Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Gospel of John as a dramatic narrative, with a Zen Buddhist perspective

To prepare for our series on the Gospel of John, we invited people to our home to watch the film version of this story. As wikipedia explains: This 2003 film is "a word-for-word basis from the American Bible Society's Good News Bible. This three-hour epic feature film follows John's Gospel precisely, without additions to the story from other Gospels, nor omission of complex passages."

Wiki goes on to say: "This film was created by a constituency of artists from Canada and the United Kingdom, along with academic and theological consultants from around the world. The cast was selected primarily from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and Soulpepper Theatre Company, as well as Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre. The musical score, composed by Jeff Danna and created for the film, is partially based on the music of the Biblical period."

With an outstanding cast, and quality production values, this film is well worth seeing.

Around eight people showed up for our home showing of "The Gospel of John." Among those present was my friend Joseph Prabhu, a professor of religion and philosophy who used to be an acolyte for Mother Teresa and a student of Ramon Panikkar, the great Catholic theologian; and Betsy Perry of All Saints. Neighbors and friends of Jill also showed up, making it a very diverse and interesting crowd.

It was powerful and fascinating to watch the 2-hour version of John's Gospel (the complete one is 3 hours long). As someone trained in literary criticism, I was fascinated by the narrative as a dramatic whole. In Jesus' time, people with dramatic gifts for storytelling would have memorized the entire story and told it to an audience in one sitting--just as we would go to a movie. (It is probably not accidental that each of the Gospels is about the length of a feature film or a play.)
I wonder if any theologian/scholar has approached reading/interpreting each Gospel as a self-contained dramatic narrative. Bill Lesher, a distinguished professor and scholar, told me that a scholar he knew had memorized the Gospel of John and recites it to his students. What a powerful experience that must be!

What leaped out at me watching and listening to the Gospel of John was the focus on the word "authority," which was used repeatedly for dramatic effect. Who has authority? Who has real power?
The Sanhedrin claimed to have authority because of its reliance on Scripture, the Torah of Moses, but Jesus blows that claim out of the water by saying that unless you have a direct connection with the Father, or at least believe in the one that the Father sent, you can't really understand Mosaic law. Pilate also claims to have authority and power, but Jesus makes it clear that Pilate's power comes from "above." Then there's the strange moment when Jesus gives Judas the bread soaked in sauce and "the devil enters him" and Jesus tells him to "do what he must do." Even there, it is clear that Jesus/God is in charge: Judas/the devil cannot betray Jesus without permission from God/Jesus, who has the ultimate power and authority.

(Quakers were drawn to the Gospel of John because he insisted that we need this direct relationship with God and the Inward Light of Christ and the Holy Spirit in order to understand Scripture and live a faithful life.)

The Sanhedrin's claim to authority is revealed to be hollow when they tell Pilate: "We have no king but the Emperor." At that moment, Jesus' claim to real authority is vindicated. The Jewish "powers-that-be" are in cahoots with Rome. Jesus is the true liberator, the Messiah, the Son of God.

 I was also struck by the irony in the final scenes. Caiaphas cynically tells the Sanhedrin "It is expedient that one man die for the good of the nation," not realizing that Jesus' death is in fact part of God's plan to save not only Israel, but the whole world. Similarly, Pilate is not aware of what he is really doing or saying when he cynically writes "King of the Jews" on the cross of Jesus. Pilate is doing this to irritate the leaders of the Jews, whom he has come to despise, but in so doing, Pilate has uttered a profound truth he is too worldly to understand. Jesus really is king not only of the Jews, but of the world.

The other device I noticed was how Jesus baits his opponents, saying outrageous things that force people to make a choice and reveal their true nature. In so doing, he unmasks the structural violence inherent in domination system, as well as how hard it is to break free of that system.

His baiting of the religious leaders reminds me of a Zen story about a samurai who went to a Zen master to ask if Buddhists believe in heaven and hell.

 The Zen master replied. "What a stupid question! I can't give you an answer because you wouldn't understand."

 The samurai became infuriated and lifted his sword to kill the Zen master.

 "Ah," said the Zen master. "Now you are in hell."

 The samurai paused to think about this strange response.

"Ah," said the Zen master. "Now you are in heaven."

Fortunately for the Zen master, the Zen master "got it," laid down his sword and became a disciple.

Jesus was not so fortunate. The powers-that-be didn't lay down their swords, but by killing Jesus, they revealed that they were indeed in league with the devil, that is, with the Roman authorities, and out of touch with God.

The last scene in which Jesus interacts with Peter is also a literary masterpiece. The way in which Jesus reveals that he has forgiven Peter for betraying him three times is brilliant. And the emphasis on "feeding my sheep" is a beautiful way of re-framing the Great Commission: to be lovers/followers of Christ, we must nourish people physically, spiritually and emotionally. What a beautiful way to end this Gospel!
(Speaking of "feeding sheep," Jill makes yummy cookies and other goodies for our gathering!)

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