Tuesday 6 March 2018

Reading the Bible/ Gospels/ Fourth Gospel

Since I became a Christian and engaged with the Bible as such, I have not been satisfied with the usual ways of reading and understanding the Bible - and have felt compelled to devise a way that seems better. I'll tell you what it is, below - but the process is ongoing, has barely begun, is far from complete, and is not something I am 'hurrying'...

What I reject include the following: 1. Regarding the Bible as a single unified book which is all equally true and without 'error' - when error is defined as the falsehood of explicit statements; 2. Regarding the truth of the Bible as something that resides at a sentence by sentence ('verse') level (and certainly not a work-by-word truth); 3. Regarding the truth of all sentences/ verses as requiring knowledge of the whole Bible; 4. That all the New Testament is equally valid; 5. That all the Gospels are equally valid and tell a single absolutely coherent story (coherent at either/ both the level of the whole or part-by-part).

So much for some of the negatives - what then?

Well, I reach the above decisions on the basis of what could be termed intuition or discernment - as all such decisions must be and are inevitably made -- the difference being whether that knowledge of intuition is explicit, or denied; and with the conviction that explicit intuition is more reliably and powerfully discerning than is unconscious or denied intuition.

On this basis I regard the Fourth Gospel ('John's' Gospel - but when taken in isolation the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple) as the heart of the Bible on the basis that it uniquely claims to be the work of one of Christ's disciples, whom Jesus particularly loved; and I believe these claims. Then - on reading it  (in the divinely-inspired 'King James' translation); I find a work of the highest level of beauty, profundity and coherence - a work which when considered as literature surpasses any other in the language in terms of beauty, profundity and coherence.

(Besides which Hamlet is a ragbag, Paradise Lost a sprawling mess and Wordsworth's Prelude a hit and miss mish-mash.)

So, I start with the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, and with the conviction that this should be placed first in the Bible, first among the Gospels and should be at the heart of Christian understanding and life (all the rest being regarded in the light of this coherent work of genius and inspiration).

And I try to know the light of this Gospel; so that I may know the other Gospels, the New Testament and Bible, and the Churches and traditions, and possible Christian futures - all in its light.

I have made a start - but so far the process of understanding the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple is taking a long time - many, many months (going into years) of intermittent intense reading, and intermediate prolonged brooding.

Nothing is more important than this for me - but I am not in a hurry. Indeed, I don't see that such a thing could or should be hurried.



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Despite the prevalence of the "Bible as literature" idea, "Is the fourth gospel greater than Hamlet?" is the sort of question no one ever thinks to ask.

Nancy said...

This is a very helpful perspective. Thank you, Prof. Charlton.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nancy - I'm glad you find it helpful.

@Wm - Yes, you're correct. Actually, I don't think the statement is very controversial since the Authorised Version is (or at least was when people's judgment was to be trusted - was) generally regarded as the greatest English prose, *after* Shakespeare's prose plays (and there has never been any consensus on what was the *third*-best English prose - partly since it would be so far beneath these two).

As I said here, https://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/who-is-second-to-shakespeare-prose-and.html another, related, serious contender is the Book of Common Prayer - but of course that is a collection, and doesn't contain a 'prose work')

But the Fourth Gospel is more coherent than any of Shakepeare's plays - in my opinion Hamlet is the greatest (in the sense of containing the greatest passages and scenes) and that is astonishingly incoherent, and full of 'padding' (indeed it is pretty much unperfomable unless cut greatly - and the 'best' performing version is a matter of ongoing editorial controversy).

So, in this sense I'm not claiming anything outlandish!

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

One thinks of Henry Higgins' line about "the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible" -- as bizarre, if you think about it, as calling Russian "the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy and Hamlet." (Hamlet in translation is a great -- and surprisingly "Russian" -- work of Russian literature, often claimed to be better than the original.)

Latin and German could also each be called "the language of the Bible," Jerome's and Luther's Bibles being works of the first rank in their respective languages. Certain other languages have yet to produce a great, or even a passable, Bible. The standard Chinese version is thought-provoking in places (its fourth gospel starts with "In the beginning was the Tao") but overall very poor.

If you needed another reason to like the Mormons, they've stuck with King James, in preference even to Joseph Smith's own translation, long after most other churches have switched to the NIV or some such. Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, though I know you have a favorable opinion of them, cannot really be forgiven for the beyond-parody act of literary vandalism that is the New World Translation. "The weaned child shall actually insert his own hand into the light aperture of a poisonous snake" -- pretty poetry, at least as good as anything in The Policeman's Beard Is Half-constructed, but you mustn't call it Isaiah!

Karl said...

Yes, John should be placed first among the Gospels: "in the beginning"! And Luke should be placed fourth, immediately before its sequel, Luke Part Two: Acts of the Apostles.

In this day of desktop publishing, why has no one done this? Why haven't I?