Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Self-perservation and the Gospel of John

I haven't been blogging too much lately because I have been up to my neck in research on the Gospel of John as I am preparing for the upcoming Hidden God, Hidden Histories conference. This research has been both enlightening and depressing, a sort of high and low of my academic journey.

I have known for a long time that traditions are conservative and self-interested, but what is coming home for me in a very real way is just how much the traditions are safe-guarded by the dominant group - be it the mainstream churches or the academy - and how far the dominant group will go to protect them. The interests and preservation of those interests often become the end-all, even at the expense of historical truth. The rationalizations, the apologies, the 'buts', the tortured exegesis, the negative labeling, the side-stepping, the illogical claims accumulate until they create an insurmountable wall that preserves both church and academy, which remain (uncomfortably so for me) symbiotic.

The entrenchment of the academy is particularly worrisome for me. Scholars' works are often spun by other scholars, not to really engage in authentic critical debate or review, but to cast the works in such a way that they can be dismissed (if they don't support the entrenchment) or engaged (if they do). In other words, fair reproduction of the author's position and engagement with it does not seem to me to be the top priority. The quest for historical knowledge does not appear to me to be the major concern. It usually plays back seat to other issues including the self-preservation of the ideas and traditions of the dominant parties - those who control the churches, and the academy with its long history of alliance with the churches.

I already know that what I have to say about the critical history of the Gospel of John and the origins of Christianity is going to be countered with the full force of the church and academic tradition that has built up around the fourth gospel a secure armor of 'correct' and 'permitted' interpretation, an exegetical tradition as old as the Johannine epistles that has worked to normalize, to deradicalize, to tame the beast. What I have to say is 'not allowed' speech, 'can't be' talk.

Even so I continue to study and write, to speak the unspeakable in my quest to remain fully engaged with the critical investigation of Christian history.


Robert Mathiesen said...

I can support everything you say here. I stuck it out in academe for 40 years (in Church Slavonic philology, then History of Magic), and I know that my efforts were very much worth while. My former students have told me so repeatedly. But even so it it a hard road.

So hang in there! "The truth against the world!" is a good motto.

What you publish will remain in at least a few libraries, and years or decades from now a few young people will find them in their browsing and see their value.

Robert Mathiesen
Brown University

Unknown said...

Professor April, may your quest for a critical investigation of Christian history continue with much success.

Concerning Christian historical truth and ALL truth in general, I like this famous quote from the past which seems relevant for our time.

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
--Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860)

Ian said...

Ooh, tantalising. A soupcon of controversy without letting slip what you've found that is actually controversial!

Seriously, I think time has a way of playing this stuff out, and academic inertia is universal. And its important to realise that this inertia is a valuable guard against fashionable quackery (unfortunately it only half-worked against post-modernism, but that's another story).

Good luck on the rest of the research.

PAULYR said...

Agree with Ian, your blog today is quite tantalizing. I'm glad you're 'afraid' your results on John will be countered by the academy. The academy on John hasn't produced much insight since Dodd and Brown and Martyn, though there has been much writing on John; scholarly research here seems to be stagnant. I dare to think that John is of primary historical value for understanding Jesus of Nazareth and its composition history will forever boggle interpreters. A crucial question to answer is, why is John so different in tone (or tenor or style or spirit) from the synoptics?

pascal said...


I recall the bizarre claims made by Christopher Skinner about your work on John, including the assertion that you had done:

'very little exegesis in the Fourth Gospel'

thus demonstrating that he had either not read your work, or had done so and was simply hoping that no-one would notice his misrepresentation of it.

These sorts of particularly egregious errors appear to be all too common, but I am glad that you are soldiering on...

Cecilia said...

I can't wait.

Will you link to something we can read?

Boudewijn Koole van Brigdamme said...

Hi April,

Thanks again - first of all - for all you wrote and write.

It is always interesting for me that only RE-interpretation of the past within the context of actual true spiritual expression of living people can serve that actual life in its highest potential. And that at the same time historical research as how things might have occurred in the most historically true sense (thereby meaning conjecturing and guessing as things really may have occurred in some or other context or just as unique events in that 'as objective as possible' perspective) always will be needed and often be helpful to compare with.

Of course those who do the academic 'objectively historical' work should not pretend they do every spiritual job too, and the actual spiritual people should not think they do the historical job as well in one stroke, but the worst indeed is when those who only defend the bullwarks of what once was real spirituality, pretend that only their views are historically defendable.

There may be one or more consolations: there are much more seekers who find your works than you are aware of, and apart from that you may feel yourself that what you do has some (or much) worth of and by itself.

So please inform us about the readings of the first Jesus-adherents in the stream of those who put John's Gospel together. If possible within the context of the many Jewish and other (hellenistic or less hellenistic) groups, schools and texts and their adherents and readers in those times and areas.

Thanks in advance!

Boudewijn Koole

P.S. I do't miss the continuation of your 'christological' series (which was very enlightening regarding the first developments as far as you came until yet). Perhaps more info about the not so well known traditions, schools and texts which influenced 1) Rabbinic Judaism and 2) streams which followed from Jesus' teaching or referred to it in some interesting ways (in Aramaic, Syriac, as well as more well known languages and scripts), would please me a lot substitutively. I really miss the big picture too much.
How much differed those traditions in using for example the non-canonically Jewish traditions (from apocalypticism to wisdom to esotericism to forms of syncretism to ...)?!

Bill Warrant said...

Good luck with your research April. Rest assured that there are many people (like myself) who are genuinely interested in what you have to say about the Gospel of John.

Daniel Graves said...

All I can say is that I admire your personal and academic integrity and I look forward to reading your work on John. Press forward!

Fr. Dan Graves

rameumptom said...

April, while there are many who do not like anyone to upset the status quo, little by little we are seeing truth prevail.
Scholar Michael Coe wrote how it took decades to convince the Maya "royalty" that the Mayan language was not pictographs, but an alphabet!
And it has only been a decade since we found out that Clovis man wasn't the first people to inhabit the Americas, because key archaeologists were finally convinced to visit a site in Chile.
I'm doing a series of Old Testament lessons on my blog, in conjunction with my Church's weekly lessons. Except I am discussing the ancient divine council of gods (including El and Yahweh), Melchizedek as a divine king, etc. It has unnerved a few according to the comments I've received, but the data is there for all to see and consider.

So, I wish you well, and look forward to hearing your comments and getting your ideas on the Gospel of John, etc. Your points are always enlightening.

Bob MacDonald said...

I was rummaging around this week in my basement looking for something else and I came across an old copy of the Living Flame of Love. I note the nihil obstat. I find the exposition fascinating and dense. There is a strong appeal to the Gospel of John, but there are also direct links with the Psalms and Paul. Speaking the unspeakable is highly prone to misunderstanding. Things may be unspeakable for good reason. Good luck.

Unknown said...

I am just an obscure senior citizen and avid student of the "forbidden Gospels". I would just like to say that I (and many others, I'll wager) am waiting with bated breath to see what you discover. Keep up the good work and don't give up.