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Reading John

Today’s post is an interview with Christopher Skinner, whose book Reading John came out last month.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey.

I am currently Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Mount Olive and Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at East Carolina University. My scholarly interests lie primarily in the development of various Jesus traditions both within and outside the NT. I am also interested in the development and application of narrative-critical and other literary-oriented hermeneutics.

As for more about my journey, you can see here and here. You can also visit my website and my blog.

2. Describe your book in 1-2 sentences.

People who know me well know that, professionally speaking, I think of myself first and foremost as a teacher. When I sat down to write this book I wanted readers to have an experience of what it would be like to sit in one of my classes. I would say that reading this book is like sitting in the first few weeks of my course on the Gospel of John, where I provide background material and an overall reading strategy.

3. Why did you write this book? What is your bigger vision that led you to write this?

In my experience as an educator, I have been exposed to many different tools that were supposedly geared for the classroom but actually had little chance of truly helping students. In my introduction to this book I note that in our profession lapsing into technical jargon and writing for other scholars can sometimes be as effortless as breathing.

I really wanted to write something that students and other non-specialists could pick up and find immediately useful. I think many of us in academia can be shortsighted and expect our readers to know more than they actually do and this renders many works that are aimed at non-specialists unwieldy. I have tried very hard to reverse that trend in this book.

As far as the “bigger vision” is concerned, that story goes back a bit. From 2005 to 2010, I taught at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and had the privilege of working under Mike Gorman, who was the dean of their Ecumenical Institute for nearly 20 years. After reading Mike’s book, Reading Paul (also published in the Cascade Companions series) back in 2008 I got it into my mind that I wanted to produce something on that level—a book that was simultaneously substantive and readable; something that was deeply rooted in the very best of scholarship but also something that students could use as a launching point to move into deeper and more substantial scholarly works. But above all, I wanted the book to be readable.

4. Who are you trying to reach and what’s their payoff for reading it? What is their take-away?

Against the all-too-common tendency for Bible readers to conflate the NT Gospels, I am trying to get my readers to think about John as an autonomous narrative that must be read on its own terms. As a narrative critic with an overarching concern for the final form of each text, I want readers to know that John has told the story of Jesus in a way that differs significantly from other portraits. Thus, their “take-away” should be a strong awareness of what makes John’s story of Jesus unique and distinct from the other three canonical Gospels.

Here’s a description of the book:

“The Gospel of John is often found at the center of discussions about the Bible and its relation to Christian theology. It is difficult to quantify the impact John’s Gospel has had on both the historical development of Christian doctrine and the various expressions of Christian devotion. All too often, however, readers have failed to understand the Gospel as an autonomous text with its own unique story to tell. More often than not, the Gospel of John is swept into a reading approach that either conflates or attempts to harmonize with other accounts of Jesus’ life.

This book emphasizes the uniqueness of John’s story of Jesus and attempts to provide readers with a road map for appreciating the historical context and literary features of the text. The aim of this book is to help others become better, more perceptive readers of the Gospel of John, with an ability to trace the rhetoric of the narrative from beginning to end.”

5. Give a brief narrative flow of the book (i.e., what you’re trying to do in each chapter).

This book is not a commentary on the Fourth Gospel. As I stated above, it covers what I might teach in the first few weeks of a course on John. There is no substitute for a close reading of the text, so I regard my volume as a textbook that would go hand-in-hand with a good commentary in a classroom or Bible study setting. My goal here is to provide a reading strategy that will help readers engage the distinctive elements of the Fourth Gospel.

Each chapter builds upon the next with the hope that a coherent reading strategy emerges. Here’s an overview of the chapters with a description of what I do in each:

1 Reading John: Where to Start?
I open by setting forth the basic assumptions that guide the rest of the book.

2 John’s Prologue: The Interpretive Key for Reading the Gospel of John
In order to understand the distinctive story of Jesus that John tells, the reader must be aware of how that story unfolds. Here I explain how to read the entire story in light of the information that is provided in the Prologue. I regard this is as the most important chapter of the book. If you miss this chapter, the rest of the book will not make sense because I continually refer back to the contents of this chapter.

3 A Tale of Two Stories:
John’s Two-Level Drama
Scholars have long noted that John tells a story about Jesus—who lived in the late 20s of the first century—to a community that is trying to follow Jesus in the late first/early second century. Here I attempt to get readers to think about how this should impact our reading of the narrative. Whereas the previous chapter is rooted in literary issues, this one is driven by historical concerns.

4 John, Jesus, and Judaism: Is the Gospel of John Jewish and Anti-Jewish at the Same Time?
(Or, Is the Gospel of John Schizophrenic?)
One of the most notoriously difficult issues in the history of NT interpretation is how to understand the problem of “the Jews” in John’s Gospel. Here I lay out the various views set forth by scholars while wrestling with ethical and theological problems that arise in our attempts to understand this issue.

5 An Alien Tongue: The Foreign Language of the Johannine Jesus
This chapter is devoted to looking at the distinctive language and literary features of the gospel. Here we can truly begin to see how the Jesus of John’s Gospel differs from his Synoptic counterpart.

6 John’s Characters and the Rhetoric of Misunderstanding
Over the past decade I have done a fair amount of work on character formation and development in the gospels. This chapter represents my understanding of how characters function in the Fourth Gospel and why they are important to the overall rhetoric of the story.

7 Putting the Pieces Together: Reading John 3:1–21
In this chapter I demonstrate how to read a selected portion of the Gospel while using the material from the preceding six chapters. It is my hope that this chapter will serve as a model for reading the rest of the Gospel in light of my overall discussion.

8 Postscript: Reading John Theologically?
Since the rest of the book has focused on historical and literary concerns, this brief chapter addresses the importance (for some) of continuing to read the gospel in the context of their theological reflection.

6. What part of the book are you particularly excited about and why?

What I am probably most excited about is how I was able to fit so many of my teaching illustrations into the book. As a teacher, I am always looking for ways to help students make a genuine connection to something outside of the text in a way that will solidify their grasp of what I’m trying to teach.

When I was writing I tried to be very intentional about what illustrations I chose and how I tailored them to fit with the content of each chapter. Thus far I have heard from nearly a dozen or so people who have read and appreciated the book. Almost without fail they have told me that the illustrations I used, particularly those at the outset of each chapter, have been useful in helping them understand and read the gospel in a more informed and nuanced way.

As a teacher, what can be more gratifying than to know that you have helped others understand a subject you are so passionate about passing on?

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.