Sunday, 24 February 2013

Living in the Way of Jesus: making sense of an uncomfortable verse

Written for the March 2013 issue of the church magazine of Abington Avenue United Reformed Church.

Most Christians, I suspect, have a little set of Bible passages which they find very important and interesting, but also rather challenging and a bit worrying. You may well have a list of your own; I certainly do – verses or passages which have occupied my thoughts on and off for years. High on my list of puzzling verses is John 14:6 -
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This verse is pretty central to the expression of many Christians’ understanding of their faith, and can often be seen on posters at railway stations and the like. It is one of the seven great statements in John’s gospel attributed to Jesus about his own nature, each of which begins ‘I am’. It presents a vision of Jesus giving us a way to follow towards life. Yet the second sentence, on the face of it, is exclusive and takes away the idea that other faiths might have their own truth.

I’ve had an experience recently which has led me to reflect on this verse again, and I’d like to share my reflections. I sing with the Open University Choir, and we’re currently rehearsing a Bach motet called “Komm, Jesu, Komm” (Come, Jesus, Come), a song about a soul close to death. It contains a long fugue on the text of John 14:6 – in German, “Du bist der rechte Weg, die Wahrheit und das Leben”. There are three striking differences about this version from the standard translations – it is written from the perspective of someone talking to Christ rather than Christ talking about himself (“you are the way…”); it contains the word “rechte” (true or accurate) before “Weg” (way), which isn’t found in either the Greek original or almost any German or English translations (and may just be there to make the rhythm and music work); and it omits the second half of the saying, about no-one coming to the Father except through Jesus. The third of these in particular was what got me thinking: is it possible to believe that Jesus is the way, truth and life without saying that this is exclusively so?

If you’ll forgive me a bit more Biblical scholarship, it’s worth noting at this point that the group of highly esteemed Biblical scholars who form the Jesus Seminar have questioned the idea that Jesus actually said the ‘I am’ statements himself. Instead they argue that they were words created for him by the community who followed the words of John. This takes away any suggestion that Jesus is arrogant or self-seeking, and indeed makes the statements  stronger rather than weaker – as Marcus Borg (one of the Jesus seminar scholars) has written “if we think of these not as self-statements of Jesus but as the voice of the community, they become very powerful – if a community says about someone ‘we have found in this person the way that leads from death to life’, that is very impressive indeed” (M. Borg & T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 1999, HarperCollins, p.150).

So what does this passage mean to me? I’d like to look at the three words Way, Truth and Life in turn.

First, Way. What does it mean to say that Jesus is the way? The word sounds slightly old-fashioned, but the Greek word could just as easily be translated as ‘road’ or ‘path’. It’s the route we are meant to follow through life, the correct path in the wilderness. Jesus doesn’t say that he has come to show us the way, or to give us a map for the way – he says that he himself is the way. It is only by following Jesus’ example, by living according to his pattern (which for me is pre-eminently seen in Luke 4:18, where he said he had come to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free), that we can reach the next two parts of the saying. This vision of Jesus as the Way was crucial to the first Christians – throughout the book of Acts (9:2, 19:9, 22:4) we can see them referred to as the people of the Way.

Next, Truth. Jesus said of himself, also in John’s gospel, that “if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-2). Truth is more than the absence of falsehood (just as peace is more than the absence of war) – it is the revelation of the completely real, the lifting of the veil, the loss of pretence and convenient fictions. As the commentator Ben Witherington has written, “the term ‘truth’ in late Jewish wisdom and apocalyptic literature has the sense of revealed truth, the teaching of wisdom or insight that has a moral significance”. For the Jews of Jesus’ time, truth came from following the Torah; but instead we are told that Jesus is himself the revealed truth, the Word of God with him from the beginning (John 1:2).

And finally, the key word of the whole gospel: Life. The gospel opens by saying of the Word that “in him was life” (John 1:4), and later Jesus says that “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Jesus did not come to convince us of our sin, to rub our unworthiness in our faces, but rather to show us how to live life to the full, to become the people God created us to be. Living life to the full is quite the opposite of a selfish and self-indulgent life. It is a life full of richness, a life that experiences the kingdom of God as present here and now and not simply after death. This life is focused on others, outward-looking and generous. As the great scholar of the New Testament, William Barclay, wrote, “it is only when we live with Christ that life becomes really worth living, and that we begin to live at all in the real sense of the word”.

So what of the ‘exclusive’ part? If we really believe that no one can come to the Father except through Jesus, what does that do for our relations with people of other faiths? Do we Christians have an exclusive truth and others are simply wrong? Orthodox teaching would certainly said that is so. The commentator Tom Wright argues strongly that the whole Bible supports this view of God, and Jesus through him, as the only true rescue for the world. There are many liberal commentators who have tried to counter this, arguing (for example) that much of John is about God’s love for the whole world, and that we should read the ‘I’ of this verse not just as Jesus of Nazareth but as the universal Word of God. As the late theologian John Hick put it in a recent issue of the United Reformed Church's magazine Reform, “there is just one light, which lights many lamps, and those lamps are the religions”. I’m unpersuaded by both points of view – I don’t like the exclusivism of the verse, but I think the liberal answers are quite weak. For me it is something I still need to find an answer to; others will have their own answers already.

However I wholeheartedly feel that the first sentence of the verse (the bit which Bach used, going back to my beginning) expresses a profound truth, that Jesus gives us a way to life.

So what is life in Jesus’ way? I have already suggested that for me it is about following the path he presents, living the life he did, being on the side of the poor and the oppressed wherever we find them. Tom Wright, again, puts the implications of this life clearly: “The truth, the life, through which we know and find the way, is Jesus himself: the Jesus who washed the disciples’ feet and told them to copy his example, the Jesus who was on his way to give his life as the shepherd for the sheep.” As individuals, as a congregation, as the universal church – we are called to follow in that way, which will show us the truth and bring us life to the full.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

History of the victors - Richard III & Tolkien reimagined

History is written by the victors. (Or, as the African proverb more vividly has it, until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.) This is a commonly-enough expressed idea - history is not objective, it is a narrative constructed after the events described by a chronicler who often has a particular perspective. Sometimes that perspective is explicitly to favour a particular point of view - the official state histories of various regimes are one example, but there are many others - but it may also be implicit in the author's worldview.

Two days before I'm writing this post, a body found underneath a car-park in Leicester was been demonstrated, beyond all reasonable doubt, to be that of Richard III, killed in 1485. Richard has been the subject of black propaganda ever since his death, and the finding of his body has led to a little flurry of reconsideration of whether he was as bad as Shakespeare presented him. (None of it that I've seen has been as witty or pithy as the Horrible Histories version.) Of course, this is down to politics and perspective. Richard's death led to a shift in dynasties and ended a bloody feud between aristocratic factions, the War of the Roses.

I've just finished reading a novel which addresses these issues very clearly. The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Yeskov is a sort-of-sequel to The Lord of the Rings, but from a very different perspective of that which Tolkien presents. It suggests that Mordor was a nascent industrial civilization destroyed by a group of magic-users afraid of its power; that orcs and trolls aren't that bad at all; that the Nazg├╗l were an order of wizards rather than the undead monsters portrayed by Tolkien; and so on. The novel is entertaining, and manages (just) to be high enough quality to be said to be a sequel by another author, in the way that has been done by many respected authors, rather than more derivative 'fan fiction'.

Yeskov is a Russian palaeontologist, whose motivation for writing the book was initially scientific: he wanted to explore and explain certain geological failings in Tolkien's account of Middle Earth, and that led him to look at the climate and natural history of Mordor, which led him to think about the story further. Of course there's more: he's also rewritten the Christian gospels from a different perspective, so he is clearly open to other perspectives on telling history. And, speculatively, it's possible to consider whether as a Russian his motivation has to do with redeeming the negative tales told about an eastern power (Mordor) by a western author (Tolkien) - there's not much evidence of that, but it's an intriguing thought.

The novel is a good vehicle for asking ourselves, though, what is meant by a history of a particular time or set of events, and what is behind the history we are given. It reinforces (and I think Yeskov's doing this explicitly) a view that there is no such thing as a complete or objective history, only a partial one. And of course the same is true of any historical accounts, including those of Richard III.

The question "what is the information content of history?" is a curious one. Is there more information in a historical account which challenges the prevailing orthodoxy, in the way that Kirill Yeskov does fictionally, than in one which reinforces it? Does the idea that Richard III wasn't so bad after all contain more information than the standard narrative? My colleague David Chapman has blogged about the finding of Richard III's body in terms of information and its to identity, noting the number of different kinds of information involved, and the interesting question it raises about who we treat as important, how we identify (in David's words) "lives that matter, and lives that don't". I think the informational questions around Richard III, as about Yeskov's version of Middle Earth, are also to be found in what we mean when we say that a historical narrative has a certain information content.