Nearly a year ago (last October 11, 2013), I published the following post on my previous blog. Today during a the Q & A portion of a fabulous lecture given by Dr. Willie Jennings (Duke Divinity School), a stranger from the audience stood up to sermonize (rather than ask a question) and much of what he said betrayed the sort of thinking I discuss below. So, I thought it would be a good thing to share again. Enjoy.
Few writings have shaped orthodox Christian doctrine or the popular Christian imagination as much as the Gospel of John and its story of an enfleshed God who stepped down from heaven to do the Father’s will. Apart from John’s presentation of Jesus, it is difficult to imagine Chalcedon ever happening. And if you have been exposed to much teaching or preaching within contemporary Christianity, you have no doubt heard language and themes drawn largely from the Gospel of John. (I often tell my students that John, along with Paul’s letter to the Romans, are the two most foundational NT writings shaping both early doctrinal developments and the current American Christian ethos).
Against the backdrop of John’s importance within contemporary American Christianity, I see a significant problem which goes largely undiagnosed. One characteristic feature of John’s Gospel is its use of dualistic language to tell the story of Jesus. We see this from the beginning of the narrative: the Word is the “light of humanity” which “darkness” has not overcome (1:5). Jesus is “from above” and he has entered the realm “below” to fulfill his mission. Were we to draw the picture comprehensively, we would have to look at the language of truth v. falsehood (also present in the Epistles of John); flesh v. spirit, and on and on. In my opinion, this sort of language is often swept uncritically into the Christian lexicon without the necessary attention given to the rest of the NT which, by and large, does not work in such extremes. A simple comparison of Jesus’ teaching in John with his teaching in the Synoptics will easily support this point. So here’s the undiagnosed problem as I see it:
Given the Gospel’s influence, many Christians are led to the uncritical stance that the external world is to be regarded in the same extremes we see in John’s story of Jesus. And in my experience, this also creates an ethical dualism in which individuals are only able to conceive of ideas or proffer opinions rooted in right v. wrong, good v. evil, black v. white, or whatever dualism you prefer. This creates an imbalance in which Johannine ethics become the dominant way of thinking about the world and people. (I can already hear some of my colleagues objecting that this statement is ironic since there has been much discussion over whether there is any such thing as ethical material in the Gospel; I think there is by the way). This sort of either/or thinking is dangerous in virtually every area of discussion, but I think it has the potential to be even more destructive in the context of current American political discourse. Despite a common insistence that there is or should be a “separation of church and state,” we can all see that religion and politics are inextricably intertwined in this country (for more, see here and here).
Political discourse in the US needs no help thinking in such extremes, but the introduction of Christian language in current political squabbles only serves to confirm my suspicion that American Christians are thinking too much like John’s Jesus and not enough like the Jesus-mosaic we get through a balanced reading of the entire New Testament. Left unchecked and devoid of nuance, an acceptance of the ethics of John is not only dangerous, but potentially destructive for the American church and much of our political discourse.