tangible, Visible… & Kill-able

My kids want to see God.  They want to touch Him.  They want to hear His voice.  They want to feel His arms cradling and hugging them.

So do I.

Divine intangibility is an age-old problem for human societies.  One practical way to bridge the distance between heaven and earth is to craft an object to which divine status or divine qualities are assigned—idols.  They make the holy and numinous tangible.

Israel was not permitted to portray their God with physical materials.  It must have been challenging for some of those Israelites when they had to face an invading army whose god was elevated in shiny splendor for all to see and fear.  In the very location in Israel’s Tabernacle or Temple where an idol should have been (according to common Ancient Near Eastern practice) there was absolutely nothing.  The ark of the covenant served as a throne of sorts for the presence of God… but nothing chiseled or carved was permitted to sit on it.  That holy throne displayed simply the invisibility of YHWH.  God made Himself present to His people not through touch-able objects.  His primary means of communication were verbal and textual, not visual (though there were certainly visual displays at times).  YHWH was revealed primarily by His words… not by His shape, appearance, or His hold-able image:

“Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire.  You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Dt 4:12).

But then the Word became flesh.

My doctoral work has placed me right in the middle of John 1:14a: “καί ὁ λόγος σάρξ ἐγένετο /and the Word became flesh.”  So I am doing a lot of thinking about the Incarnation.  What struck me of late is that my gratitude for the Incarnation primarily lies in the wondrous appreciation that at least some folks—at least for a few years—could touch God.  They could hear His voice, sometimes up close, sometimes up on a hill, sometimes over a dinner table.  There were little kids that sat in His lap, that had His hand placed on their head for a blessing.  The Incarnation made God see-able and hear-able: “Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:29, 36).

Not carved.  Not chiseled.  Not a stationary statue fixed within a holy structure.  Through the Incarnation, God was loose and at large.  One day in Bethany, the other out in Galilee.  Sometimes on a boat.  Often in a home.  That’s right—GOD in someone’s home.  GOD holding someone’s kid.  GOD serving up supper.

But also: GOD hanging naked on wooden posts.

This is how the Incarnation affects more than just some people over a span of a few years: the Incarnation that made God touchable to little kids who needed a divine hug also made Him touchable for men whose hands could grip like a vise.  I did not get to feel the arms of Jesus wrapped around me.  But my entire life is drastically changed because His arms were once splayed wide open for the longest afternoon in history.

The Incarnation meant that some could hear His voice—sometimes up close (“today you will be with me in Paradise), sometimes up on a hill (“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani“), sometimes over a dinner table (“Take; this is my body”).  The Incarnation made God hear-able, tangible, visible… and therefore also kill-able.  The little kids could run up and tug his cloak that He might place His hands of blessing on the tops of their little heads.  And soldiers could strip that cloak and then thorn-crown the head of God.

This is from Tertullian:

“Christ… having been sent to die, had necessarily to be also born, that he might be capable of death” (De Carne Christi, ch. vi, 177).

My kids and I missed those precious years when God was living in a village, when He was someone’s neighbor, when He was walking the hills with other pilgrim-families to Jerusalem for the hol(y)days.  But we derive daily blessings from this Lord who blessed the heads of other children.  This is because He was not just the Lamb of God to be beheld by mortal eyes, but the Lamb of God who was slain by mortal hands for the sins of the world.

 

The Heartbeat of “Hopeful Realism”: Already… but not yet / Coming… and now is

The namesake of this blog is taken from a phrase my wife supplied as she carefully read through drafts for Faith Without Illusions.  Hopeful Realism is a perspective that holds rosy idealism and shallow optimism as incompatible in an ex-Eden world (hence, “Realism”).  But the perspective is “hopeful” because it holds that cynicism is incompatible with a pre-Parousia world.  That Jesus will make all things new drains cynicism of its legitimacy.

The Resurrection is the premise for a hopeful realist.  That Christ punctured a hole in Death’s impenetrable ramparts and then walked through it signals that something freakishly amazing is underway—the system (of evil) has a virus.  Not only is our world ex-Eden and pre-Parousia, but invaded by the powers of New Creation.  The hopeful realist has ground for hope not only because of Jesus’ forthcoming return, but because mysterious Resurrection powers at work even now, enlivening (cynic-)saints for divine service and seeping into darkened souls whose eyes are on the verge of opening wide.

So eschatology is critical for understanding idealism, realism and cynicism as perspectives in the life of faith.  If the idealists’ eschatological shout can be reduced to “now,” and the cynics’ eschatological cry reduced to “never,” the hopeful realists can claim “already… and not yet.”  I was reading the Greek text of John’s Gospel the other day and realized that the Johannine take on this can be rendered, “coming… and now is” (see Jn 4:23, 5:25).

The great challenge of the hopeful realist is to conjoin mourning with rejoicing.  We groan with creation (Romans 8:18-25) in longing for the day (the Day) when all things are made new.  We also rejoice that glimpses persist hinting that the newness is already underway.  Groaning and celebrating simultaneously—these are the honest joint disciplines for the hopeful realist in a world out of kilter, yet assured a new life.

Johannine Scholarship: It’s Personal

My doctoral thesis at Durham University focuses on narrative and theology in the Gospel of John.  For the past decade I have been reading Johannine scholarship and attending the sections on the Fourth Gospel at SBL.  For the past few days, I have been reading through essays in What We Have Heard From the Beginning: The Past, Present and Future of Johannine Studies, edited by Tom Thatcher and published by Baylor University Press. 

This is a rare book.

Wayne Meeks captures its rarity by describing the book in his endorsement as “a unique composite of two disparate genres: the history of research and the professional memoir” (from the back cover).

What Thatcher has done with this book is to collect essays from senior scholars in the field of Johannine research to which younger (though strongly established) Johannine scholars have been allowed to make brief responses.  These senior experts (gargantuan leaders in the field like D. Moody Smith, J. Louis Martyn, Raymond Culpepper, and Francis Moloney) seem to have been asked to provide an aerial view of sorts of their own experiences as students and teachers of John’s Gospel and the Johannine Epistles.  As any aspiring scholar knows, entering into the guild of biblical studies is enormously intimidating.  When you brush past such eminent scholars in the bookstalls at SBL, there is a rush of excitement, but also dread!  What I appreciate so much about Thatcher’s volume is that these men and women who I have been reading for so long now have been permitted to get personal with their own labors in the field, admitting shortcomings, changes of mind, and sharing how their insights arose and were perhaps even crushed.

I remember D. Moody Smith referring to the gathering of John scholars at an SBL session as “the Johannine community.”  There really does seem to be a sense of community among these researchers (in spite of intense disagreements!), and What We Have Heard From the Beginning allows readers to enter their ongoing dialogue.

Something else I appreciate it is that there really is a strong sense of responsibility for posterity in the field.  The book is an inter-generational exchange of the tradents of the discipline.  Three generations are included when I read those essays—the generation of those eminent, and mostly retired (at least officially) scholars, their younger respondents whose works are filling the pages of Johannine scholarship, and then there is me, representative of other aspiring Johannine specialists who have much to learn… and who may want to add a few pages themselves one day.  Biblical studies is a field that truly requires the mentor-apprentice relationship for the responsible maintenance of the craft.  You can see that dynamic at work in this book.

So from one of the apprentice-types: thank you very much, Dr. Thatcher and company….