Friday, July 29, 2022

There was I, digging this hole…

If you are under 40 of from Abroad, you probably can’t imagine what TV was like in the 1970s. I can’t imagine the ticktock so thats fair enough. So let’s just say that there were a roster of “personalities” — DJs, newsreaders and entertainers who seemed to appear on everything and everywhere. Not big stars like Eric and Ernie or Paul McCartney or Jon Pertwee. People who appeared today voicing a kids show, tomorrow singing a novelty song on Ed Stewpot Stewarts Junior Choice, and the next day doing Stand Up on the Good Old Days. And they were sufficiently unfamous that there was a very good choice you might see them in a pantomime or even opening a village fete. (This is why Jimmy Savile was such a collective trauma.) TV explicitly presented itself as a family or a club, with pantos and presenters giving each other presents at Christmas.

It so happens that I just watched Daleks Invasion Earth at the pictures and thought it stood up real well. And it so happens that the Wombles was childhood obsession I grew out of, just as important, while it lasted as Spider-Man. But Bernard Cribbins is not the star of Doctor Who or the voice of Orinoco or the man who sang Digging a Hole. He isn’t even the person who did the second best dramatic reading of Winnie the Pooh. (He didn’t nail Eeyore’s voice as well as my Daddy.) Bernard Cribbins was Bernard Cribbins, and it feels like losing an elderly grandparent.

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Bringer of Peace

When a bad thing happens to an English public school boy, he isn't supposed to cry. But if he does cry, a bigger boy will put his hand on his shoulders and tell him to buck up because it's not the end of the world.

Expedition: Venus is the fifth of Hugh Walters' science fiction series. A bad thing happens. It literally is the end of the world. And all the ex-schoolboys try very hard not to cry.

Six years have passed since the events of Moonbase One. Tony, the spunky freckle-faced 14 year old school-boy introduced in the last volume is now a spunky freckle-faced 20 years old space mechanic. Little Chris Godfrey is now Christopher Godfrey the famous physicist. The British Space Exploration Agency has been succeeded by Unexa, the Universal Exploration Agency, but Nice Uncle George is still in charge. (Nasty Sir Leo has snuffed it between volumes, which is a bit of a shame: every good schoolboy needs a harsh-but-fair headmaster to kick against.) The United Nations, rather charmingly, is still referred to as the U.N.O.
By my calculations, the year is 1968. (The book came out in '62.) We've arrived in The Future. There is a base on the Moon; regular unmanned space probes, and disagreement in the U.N.O about whether to map the moon in more detail or strike out the planets. Chris and his two pals -- the Russian One and the American One -- are now said to have been into space dozens of times. 

There's a plot. 

One of the probes has come back from Venus ("our twin planet") and botched quarantine, with the result that a scary grey goo is advancing across the earth, wiping out everything in its path. For the second time in ten years, civilisation is going to come to an end, although everyone treats the prospect of human extinction with a very British sang froid. It is absolutely taken for granted that the government can and should censor the press and the general populace are kept in the dark about what is going on.

The boffins reason that if Venus isn't entirely covered by Grey Ooze, then something fairly common in the Venusian atmosphere must be killing it. So in triple quick time our four heroes are despatched to Lunarville, and thence to Venus, to get samples and hopefully save the world. They are joined by a fifth team member named Pierre who, it will not amaze readers to discover, is French. (Whiskers, the nice retired RAF man who appears in every volume as light relief, briefly encounters an old friend called Jock, who says things like "Have ye heard where the mould has reached, Sir?" You may perhaps be able to guess his nationality.) Pierre is a bit of plot machinery: they need a super-competent biologist to process the Venusian soil samples and work out which one is the antidote to the Grey Goo. He isn't destined to become a regular member of the Famous Five. 

We don't get much sense of what a moon-base looks like, or what it would feel like to live on one. Morrey (the American one) improbably takes a bath on his arrival, and is slightly surprised that the water will be filtered and reused. (Toilet facilities are still not mentioned.) The Venus rocket catches fire during the planning stage, but everyone works really hard and the launch goes ahead. They refer to the rocket as Phoenix from then on, which is quite cute.

Walters can do nuts and bolts details, but he can't do sense of wonder. He cares that our heroes are given new khaki fatigues before going out to the Sahara to have a look at the Grey Goo first hand, and that poor Whiskers clothes get creased up before he tries them on. But the actual first manned trip to an alien planet feels rather perfunctory. We are told that the Phoenix can accelerate to half a million miles per hour, but that this won't actually feel any different to travelling at thousandth of that speed, and therefore the trip only takes a couple of days. We are told that messages from earth take four minutes to get to Venus, but our heroes don't really feel a long way from home: it's more like a diving expedition with a very long tube back to the mother ship.

The plan is to skirt the Venusian atmosphere and pick up samples for Frenchie to analyse, but when this doesn't work they briefly land on the surface. There is some speculation about whether the surface would be land, water, desert, rock or dust? "Or was it even a dense tropical jungle as some folks had suggested?" In the event, it feels as if they have landed "inside a bowl of cotton wool", but they sensibly don't open the doors, and it is too dark to see the surface of the planet on what is quaintly described as a "television set". When the ship seems to be sinking, they blast off in a hurry. Quite tense, but quite an anti-climax. Fortunately, Frenchie has got the sample he needs, and is already at work on an antidote. 

It's on the way home that Walters' standard plot formula -- I am slightly tempted to say his pathology -- kicks in. All the lads are in terrible danger. All the lads are going to experience quite a lot of physical pain. All the lads are quite definitely going to die horribly. And the important question is -- will they get through it without crying? 

Just before blast off, Tony notices an itch on his hand. Then he notices it again. Then he goes down to the engine room and refuses to come out. Chris is jolly cross, and even uses the word "mutiny". Is Tony still at heart the naughty oik from the lower class school? 

Astute readers realise what has happened. While helping Frenchie in the lab and asking intelligent questions for the benefit of readers, Tony has been infected by the Grey Goo and he's gone into the hold and put on a space suit in order to die quietly without out infecting the rest of the crew. He doesn't directly say "I'm going out and I may be gone some time" but he might as well have done.

The scene in which Chris follows him down to the engine room and realise what has happened is the only really dramatic moment in the book: 

As soon as he was clear, Chris went over to the suit-clad figure which they had strapped to a couch. Anxiously Chris bent over to undo the fastenings of the helmet. Then he sprang back with a cry of horror that startled all the others. They looked at their leader in surprise. He looked pale—as if he had seen a ghost. Then he seemed to pull himself together and bent over Tony again. Yes, he was not mistaken. Through the front-piece of the mechanic’s helmet he could see his face inside. It was covered with grey mould.

Fortunately, Frenchie has already created a potential Grey Good Antidote out of the Venusian samples. So, there is nothing to do but use Tony as a guinea-pig. The rest of the crew don't put their own suits on before taking his off. Because if the antidote works, it won't matter if they get infected. And if it doesn't work, it won't matter either. When asked at a press conference whether the Famous Five will come back to earth without an antidote, nice Uncle George says "Well there wouldn't be much point, would there?"

It works, of course. Tony looses his composure, but Chris is jolly decent about it.  

An immense surge of relief welled up inside him, and the next moment he was weeping like a baby.

"Sorry" Tony gasped between sobs.

"Think nothing of it, old chap" Chris said. "This will do you a world of good."

Naturally, everyone is jolly pleased that civilisation has been saved:

"Sorry, I couldn't swallow it at first" the Director went on "but I can now confess we'd all given up hope here. It--takes some getting used to when you learn that the world isn't going to end after all."

Chris goes all pious on us:

"The World can be saved" was all the biologist said.

Chris, as leader of the expedition, put his hands together in an attitude of prayer

"Thank God" he said simply.

They race home aboard the phoenix, custodian of the secret phial that can save the human race. But it suddenly occurs to them that they used too much fuel blasting off from Venus and have got no way of slowing down. They are once again quite definitely all going to die. They nobly work out a way of sending the antidote down to earth in a canister before they crash, and even more nobly make the parachute out of the covering of their acceleration couches. So the process of slowing down is going to really hurt. But they grit their teeth and take it like a man. Hughes is in the habit of describing the training process for space travel as "torture" and the description of deceleration goes more than usually over the top:

Without proper support they found the terrific pressure excruciating. It was almost as much as they could do to remain in control of their reeling senses. Yet they all wanted the agony to continue as long as possible....

Miraculously, the welcome torture continued, but it must end at any moment now...

But like schoolboys outside the headmasters office, they try extra hard not to cry:  

Tony couldn't trust himself to speak. He found it increasingly hard to choke back the sobs that kept rising in his throat. He wasn't going to break down in front of the others. He'd keep a stiff upper lip even if it killed him to do it. 

The send the life saving canister towards the earth and prepare to quite definitely die. But of course Nice Uncle George hasn't really given up on them. He sends up one of the special space tugs which is used to retrieve obsolete satellites and space junk to slow down the fast moving ship. It's a long shot but it works. Our five heroes are once again not dead. Tony disgraces himself, but the others all take it like men. The prose turns a brighter shade of purple.

The tears were gushing from Tony's eyes and floating round the cabin like little balls of silver, so great was the mechanics relief at the news. No young man wants to die if he can help it.

Chris and the others were just as deeply affected, but somehow managed to maintain their self control.

The book ends with Sir George comforting Tony in hospital -- and promising he's going to go into space again. Because naturally when a chap has spent 48 hours contracting plague, committing suicide to save his friends and being subjected to torture for the salvation of the human race, the one thing he needs is reassurance that he's going to do it all again in the next volume.

Sir George and Hugh Walters have spotted the same problem. Chris Godfrey, pint sized space-monkey, was an excellent viewpoint character. Christopher Godfrey, seasoned space traveller and Cambridge academic, not so much. So Tony Hale, spunky chocolate-nicking mechanic is going to take over his position as series lead. Provided he can get the hang of the rule that boys don't cry.  

Friday, July 08, 2022

John redux

 Why I Am Not Going To Write About John's Gospel (I)

Why I Am Not Going To Write About John's Gospel (II)

Why I Am Not Going to Write About John's Gospel (III)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John (I)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John (II)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John (III)

There was a man sent by God, whose name was John.... (3)

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him
and saith, "Behold the Lamb of God,
which taketh away the sin of the world.
This is he of whom I said,
After me cometh a man which is preferred before me
for he was before me.
And I knew him not
but that he should be made manifest to Israel
therefore am I come baptizing with water."

And John bare record, saying,
"I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove,
and it abode upon him.
And I knew him not:
but he that sent me to baptize with water
the same said unto me,
Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending
and remaining on him
the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.
And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God."

Mark doesn't tell us if John the Baptist ever knew that Jesus was his successor. Matthew and Luke say directly that he wasn't quite sure. But John is clear that he knew him the moment he set eyes on him. John's says in his prologue that John the Baptist makes it possible for everyone in the world to believe in the Light of God. John the Baptist himself now says that the purpose of his ministry was to make Jesus manifest. If not for the Baptiser, Jesus would be invisible. Hidden. Secret.

John says that Jesus is the one who will outrank him. He says he is the one who baptises with the spirit, and that he is the Son of God. And he adds a new title, not used by anyone else: he calls Jesus God's lamb.

The point of lambs is not that they are meek and mild. The point of lambs is not that they follow small girls to school even if it is against the rules. The point of lambs is not that you can snip nice wool off them. The point of lambs is that they get slaughtered. Specifically, the point of lambs is that they are slaughtered on alters. "Behold the lamb of God" means "Look, God's sacrificial victim." It doesn't mean anything else.

In Mark, the descent of the dove is a mythological event, as a result of which, at some level, Jesus becomes the Son of God. But for John, it is a signal, which tips-off John the Baptist to Jesus's identity. And there is no divine announcement. There doesn't need to be. God has already told John that the person who the dove lands on is the One. The dove and the divine voice have become the same thing. It is possible, that with all the talk of the Word of God, John thinks it would be confusing to have God speaking actual words.

So. God gave John a secret sign. John knows who Jesus is. But does anyone else?

again the next day after John stood
and two of his disciples;
and looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, "Behold the Lamb of God!"
and the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.

Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them,
"What seek ye?"
They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,)
"Where dwellest thou?"
He saith unto them, "Come and see".
They came and saw where he dwelt
and abode with him that day
for it was about the tenth hour.
One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him,
was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother.
He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him,
"We have found the Messias" which is, being interpreted, the Christ.
And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said,
"Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas," which is by interpretation, A stone.

The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee
and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, "Follow me."
Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.
Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him,
"We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write,
Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."
And Nathanael said unto him,
"Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?"
Philip saith unto him, "Come and see."
Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him,
"Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!"
Nathanael saith unto him, "Whence knowest thou me?"
Jesus answered and said unto him,
"Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee."
Nathanael answered and saith unto him,
"Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel."
Jesus answered and said unto him,
"Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou?
thou shalt see greater things than these."
And he saith unto him,
"Verily, verily, I say unto you,
Hereafter ye shall see heaven open,
and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man"

Everyone who likes Beatle music knows the story about how John Lennon met Paul McCartney. Lennon's ramshackle skiffle band persuaded the local vicar to let them do a set at the church fete; fifteen year old McCartney was in the audience; and approached Lennon in the hall after the show; Lennon was impressed that McCartney knew the chords and the words of all the rock and roll songs, and invited him to join the band.

Very sadly, Mark Lewisohn, who has spoken to everyone who ever knew a Beatle and has read every interview ever published is pretty certain this isn't true. McCartney was at the fete, certainly, but he knew Lennon already and was aware of the band.

In a sense, though, it doesn't matter. When John met Paul is still a momentous moment in the history of popular culture, and the village fete myth encapsulates it. But "two lads from the same town who both liked the same things bumped into each other a few times" is much more how things happen in the world.

Everyone knows the story about how Jesus met Peter and Andrew, and James and John. It's the story that Mark tells. Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist. He goes into the wilderness and spends forty days fasting and being tempted. Then he heads home to Galilee. He sees four fishermen by the lake: two of them mending their nets, two of them actually fishing. Out of the blue, and without preamble, he tells then to follow him; and they do.

It's a good story. It sets up the Galilean scene. It sticks in the mind. It works quite well as a metaphor -- catching fish, evangelising lost souls. 

But, says John, it didn't happen like that at all.

According to John, what actually happened is that the day after Jesus's baptism, John the Baptist points Jesus out to Andrew -- and to someone else as well. Andrew and the Other Person spend the day with Jesus; and then Andrew goes and tells his brother Simon about him. Simon comes and meets Jesus; and Jesus gives him the nickname Peter. Then Jesus finds someone called Phillip for himself, and Phillip goes and tells someone called Nathaniel. Nathaniel doesn't believe that Messiahs come from Nazareth and Jesus compliments him on his frankness. This is enough to convince Nathaniel that Jesus is the Messiah after all. There's a kind of warm humour in this passage; one of the few times we hear Jesus's ordinary voice. It has a kind of ironic twinkle, doesn't it? "You don't think I'm the Messiah because of where I come from, and aren't afraid to say so! Well, good for you!" "Is that all it took for you to change your mind? Well, you ain't seen nothing yet!"

There is no possible ambiguity here: John is telling a different story. Andrew and the Other One are not fishermen: not at the time they meet Jesus. In fact, no-one mentions fishing until the very last chapter of the book. They are introduced to us as disciples of John.

The action takes place on the day after Jesus's baptism, and then on the following day. Jesus has certainly not been fasting for forty days. There is no wiggle room: Mark says that the Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. To make matters worse, Mark says that Jesus headed out to Galilee after that John was put in prison; John specifically says that at the time of Jesus interview with Nicodemus in Chapter 3 John was not yet cast into prison.

It takes place in the Judean wilderness, where John has been baptising. Jesus has been there for a while: long enough to have something that can be referred to as a dwelling-place. We are told that after the calling of the initial five disciples, Jesus is planning to "set out" to Galilee. The next chapter begins with the famous wedding at Cana-of-Galilee: it takes then three days to get there, which is about right. Nathaniel, the fifth disciple, is later said to come from Cana himself: maybe it was his invite and Jesus was the plus-one. But everyone is back in Judea in Chapter 3. [NOTE 1]

John's version is, on the face of it, more believable than Mark's. More messy. Some of John the Baptist's followers break away from his group and become the core of the new Jesus movement. John the Baptist introduces Jesus to Andrew and Andrew introduces him to Simon. Word gets round. Billy Graham used to encourage people to bring members of their family to his revival meetings: he called this Operation Andrew. The Scottish Tourist Board says that Andrew going and finding his brother represents a sort of pro-active, go-getting attitude which you'd expect from their Patron Saint.

Now, bear with me. There is a really tiny, picky point which may possibly give us the clue to what is going on.

John takes the trouble to tell us that John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to two of his disciples. He tells us that one of them had the very good name Andrew. But he does not tell us the name of the other one.

Now, as we have seen, John's Gospel is written by (or based closely on the testimony of) "the disciple who Jesus loved in the highest and deepest sense". Nearly everyone agrees that the particularly beloved disciple was John. But John is never mentioned by name in the Gospel.

So is it not highly probable that the Other Disciple is John himself?

But if that is true, note what follows.

God arranged a secret signal so John the Baptist would know who the Messiah was. John does indeed see the signal: he -- and so far only he -- knows who Jesus is.

Who does John the Baptist tell?

He tells two disciples: Andrew and the Other One.

And The Other One is now telling the story. And the place he starts from is the Testimony of John the Baptist. He starts by saying that if not for John, we wouldn't know who Jesus was.

We know that in Mark's Gospel, Jesus's identity is a secret. I have speculated that, when Mark was writing, it was still a matter of conjecture and controversy. Mark's Gospel starts by throwing down a theological gauntlet. Not John, not a prophet, not Elijah. Here is the good news that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.

Just suppose...

Just suppose that John's Gospel was speaking to that same world. A world in which the meaning of Jesus's ministry and the catastrophe of the crucifixion was still hotly contested. A world in which claims of prophet-hood and Messiah-hood and Elijah-hood hovered around both Jesus and John.

And let's also suppose that Matthew has acknowledged a very real problem. John's baptism of Jesus could have a very clear, very non-theological meaning. 

Perhaps Jesus came after John the Baptist in a very literal sense. Perhaps he was one of John the Baptist's followers; one of this disciples. A prominent one. One that people had heard of. One who formed a breakaway group with a core of five of John the Baptist's disciples. But still a follower.

Mark says that Peter discovered the great secret; and that God confirmed it, up on the mountain, to three about of twelve disciples, and forbad them from talking about it while Jesus was alive.

What if John is making a similar claim?

You remember John the Baptist? The very famous baptiser who lost his head? And Jesus, his follower, who came to an even worse end? Well, I'm going to tell you what John the Baptist told me about Jesus. And once you know what John the Baptist told me, we can attend to the life of Jesus, and it will make sense. But it wouldn't make sense without John the Baptist.

That's why the story has to start with John the Baptist. No-one else knew. It was a secret. But John the Baptist let the dove out of the bag. He told John the Evangelist. And now John the Evangelist is telling us.

[NOTE 1] This is your periodic reminder that Judea, Samaria and Galilee are three separate provinces; and although the inhabitants are all descendants of Jacob and believers in the Torah, when the text talks about Jews, it means specifically Judeans.

Thursday, July 07, 2022

There was a man sent by God whose name was John (2)

"There was a man sent by God, whose name was John...

"John came as a witness, to testify about the light....

"John testified about [Jesus] saying....

"Now, this is John's testimony...."

It is incredibly confusing that the book we know as John's Gospel attaches such central importance to a man named John. A naive reader -- me for example -- could easily run away with the idea that the book we are reading is John the Baptist's testimony: that "The Good News According To John" is "The Good News Proclaimed By John the Baptist."

That's not what the title means. The text claims to have been written by a figure called "the disciple who Jesus loved". Indeed, the Fourth Gospel is the only "life of Jesus" that directly claims to have been written by someone who was there.

There have been way-out theories suggesting that this Beloved Disciple was Lazarus or Thomas or Peter or (inevitably) Mary Magdalene. But everyone sensible has always taken it to mean John the brother of James. There is reasonably good historical evidence for thinking that this John was still alive at the end of the first century: we have texts by people who knew him, or who knew people who knew him. By the end of the second century, lists of approved Christian texts were referring to this fourth Gospel as The Book Of John. [NOTE 1]

So: why attach so much importance to John the Baptist? Mary and Peter and Thomas and Lazarus and the Beloved Disciple are all going to appear in John's book. They all knew Jesus and witnessed miracles and encountered him after the Resurrection. What makes John the Baptist's witness statement so crucial?

SPOILER: I don't know. 

John, like Matthew and Luke, gives us a prologue before he starts to tell the story of John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke go back thirty years and tell us about the birth and childhood of Jesus. John starts a good deal further back.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him
and without him was not any thing made that was made
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness;
and the darkness comprehended it not.

"In the beginning" [en arche] are, of course, the first words of the book of Genesis. "In-the-beginning" is the Hebrew title of that book. In the first creation story, God speaks the universe into being, and as everyone knows, his first creative words are "Let there be light." It is hard not to think that John is drawing a connection between the word which God spoke, the light which God created and the life which came from it. And it is impossible not to understand that in spiritual terms. There is no way of saying "light" without also saying "knowledge" and "goodness"; there is no way of saying "darkness" without also saying "ignorance" and "evil". [NOTE 2]

We probably don't need to over-think whether "In the beginning was the Word" means "The Word, like God, has always existed" or "When God created the universe, the very first thing he cared was the Word"-- although if you are in the habit of opening the door to Jehovah's Witnesses it is helpful to have a strong opinion on that point. English translations offer "When all things began, the Word already was", "Before the World was created, the Word already existed", and "The Word was first" as improvements.

Our lovely lilting Authorised Version says "The light shineth in darknness, and the darkness comprehended it not": but the Greek seems to say something more like "the darkness didn't capture it" or "the darkness didn't overcome it". It's the word used when the evil spirit took hold of the possessed man and slammed him against the wall; and when the authorities took a woman in the act of adultery. The New English Bible is uncharacteristically helpful in proposing "the darkness has never mastered it". "Grasped" might be another possibility.

So, there is John's prologue. First comes God; then comes God's word; then comes life; then comes light. And then, rather surprisingly and skipping over quite a lot of history, comes John the Baptist.

There was a man sent from God,
whose name was John.
the same came for a witness
to bear witness of the Light
that all men through him might believe
he was not that Light,
but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

I remember, some time ago, Ship of Fools (an irreverent Anglican magazine) pointed out a fundamentalist website that laid out the entire "Biblical" history of the universe, from its creation in 6004 BC to the end of the world, real soon now, as a time line. Ship of Fools noted wryly that between the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 absolutely nothing happened. I can't help thinking that John has done something similar here. God creates the logos. The logos creates the universe. From the logos comes life and light. There's a battle between light and dark, but dark can never win. And then a man in a rough loincloth turns up in the desert and starts shouting at people.

For Mark, John is the forerunner of Jesus, no more, no less. For Matthew, he is the proclaimer of the Kingdom and the foreteller of future judgement. For Luke, he's a preacher of sound morals. That's what he is in Josephus, as well: a preacher of righteousness. 

But in John...

In John he's the biggest thing, almost the only thing, to have happened since God created the universe. He is the means by which the human race perceives the Divine Light.

I can't see any other way of reading it. There is a cosmic light, which shines on everyone, but we are only aware of it because of John the Baptist. Even if we tone it down a bit, it is hardly less shocking. 
The only reason we know that Jesus, in some way, is the cosmic light is because of John's testimony. 

"First there was the Teaching. The Teaching created the Universe. The Teaching contained Life. Life contained Light. The Dark Side couldn't understand The Light, or put it out. Then this guy John arrives, in order to tell people about the cosmic Light and allow people to believe in it. And get this -- keep this very straight -- whatever you may have heard, that guy was not the Cosmic Light that preceded the creation of the universe. Definitely not. What he definitely was was the one who revealed the cosmic Light. Because of him, everyone in the world is able to perceive it."

To which one is inclined to say, a trifle irreverently -- you what? 

The other three Gospels all agree that John the Baptist said that he would have a successor, and that that successor would be greater than him. John clearly recognises the centrality of this saying. It's a single verse that stands for the whole of John the Baptist's teaching. It is so important that, like the Bellman, he quotes it three times.

John bare witness of him, and cried, saying,
"This was he of whom I spake,
He that cometh after me is preferred before me:
for he was before me."

John answered them, saying,
"I baptize with water:
but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not.
He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me,
whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose."

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith...
"This is he of whom I said,
After me cometh a man which is preferred before me:
for he was before me....
....the same is he that baptiseth with the Holy Ghost"

It's quite an odd technique. First he tells us that John's words applied to Jesus. Then he tells the story of how John first spoke these words. And finally he tells the story of how John first said that the words applied to Jesus.

"Who was Jesus?" "The one John was talking about when he said his successor would surpass him."

"What did John say?" "He said that his successor would surpass him".

"What did John say about Jesus?" "He said 'This is who I meant when I said my successor would surpass me'".

This really only makes sense if John the Baptist's prophecy was pretty well-known when John was writing, but Jesus's identity was still a mystery -- or at any rate, the subject of some controversy.

"Remember what John said? The prophecy about the successor, and the spirit baptism, and the shoelaces? Well, hold on to your hats: I am going to tell you who he was talking about....."

I think we can safely say that "he that cometh after me is preferred before me" is a simple paraphrase of "after me cometh one mightier than I". Perhaps John didn't like the word mighty. Too much like physical strength. Maybe he just remembered it differently, or something got lost in translation. 

But the "for he was before me" part is unique to this Gospel. It links John the Baptist's saying back to John's prologue. 

Is John adding "he was before me" as a commentary? "John was right to say that Jesus is more important than him, because, as I've shown, Jesus existed before he was even born?" 

Or is John remembering something that John the Baptist actually said? In which case John's prologue could be the result of many years pondering what on earth he could have meant.

And this is the record of John,
when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him,
'Who art thou? '
And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, "I am not the Christ."
And they asked him, "What then? Art thou Elias?"
And he saith, "I am not."
"Art thou that prophet?"
And he answered, "No."
Then said they unto him, "Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? "
He said, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias."
And they which were sent were of the Pharisees.
And they asked him, and said unto him,
"Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?"
John answered them, saying, "I baptize with water:
but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not;
He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me,
whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose."

Matthew says that Pharisees came to be baptised by John the Baptist; but John the Baptist yelled at them and sent them away. Luke says that the ordinary people wondered if John was the Messiah. John conflates the two stories. The Pharisees do indeed come to John the Baptist; but to ask him questions, not to be dipped. John the Baptist is fairly polite to them. But the question they ask is the one the Common People asked in Luke: "Are you the Messiah".

Again: in Mark's Gospel is doesn't immediately occur to anyone that Jesus could be the Messiah. It's a secret. In John, its the very first thing which occurs to the Pharisees: if someone is preaching and dipping, they are probably the Messiah. (And if he's not the Messiah, then maybe he's a very naughty the Prophet Elijah, or some other Prophet: which are the same things which the People thought that Jesus might be.) [NOTE 3]

In Luke, the conversation goes:

"Are you the Messiah?"
"I'm baptising with water, but there's someone coming much greater than me."

In John it is slightly different:

"Are you the Messiah?"
"Definitely not."
"Who are you then?"
"I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness."
"In that case, why are you baptising"
"I'm baptising with water, but there's someone else who's much greater than me."

"I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness..." and "I'm baptising with water..." are both direct quotes from Mark. But John has again changed the context and modulated their meaning. John the Baptist quoted Isiah in response to a question about whether he was the Messiah. John the Baptist said he wasn't fit to tie Jesus shoes in response to a question about whether he was the Messiah.

The focus is narrowing. If John knows that John the Baptist told soldiers to make do with their pay and that he chastised the King for marrying the wrong lady, he doesn't mention it. Not being the Messiah is the whole point of John. 

[NOTE 1] As we have established, Greek had a number of different words for 'love': and 'the disciple who Jesus loved' is definitely not 'the disciple who Jesus was in love with'. Did you know that the writer of Holy Blood and Holy Grail also created the Yeti?

[NOTE 2]  As we have established, the name of the first woman was Hawwa, which we have corrupted to Eve. The name literally means "life", and some texts have given her the Greek name Zoe.

[NOTE 3] Mark and Luke think that Jesus strongly implied that John the Baptist was Elijah. Matthew says that he said so directly. John seems to say that the true Elijah denies his Elijahood.