I’m fairly new to the whole academic approach to the study of the Bible. Let me just say that there are A LOT of words, and very few of those words are familiar. That means that reading these books is a long slow process, and as a lifelong skimmer of fiction, presents a new kind of challenge.
Bill, knowing my desire to further understand the fourth gospel, bought me a copy of Christopher Skinner’s Reading John when he saw that I was trying to win a copy from the Jesus Blog. We have a plethora of books in our home, many of which have been faithfully opened and bookmarked for my personal study by the aforementioned husband of mine, but I have mostly felt frustrated and completely out of my depth.
Reading Skinner’s foreword was encouraging. He states that the book is about “thinking at the highest level and communicating with those who want to learn” and though it isn’t the mission statement, per se, it very well could be. This book strikes just the right tone for readers like me who would like to dive into further study, but aren’t strong swimmers. Yet.
It’s a life jacket. I have to keep kicking, but I’m not going to drown. Hallelujah.
The book systematically discusses the different aspects that are important for a better reading and context for the Gospel of John. Chapter by chapter, Skinner gently guides the reader through the the differences between this gospel and the synoptics, the language used by the author and the scholarship surrounding the mystery of the writer himself.
His writing is clear, and the use of analogies at the beginning of a new topic is helpful. Even better, once he’s done describing the analogy, whether it’s watching the movie Toy Story, or his wife’s feelings about the end of a great fiction series, his switch into academic language is not jarring. You get the sense that the author is a good classroom teacher- one who truly wants his students to get the topic and will meet them where they are without a condescending tone.
The chapter on the language of the gospel (“An Alien Tongue”) was a personal favorite in which Skinner discusses the use of irony, double entendre and literary asides. It is read-out-loud-to-your-spouse-able, and definitely flipped a light switch on for me.
Because an interest in the Samaritan woman is how I got into this mess to begin with, I do wish the book had elaborated a bit more on her character, rather than taking the tact of predecessors and assuming her “marginalized” status, but I’m truly influenced by Cohick’s scholarship which infers that there is more to her character than just ostracized hussy. Comparing and contrasting the story of the woman at the well with the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus is the context for bringing her up, so I appreciate that he had other fish to fry.
While reading, I found myself making connections and moving along a trail of thought only to find it confirmed at the end of the chapter/paragraph. That’s damn good writing right there, and it works on two levels. One, obviously- it helps guide the reader to the conclusion the author is making and two- it makes the reader believe in their ability to think/process/learn. Now I feel smart, or at the very least, not dumb. I think I can tackle Bauckham with less frustration.
I will be keeping this book on my shelf and referencing it, not just for the valuable material it contains, but as a reminder that there is a way through the difficulties of studying the New Testament, and that there are people out there who have blazed a trail and who want others to find their way.
PS. I just finished reading Bauckham’s “The Beloved Disciple as the Ideal Author” from “The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple." It's hard to believe how different the experience of reading it AFTER finishing Skinner’s book was from before when I threw the book down in tears of frustration. It is literally like night and day.
Four stars and two thumbs up for Reading John.