Monday, June 27, 2022

Why I Am Not Going To Write About The Gospel of Saint John (i)

I went to college to study English Literature. I spent most of my time attending Christian Union Bible Study groups and playing Dungeons & Dragons.

This was rather ironic. Some of the Christian Union thought that Dungeons & Dragons players were Satanists. Most of the Dungeons & Dragons players thought the Christian Union were annoying holy rollers. Many of the Christian Union quite liked having bona fide devil worshippers on their corridors: it presented a bit of a challenge. Quite a lot of the Dungeons & Dragons players rather liked being accused of Satanism: it made us feel less nerdy and more edgy. I had a foot in both camps: one of the C.U once said that I was salt-like. 

The two groups had more in common than either of them would have cared to admit. Earnest young people, squashed into college rooms, neglecting their degrees, sitting on beds or on the floor; fighting forces of evil which no-one else believed in. With a healthy respect for Clerics. A facilitator, nose pressed into a sacred text, directing the exploration, trying to give everyone a fair chance to contribute. Cold mugs of instant coffee. Arguments about minor points of interpretation. Bitterness and schisms.

Spiritual warfare, the whole armour of god, that old dragon Satan. The literal Holy Grail, the Sword of the Spirit. Actual Super-Powers. I am surprised that the Geek/Evangelical axis was not more pronounced. Tolkien of course was himself a Christian. Or, at any rate, a Catholic. I am not sure if that counted.

A Bible study group is a very particular thing. But then, an English literature seminar is a very particular thing as well. A Level English was a kind of bird-watching expedition, in which you explored a Text and crossed similes and metaphors and onomatopoeias off your check list, before stalking the Fully Rounded Character. (Does that make it more like train spotting?) I am told that school children today hunt rarer birds called Fronted Adverbials. Degree English was more about themes and structures and approaches to the text. You are supposed to be interested in what other people have said about a book rather than your own response to it. College English could be defined as the study of books about books: Critical Theory is of course the study of books about books about books. 

Bible Study Groups had their own approach to the Canon. You take a whole chapter of the Bible: a chapter, preferably, of a fairly obscure book. (If you've been in the Christian Union you certainly know your Colossians from your Nehemiah.) You take it in turns to read one verse out loud. And then each member of the group is encouraged to say what they think the passage meant to the people who read it first ("Jews" is the polite term.) And then what it means for Us-As-Christians. (This often involved stretching Old Testament texts so they are really about Jesus. Everything in the Bible is really about Jesus.) Then you tried to say how we should apply the passage to Our Lives Today. And finally you prayed, out loud and specifically, about what you had just read. I never got the hang of that bit. I would have had no particular problem with publicly confessing my sins, but the whole father-god-please-bless-the-meeting-and-watch-over-our-sister-with-flu thing I found (and find) mortifying.

I am rather on board with C.S Lewis who said that his great spiritual moments were more likely to come when studying a difficult theological tome, dictionary or concordance on his desk, cup of tea in his hand, pipe between his teeth. 

I named a Dungeons & Dragons fanzine after one of C.S Lewis's characters. You probably knew that.

I don't know if English Literature teachers thought that writing "irony" in the margins helped one understand Miss Austen's stories; or if Miss Austen wrote stories mainly so students could write "irony" in the margins of them. I think that some Christian Union cell group facilitators really did think that the main reason Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations was so that the Christian Union could have a bible study group about it. One or two Dungeons & Dragons players honestly thought that fighting 2D6 1D8HP Orcs (AC 4) was a way of interacting with Jungian archetypes; channelling the power of Story, descending into the pit of purgatory and confronting our dark sides. Come to think of it, this was probably what the Christian Union had in mind when they said we were Satanists. They actually probably had a point. 

But the process was more important than the object. Writing good lit crit was more important than enjoying Troilus and Cressida. Fortunately. Having a powerful Bible Study Meeting was more important that actually understanding the book of Ezekiel. And pushing metal figures around sheets of squared paper was obviously the most important thing in the world. 

The activities were good improving uplifting civilising spiritualising things to do. The texts themselves were only a prop.

I hardly ever played actual D&D, incidentally, but most of the punters won't have heard of CoC or Jorune. By no means all the Christian Union believed in the Satanic Panic, although some undoubtedly did. Some of them definitely thought that C.S Lewis wasn't a true Christian because of the Emeth thing. 

But this next bit is true. 

One week, the subject of our Bible study group was the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs is in the Old Testament. It is supposed to have been written by Solomon. Who was Wise. 

When we think of Solomon being Wise we probably think of the story of the baby. He's shrewd; he's clever; he second guesses the two mothers; he tricks the infiltrator into giving herself away; but he understands what it means to be a Mum. However, in the Ancient World, wisdom seems primarily to mean Common Sense. The wisdom of Solomon consists of thirty one chapters of common sense, and it's excruciating. Walk with the wise and become wise; walk with fools and become foolish. A wicked messenger brings trouble but an honest envoy brings healing. A wise son hears his father's instructions; a foolish one ignores his father's rebukes. Very true, doubtless, but not very inspiring to base a guided meditation on. 

So we are struggling a bit to find out how any of this Applies To Our Life today and in what way it is really all about Jesus. "Wisdom" does appear as a personified figure at the beginning of the book; calling out to people in markets and "the chief place of concourse" and complaining that people "set at nought all my counsel and would know of my reproof". So maybe Wisdom is Jesus, and Jesus is therefore the subject of the book? But Solomon annoyingly presents Wisdom as female, which would have taken us down paths we probably wanted to avoid. I was very much hoping that the study hour would be up before we needed to hear everyone's detailed opinion on 13:24.

And then one of the people in the group: a very nice, open faced young Caribbean woman who was approximately seventy six times more pious, spiritual and Jesus-like than I am ever likely to be, volunteered. 

"Oh, this is all very well, but can't we do something more spiritual? Maybe we could all read John 3 instead?"

Which is why I don't think I could ever write about John's Gospel. 



Mike Taylor said...

I really really hope this is the introduction to series in which you write about John's Gospel.

Gareth Rees said...

The study group member who asked, "can't we do something more spiritual?" was quite right. Proverbs is one of those books (like Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes) that slipped into the Bible because it belonged to a popular genre, and not because it had anything to do with religion or the history of Israel. Wisdom literature was massively popular in the ancient world—there are examples surviving from Babylon, Sumer, Greece and Egypt. It was the ancient equivalent of the modern self-help genre, the How to Win Friends and Influence People of its day.