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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Book Notice: How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel (Skinner)

Estes Sheridan Front Cover.inddI am pleased to make mention of a soon-to-be-published book from SBL Press edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan. It’s called, How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel. The book went to press yesterday and should be available on October 7. Here’s a brief description:

“In this book, a group of international scholars go in detail to explain how the author of the Gospel of John uses a variety of narrative strategies to best tell his story. More than a commentary, this book offers a glimpse at the way an ancient author created and used narrative features such as genre, character, style, persuasion, and even time and space to shape a dramatic story of the life of Jesus.”

Features of the book include:

  • An introduction to the Fourth Gospel through its narrative features and dynamics
  • Fifteen features of story design that comprise the Gospel of John
  • Short, targeted essays about how John works that can be used as starting points for the study of other Gospels/texts

Here’s the table of contents:

  1. Genre, Harold W. Attridge

2. Style, Dan Nässelqvist

3. Time, Douglas Estes

4. Space, Susanne Luther

5. Point of View, James L. Resseguie

6. Plot, Kasper Bro Larsen

7. Characterization, Christopher W. Skinner

8. Protagonist, Mark W. G. Stibbe

9. Imagery, Dorothy A. Lee

10. Scripture, Rekha M. Chennattu

11. Rhetoric, Alicia D. Myers

12. Persuasion, Ruth Sheridan

13. Closure, Francis J. Moloney

14. Audience, Edward W. Klink III

15. Culture, Charles E. Hill

We will have more on this book in due course. We will post an interview with the editors and possibly even have a giveaway. Stay tuned…….

My New Book, Reading John, Is Finally Available!!! (Skinner)

Reading JohnOK, if you’re on any of my social media feeds, you can feel free to ignore this blog post, as I’ve been talking about this non-stop for the past 24 hours……BUT, my latest book, Reading John, is finally available for purchase. Of course, I’m quite happy with the finished product, but I don’t expect you to take my word for it. Here are the endorsements from the back cover:

“Studying or teaching John? Reading John takes anyone interested in learning to read the Gospel of John and leads them step by step on a delightful journey into its strange and wonderful landscape, with the result that each chapter builds reading competence. Skinner is impressive as a teacher and guide, equally at home in the ancient world, the Gospel of John, and twenty-first-century culture, and he has a keen ear for the nuances of each. This guide is ideal for Bible study groups and college classes.”
–R. Alan Culpepper, Dean, McAfee School of Theology

“In this fresh introduction to John, Christopher Skinner treats readers of John to some of the most valuable of recent approaches to the Fourth Gospel clearly and succinctly. Embracing the narrative through the lens of the Prologue, appreciating the sketching of characters, understanding misunderstandings, and seeing John as a two-level drama afford new insights that would otherwise be lost. Here we see John’s theological, historical, and literary riddles addressed in helpful and compelling ways; Skinner’s readers will not be disappointed!”
–Paul N. Anderson, Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies, George Fox University

If you are a non-specialist reader who is interested in the Gospel of John, a student who wants to learn more, or a professor looking for a solid teaching tool, I would appreciate you giving this book a try.

What Jeff Bridges and the Johannine Jesus Have in Common (Skinner)

movieI am currently writing a little book for the Cascade Companions series called Reading John, which is aimed at helping non-specialist readers better appreciate the message of the Fourth Gospel. Today I am finishing a chapter entitled, “An Alien Tongue: The Foreign Language of the Johannine Jesus,” in which I discuss the distinctive features of Jesus’ speech in John (including “I Am” pronouncements, double entendre, and misunderstood statements). In the chapters I have already written for this book I have tried to introduce many of the illustrations I use in the classroom. Here I begin with a scene from the science-fiction/love story, Starman, starring Jeff Bridges. If I were in class I would show the clip (embedded below), though for the purposes of the book, I have to explain the scene in greater detail. Here’s the opening to the chapter as it currently stands:

The 1984 sci-fi film, Starman tells the story of an alien who travels to Earth after intercepting the Voyager 2 space probe. Affixed to the probe is a gold phonograph record with a message of peace for all worlds and an invitation for the inhabitants of other galaxies to visit Earth. Arriving here in the form of a blue mass, the alien is shot down by the US government over rural Wisconsin. In order to survive, the alien uses a lock of hair to clone and then take on the form of a recently deceased man named Scott Hayden (played by Jeff Bridges). After taking on Scott’s body, “Starman”—as he comes to be called—enters the house formerly shared by Scott and his widow, Jenny (played by Karen Allen). Finding this naked man standing in her living room, Jenny mistakes him for an intruder and pulls her gun on him. When he turns around, Jenny is astonished to see a man who looks and moves exactly like her deceased husband. However, as soon he begins to speak, Jenny instantly realizes that this is not Scott, and she’s not sure who (or even what) he is. She promptly faints in the corner—a moment of necessary comic relief in an intensely escalating scene. Neither Starman’s appearance nor his initial mannerisms give him away. But as soon as he begins to speak, it becomes clear that he is different, strange, alien. Jenny soon comes to realize that he is from above—a stranger from the heavens—and that his mission is now to return safely to the place from which he came.

The story of the Starman shares many similarities with John’s presentation of Jesus. In like manner, Jesus has come from above (1:1-2) and taken on human flesh (1:14). His mission is to complete the tasks assigned to him by the Father and return to the place from which he came. Like the Starman, when Jesus speaks he introduces alien concepts and utters enigmatic sayings that are all-too-often misunderstood by his audiences, who presume he is from Galilee (e.g., 7:52), and find his words difficult to accept (e.g., 6:60-66; 10:31-33). This Jesus is not the gritty, earthy, Synoptic preacher of parables from rural Galilee. He is rather a stranger from heaven, who consistently speaks about the things above while mystifying his hearers.