The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel

John is the gospel I know the least well, and part of that is that I’m repelled somehow by all the emphasis on miracles — not that the other three gospels avoid miracles completely, but the miracles are few enough and there is enough other stuff in between them that I can ignore them and concentrate on the parables and other teachings.

But a few days ago I came across a book on John, The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, and it was written by William Countryman, who wrote a very good book on the morality of the Old and New Testaments with the great title of Dirt, Greed, and Sex. That book for me was one of those on-first-looking-into-Chapman’s-Homer experiences, revealing to me all sorts of connections and contexts for various parts of the Bible that I had not seen or noticed before. So I picked up the book on John on a whim — it was only four bucks in a used book store — and I’ve started it.

Probably half my books come from used book stores, and it’s kind of amazing and a little frightening to me to think back and realize the extent to which my thinking has been shaped over the decades by books that just randomly happened to be on the shelf and catch my eye in this or that used book store. Some of the books that have most seriously influenced me, I picked up on a whim because they were on the 99-cent table and looked kind of interesting. It’s a bit humbling and disturbing to wonder how different a person I might be if somebody I never knew had not decided to get rid of that old book when he or she did, or if somebody else had seen the book and decided to buy it the day before I walked into the bookstore.

Anyway, like I said, I’ve started reading the book on John, and even though I’m not very far into it, I’m surprised to already be seeing something about John that I have never noticed before, even though it seems to be right there on the surface and which shows how uncarefully I have read it before. Because while it’s true that John’s gospel is irritatingly thick with miracles, Jesus also accompanies them with a recurring commentary on how shallow a person’s faith is if miracles are the reason for it. For some reason I’ve always been so turned off by the miracles in John that I never let myself notice that the attitude Jesus is said to take toward them is one I can certainly get behind.

On the other hand, Jesus’s first miracle in John, the wedding at Cana, is always going to have special associations for me because of the breathtaking way that Robertson Davies developed it as a metaphor in What’s Bred in the Bone, which may be my favorite novel ever. So I can give John that one.

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