Getting Into the Act
I think I am making a gradual return to the land of the living after a week and a half of cold and flu symptoms. I am wondering about what performance criticism methods may have to tell us about the Prologue to the Gospel of John.
We have learned to pay attention to the first-person pronouns in gospel accounts. These are cues that the text is directed toward us as audience and is seeking to engage us as participants. Notice that in John 1:1-13, the pronouns are all third-person. We are spectators at the beginning of the account.
All that changes in verses fourteen through sixteen. The pronouns all become first-person plural: us and we. Cornelia van Deventer reminds us that this first-person plural move is also found, for example, at the end of the Johannine account – “This is the disciple, the one who is testifying concerning these things and the one who wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24, my translation).
The “we” in John 1 and John 21 seems a bit slippery when I read the verses. On the one hand, the “we” certainly refers to the community which has received, and which communicates the testimony of the Beloved Disciple. On the other hand, the “we” also invites us as the audience and/or readers to become a part of that “we.” Do “we” know that the Beloved Disciple’s testimony is true? And, if so, will we live that way? That is the challenge of the Johannine account.
Remember that the purpose statement of John’s gospel is a direct invitation to us as audience and reader. “But these things have been written in order you (plural) would put your faith in the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in order that as you put your faith in that fact you would have life in his name” (John 20:31, my translation). The Johannine account is written in order to call forth an active response on the part of the hearer/reader.
Cornelia van Deventer argues that this and other purpose statements in the Johannine gospel urge us as listeners to become a “participating audience” and to enact that participation “by performing what [we] have see and to experience the life that accompanies such belief. The Gospel, therefore,” she declares, “contains a dimension of experiencing, participating and ultimately performing” (page 1).
Van Deventer seeks to describe the “implied audience” of John’s gospel in order to come to a deeper understanding of the author’s intended call to action. She sees the Johannine prologue as a critical part of that call to action and a place to begin to understand that implied audience. The Johannine prologue sets up the audience with a framework for understanding the action that will follow in the body of the drama.
The “we” in verses fourteen through sixteen might refer exclusively to the author and the community which supported that author’s work – including others who might have experienced firsthand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, the use of the “we” also creates what van Deventer calls a “porous” group identity – that is, a group identity that can invite and accommodate us as well. She notes that the “we” in verse sixteen is expanded to “we all” with the effect that the audience is included in the text (page 5).
We, as audience, therefore, have insider information as the gospel account unfolds “The audience is initiated into the Johannine story with a revelation of [Jesus’] divine glory,” van Deventer notes, “the perspective that the ‘we’ brings to the table” (page 5). This first-person plural includes us as listeners/readers and seeks to persuade us that we too witness the glory of the Logos and the truthfulness of the story.
Van Deventer observes that this invitation is extended to all of humanity in verses four through nine. The question is whether people will embrace that invitation or reject it. Those who embrace the invitation are called “children of God.” They are the ones who are continuing to believe in the present and into the future. For the Johannine author, the time for responding is now. And the scope of that response is into God’s future.
The drama of the story is whether the characters will be “receivers” or “rejecters.” That drama is then offered to the implied audience as a personal drama as well. The gospel is filled with stories that enact this drama at very personal and intimate levels. The drama is culminated in the testimony and response of the Beloved Disciple, the real model for the faith response the Gospel author seeks to elicit.
“The reality is, however,” van Deventer writes, “that the Johannine audience has not simply been empowered to evaluate the ethos of the various characters in the story, but, according to the purpose of the author, they have the mandate to now evaluate their own” (page 13). That’s an interesting and challenging preaching focus on the first Sunday of a new calendar year. We, who have been believing, are invited to reflected on whether we will continue that life of faith into the future.
“The Fourth Gospel, therefore,” writes van Deventer, “supposes an audience of individuals who were intended to become,” in the words of another scholar, “participators and propagators” of Jesus’ life and words (page 13). That’s what it means to “perform” the Gospel – or in the words of the Johannine author – to continue to put our trust in Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.
The Johannine account leaves room for doubt, struggle, questions, thick-headedness, and even rejection on the part of the listeners. We shouldn’t assume that this “believing” comes easily or is merely a once and for all sort of decision. We have only to read the gospel accounts to see that this is an ongoing challenge for any and all disciples.
“The participatory nature of the Fourth Gospel,” van Deventer observes, “is therefore a double-edged sword: it is both encouraging and challenging” (page 14). “We” are invited into the drama as participants. The “fourth wall” of the gospel theater is “porous,” as van Deventer names it, and we can find ourselves passing through it and on to the stage. If that happens, the gospel account has done at least a part of its work.
“By pointing its finger to the audience,” she continues, “the Fourth Gospel makes it clear that it has not fashioned an audience of uninformed bystanders, but an enlightened audience of performers: what they now perform is entirely up to them” (page 14).
I wonder if one simple way to make this experiential in worship is to turn the reading of the Johannine prologue into a sort of call and response experience. Perhaps the liturgical reader could “solo” on verses 1-13 and 17-18. And perhaps the congregation could read/perform verses 14-16. This might be most effective if the participatory and performative nature of the gospel account were pointed out to the listeners in advance of the reading.
Van Deventer offers these conclusions. She “argues that the Fourth Gospel creates a self-conscious audience from the prologue and that this audience is invited to become performers of a certain ethos through the creation of an ideal and porous group of receivers of the Logos and his revelation” (page 14). In addition, the gospel account creates and offers various characters who perform that belief, culminating in the Beloved Disciple. And the gospel account climaxes with the purpose statement that poses the challenge of continuing to believe directly.
This perspective offers a refreshing alternative to tortuous dissertations on the nature of the Incarnate Logos. And it challenges us as preachers to allow the gospel text to do what it was intended to do – to call and recall listeners to active and ongoing trust in Jesus as the Source of abundant life for us and for the cosmos.
References and Resources
Johnson, Elizabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-3/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-9.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
van Deventer, Cornelia. “Performing John: the participatory nature of the Fourth Gospel.” Neotestamentica 53.3 (2019): 517-534.