Interview with Douglas Estes on How John Works (Skinner)

douglas-estesA few weeks back I mentioned the publication of a really great new book entitled, How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: SBL Press), co-edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan. I was privileged to contribute one of the fifteen chapters to this volume, which boasts an international lineup of Johannine scholars. I recently had a chance to interview Douglas about the book. Here’s what he had to say.

1) With the proliferation of books in biblical studies, what makes this book special?

“This book is special because it fills in a needed gap between an in-depth commentary and a more topical survey of the Gospel’s features. How John Works is neither a commentary, nor a monograph; instead, it explores fifteen of the most important issues that makes John ‘work’ as a gospel. Each of these issues are part of the ‘narrative dynamics’ of the Gospel—what makes the story John’s story. Also what makes this book special is that it covers the Gospel in a wide-ranging way but without getting too bogged down in the details (as a commentary does, for good reasons, of course) or only looking at one issue (as a monograph does). (We could just say that ‘Chris being a contributor’ is what makes the book special—and while I agree!—it is not the only thing!)”

2) Who are the primary readers of this book; how do you see it being used?

“The original plan for How John Works was to create a textbook that students could use to understand how a narrative like the Fourth Gospel has proven so effective for almost two millennia. As Ruth and I were planning and editing the book, we kept coming back to the question “Will this help a student?” I see the book being used two ways: first, it can be used as a textbook in a NT Literature class, especially one where there is a focus on the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the Christian texts; and second, as a general introduction to the literary design of the Gospel.”

3) With such a broad group of scholars—literally from all over the world—with different backgrounds, do the chapters come together? Or are there notable divergences?

“One goal that Ruth and I had from the beginning is that the book would not be “just a book of essays.” To that end, we worked with SBL Press and our contributors to have unique voices that fit well together. Whether this would work in practice was a conversation point between a number of us during the process—but in my humble opinion, it actually worked very well. Each contributor brings a unique perspective, of course, but the perspectives do fit together very well and bring a complementary perspective to the whole book.”

4) What is one way that your thinking about the Gospel of John changed by putting together Estes Sheridan Front Cover.inddthis How John Works?

“One way my thinking changed while working on this book is in the area of how important the literary study of this Gospel really is. As a scholar, I admit that I have always leaned more to the literary side of things than the historical (though I believe the separation between the two is often needlessly overblown). When we planned the book, as a textbook, I was thinking more that it would summarize important elements for students, and did not think about it cutting new ground. But, How John Works definitely does cut new ground. Sometimes literary approaches get knocked in scholarly circles as simplistic or limited, but editing this book reminded me how much that is not accurate—at least, when literary concerns are taken seriously, interact normally with historical concerns without artificial brackets, and address big issues in a profound way.”

5) How John Works covers fifteen ‘narrative dynamics’ found in John. Why fifteen? Are these the most important?

“This was a lengthy discussion that Ruth and I had as we were first putting the book together. There was nothing special about fifteen, though we knew that we wanted more than only a few. We also knew that it wouldn’t work to have, say, forty. So what we did was to try to pick the most important narrative dynamics, and we came out with about fifteen. Beyond that number, there were other narrative dynamics that would have been worthy of a chapter … but we wanted to be as broad as we were deep.”

6) Is there much more that can be said about the literary features of John? What is the future to this?

“Yes, there definitely is much more that can be said about the literary features of John. On the one hand, there are always details that some enterprising PhD student will discover in the process of writing their dissertation. Plus, there will also be plenty of opportunities in the future to do comparative studies of literary features with other ancient texts (which really has only begun, what with so many discoveries and recent, computerized access to them in the last century). On the other hand, there will always be a need for reevaluations and summarizations. As to the future, no, this is not the last word; I am hoping to start on a follow-up volume to this one in the near future, perhaps a Vol 2 of Storytelling in John, that will look at literary issues in John from a quite different perspective.”

Thanks to Douglas (and Ruth) for their great work on this book, and also to Douglas for answering our questions! Stay tuned because we are actually going to be giving away of copy of this book in the coming days. . . . .


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