About 2/3 of the way through his book John’s Gospel: The Way it Happened, Lee Harmon writes, “John promotes the idea that literalists and non-literalists may coexist” (202). This statement shows the hopefulness behind Lee’s writing, a hopefulness that Christians of different theological persuasions could lay aside, or maybe even embrace, their differences and work together for Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Such a hopeful attitude is one reason I appreciate this book, even though I am not of the same theological persuasion as Lee.
This book is a commentary on the gospel of John in the form of a historical-fiction account of John himself dictating the gospel. Lee comes at John’s gospel from an unapologetic liberal theological viewpoint. This attitude and the interpretation that goes with may certainly anger some people. When he writes of the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, it becomes a “miracle” that everyone was willing to share the food they had already brought! In other words, not the sort of miracle those of a more conservative theological bent will appreciate.
Had I read this book a few years ago I may have become quite angry with such things. But over the years I have learned to appreciate, and learn from, those of different views then my own. I would go so far as to say I enjoy books like this one more than reading book after book that props up what I already believe. Maybe literalists and non-literalists just need to read each other’s books with a bit more grace then usual and once that happens we can get to the co-existing part.
That said, I did find quite a lot in Lee’s work that I not only agreed with, but was encouraged and moved by. His portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus as the greatest of victories, with the cross as the very throne of Jesus the king, ought to be at least one place where diverse Christians can agree. Then there are lines in the book such as
“But John. Everything supposed to happen to the ungodly is happening to the wrong person!”
“That is how Jesus wanted it.”
My only response is a hearty, amen! Jesus demonstrated God’s love for humanity by allowing humans to do their worst to him.
This book is a sequel to Revelation: The Way it Happened. It would probably be a good idea to read that book first as some of the characters from it show up again here. Also, the argument for when the book of Revelation was written plays a key part in this book. The layout of our Bible, with Revelation as the final book, influences our understanding of what each work is trying to say. Lee’s argument is that Revelation was written 15 years prior to John’s Gospel. Revelation was written by a person who yearned for God to bring justice on an evil world through violence and bloodshed. As Lee tells it, in the years between Revelation and the Gospel of John we see the author, John, realizing the errors in Revelation’s view of God. Where before we see God bringing destruction on people, now God’s representative takes God’s punishment instead.
One of the biggest challenges I find in scripture has been how Revelation relates to the gospels. The Jesus of the gospels preaches a message of love to enemies. This seems to be a climax in the story of scripture. Yet if Revelation is the future, then that whole “love your enemies” message is only temporary until God gets back to crushing the enemies. Lee’s solution is intriguing. I am not sure if I buy it, but it is intriguing. It should also be noted that there are numerous other ways to reconcile to the two texts. Lee’s is a minority view and there are plenty of Christians, plenty of whom are pacifists, who reconcile the two in other ways.
This book is written in the same style as the previous one. On one hand there is commentary on John. On the other, there is a story of John himself dictating the book to a Gentile woman, Ruth, while a Jewish-Christian man, Matthew, looks on. The discussion among these three is the highlight of the book. Then on a third hand are various interludes and flash-backs to John’s own memory of walking with Jesus. At times it is a lot to keep in order, but overall it works quite well.
The Matthew in the story is said to be the voice behind the gospel of Matthew. Much of the story is seen in Matthew resisting John’s understanding of who Jesus is. I think Lee exagerates things here as I struggled to see the Matthew who comes off so angry and opposed to a loving Jesus in this book as the sort of Matthew who would write (or, I should say, report that Jesus preached) the Sermon on the Mount. Lee’s point is that the gospel author’s differed in their portrait of Jesus. But in making this point, he may have overplayed his hand a bit by being selective in the parts of Matthew he looks at.
Overall though, this is a great book. It blends good storytelling with history and biblical interpretation. I could envision both pastors and other Christians reading and enjoying it. Though I imagine those who read, especially from conservative churches, would then have lots of questions for their pastors! But maybe this is not such a bad thing. As I said above, books that stretch us, that make us question our own views, are necessary and helpful. The Jesus we meet in scripture never seemed interested in propping up people’s theology or even in giving all the answers. More often then not, Jesus told stories that left people thinking and asking further questions.
I do not know if I am as hopeful as Lee (or, Lee’s John) that literalists and non-literalists, liberals and conservatives, can work together even in the midst of differing understandings of the Bible. But I think books like this one help. Thanks Lee.
(Full disclosure: I received a free copy from the author for the purpose of review with no promise of being positive, the opinions written here are my own.)