Reading a Gospel as a stand-alone event—without connecting it to the Bible—honors it most of all.
That is, reading a Gospel without knowing about other gospels lets the particular Gospel shine for itself in ways that it does not otherwise. Or said negatively, the Bible as the generally large group of different books does not help us understand the power of a single Gospel standing by itself. Collapsing all the gospels into one jumbles the voices and stops us from going deep.
Let’s take one example of a particular Gospel to show how, when reading as a stand-alone event, these stunning writings from the ancient world tell better stories, sing more beautiful songs, and paint more powerful pictures. My example is the Gospel of John. But the Gospel of Mark also works better without consulting the Bible. So does the Gospel of Mary. But now let’s see how this holds true for the Gospel of John.
The first reason for the Gospel of John singing more beautifully as a stand-alone is that it has so many things that are nowhere else. And, if we just listen to them on their own, we can hear them more clearly. And other stuff in the Bible does not interfere, doesn’t act like bothersome static, and doesn’t confuse us. For instance, the Gospel of John is the only place in any gospels that has a story of the creation of the universe. And, it is a different story than the two creation stories in the book of Genesis.
The Gospel of John’s exclusive and beautiful story of creation
The Gospel of John begins with this cosmic beginning of the universe. Fascinatingly, the Gospel of John does not have the story of the birth of Jesus at all, as the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke do. And Jesus is explicitly in John’s story of the beginning of cosmos. Said differently, John is the only place that we can find Jesus at the beginning of the universe. What would it be like if we would be with the Gospel of John exclusively for enough time to frame who Jesus, God, and we are in cosmic terms? We would get to consider Jesus and us together in terms of the galaxies, the depths of the oceans and outer space, and the wonder of millions of planets.
I’m on a roll here, and there is much to say for reading John alone. But let me quickly say that I am not saying John is the best or the only reading for us, nor that other material inside and outside the Bible should not be read. On one level, I’m just challenging the rut serious readers may be in with our long-term habit of mixing little bits of the Bible together and expecting them to make sense, rather than letting the Gospel of John have its real authenticity and character. For now, let’s go back to John, knowing we’ll also get back to the bigger picture of how we read important writings from the ancient world or from any world.
Reading a Gospel on its own brings out our best
Let’s follow up on the advantages to staying with John as a cosmic Gospel for a week, a month, or a year. This gets us out of our church rut. That is, if we stay with the beginning of the universe, another kind of Jesus than a baby in a manger, and a much bigger picture than the church or America, then everything looks different. Who we can be and what our values are, shift a lot if our perspective is big enough to go deep.
Jesus is laser focused on his relationship to God in the Gospel of John. It’s not just John’s cosmic big picture that is different about John. Jesus is a very different person in John than any other place in the Bible. He thinks about different things and his speaking is altered significantly. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Thomas, and Mary, he mostly is concerned with everyday life and people. He can’t stop talking about how intimate he is with God. In the other gospels he speaks in short parables and pithy sayings about how life works, what is happening in the town or at home. But in John it’s mostly explicit God talk non-stop. And Jesus is a lot more god-like than in the other gospels. He often says things like: I and God are very much alike. In contrast to the Mathew, Mark, Luke, and Thomas gospels in which Jesus is humble and very often like a human being, here Jesus more or less points to himself all the time and contrasts himself to normal humans.
Now I know many Americans are uncomfortable with non-stop God-talk, and I too am sometimes uncomfortable with God-talk. But hanging out with John’s gospel is a deep reminder of what God and a God-like Jesus are like. John’s gospel is friendly God-talk and an intensely loving God, whether it is referring to God or the God-like Jesus.
Spending time just with the Gospel of John is a full bath in God
But interestingly, the Gospel of John as a regular reading companion does not care much about whether one believes in God or for that matter, whether one believes at all. It’s not like some kinds of churches I know in which one concentrates on the Nicene Creed or some other creed, and has to raise a “I believe this or that” flag all the time. John is more like a tender poem about God. No, that’s not quite right. It’s a tender poem in God. Like being in an ocean of God.
What I am suggesting is taking that bath in God. Being immersed in a cosmic God-ness, not a lecture about God. What would happen if we let this kind of super-poem wash over us for a day, week, month, or year? It might be more like a vacation in this perspective.
I am not just pushing the Gospel of John’s way of being. I recommend a similar experience with the Gospel of Mark, the Acts of the Apostles, the poetry of Mary Oliver, the novels of Sue Monk Kidd, the Gospel of Thomas, or the Letters of Paul.
This is simply a chance to be a deeper reader and a deeper person. Let a different, more or less proven—yet different—language world companion us so that it can sink in and make a difference. Let ourselves go and get to know a different voice.
Not a superficial relationship, but a sort of trust that goes deep
This kind of reading—or living—is not one that takes marching orders. Rather it is one that knows that life is deep, complicated, and open-ended. It is a spiritual approach that allows—at least provisionally—something to sink in enough to awaken us to a significant experience. But this kind of reading or bathing doesn’t work when we are trying to obey or follow a command. That is, if something about a particular moment or chapter of John (or Mary Oliver) irritates us, then we just wait for the next moment or chapter the next day. This is not a superficial relationship to John (or Thomas or Kidd) but one that is relaxed. A sort of trust that goes deep, but is not necessarily permanent.
Yes, this is different for some, and a relief for others. And, it is a challenge to a conventional relationship to the Bible. You know that way that is obedient, but where will it take you if you just dip into the Bible for five minutes and believe that it is all the same? Just another day of marching orders. Relaxed and open-ended reading is different. It lets us go deep without marching orders. It assumes that all the Bible is not the same or part of a grand plan. No, here it is a big hunk of different material and voices, each of which deserve to be tried out seriously. It remembers that the Bible was written in a long stretch of different times, with different challenges, and different voices for different people.