The Gospel of John
in the Twenty-First Century
Richard L. Rohrbaugh
Lewis and Clark College
Published in Readers and Readings of the Fourth
Fernando Segovia, ed. SBL Symposium Series.
Atlanta: Scholars Press (forthcoming 1998).
© 1998; Reprinted here by permission of the publisher
Anticipating the place of the Gospel of John in the twenty-first
century raises as many questions about the twenty-first century as it does
about the Gospel of John. Indeed for those of us convinced that thought
is a social construct, that language, perception, and even religious
belief, rest upon socially-maintained plausibility structures, the prior
question is the one about what is happening to the plausibility constructs
of the modern era. Since it is these constructs which inevitably shape
our encounter with the biblical story, and especially, I will argue, with
the Gospel of John, if that ground is shifting so also will the prospects
for John’s Gospel in either the church or the academy.
At a very fundamental level the question of plausibility structures is
the question about where we are now in the on-going modernist project
which began some centuries ago with the enlightenment and the scientific
revolution. Since modernism has dominated the academy throughout much of
the twentieth century, for most Johannine scholars plausible work on this
Gospel has always been rooted in modernist assumptions. It is an
understatement, however, to say that modernism has not always enamored
everyone. Like any other way of viewing the world, modernism too has had
the baggage of its own peculiar discontents. A quick review of these will
say much about where we are now.
To critics from one side, both academic and ecclesiastical, modernity
has over-rationalized everything from social life to politics, from
emotion to imagination. It has sought to control and limit, some would
say over-control and limit, the irrational, the aesthetic and perhaps even
the sacred. As technique replaces imagination and creativity is lost to
process, our public life becomes anonymous and incomprehensible. Our
institutions become mere abstractions.
Some would argue that in its reach to rationalize all, modernism has
transformed not only what we know and how we know it, but also how we
understand ourselves. As Elizabeth Sewell has put it,
the technological mentality has come to “construct the mind at the same
time that it constructs the constructions of the mind” (45). To think
like a machine is to think of the mind as a tool. Thus her gloomy
epithet, “Man is a think is a machine” (34).
To this first group, then, disaffected by what they see as the
rationalistic sterility of modern life, inspiration for a remedy comes
largely in the hope for something new, something radical. It is ironic of
course that this new is often something old recycled: neo-romanticism,
neo-mysticism, postmodernism, naturalism, and even a variety of “new age”
ways of expressing a distaste for modernity, all share a great deal in
common with the early 18th century reactions to the modernist revolution.
Hence we see a desire for wholeness, for gemeinschaft, for an antidote to
the fragmentation and sterility of an overly technocratic society. We
witness a growing antagonism to the dichotomy of public and private, and
hear calls for public comprehensibility and simplification. There is
often an anti-system animus or hostility to order, even a lust for
disorder, as an affirmation of life.
And interestingly, among such folk the Gospel of John has offered
extraordinary inspiration. I take it as no accident, for example, that
the vision for Jeff Staley’s new book on
autobiographical criticism, a book which shares much of the spirit of
protest against modernist scholarship, comes primarily from his work on
the Gospel of John.
But criticism of modernity has come from other quarters as well. Critics
from traditionalist vantage points have argued that modernism, and its
offspring, secular humanism, has undermined traditional values and thereby
lost its soul in a sea of cultural relativity. For some this has
threatened the plausibility of deeply held traditional religious beliefs.
Indeed, as is widely recognized, religion’s plausibility structures have
now shifted “from society as a whole to much smaller groups of
confirmatory individuals” (Berger, Berger and Kellner,
1973:186). It has become marginalized and indeed has retreated to the
private side of the dichotomy with the public.
Equally loud has been the criticism from non-western cultures. In Jean
Duvignaud’s study of Shebika, a peasant village in Tunisia, he reports his
Tunisian respondent’s traditional Mediterranean point of view on
One suspects that the Mediterranean author of John’s Gospel might have had
a similar view. As Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger and
Hansfried Kellner have pointed out, new bodies of knowledge have come
into traditional societies like “invading armies” (146). They legitimate
new experts in place of old ones academics and technocrats instead of
priests and new institutions replace old ones as the legitimating
authority in society. They undermine traditional values and traditional
social practices. Thus traditionalists have had much to lose from the
secularizing effects of the technological mentality.
- All knowledge belongs to God, and it is divided into two parts: hidden
knowledge and visible knowledge. Hidden knowledge was hidden by God, and
it has five parts: lawmaking, benevolence, rain, spirits and jinn.
Visible knowledge has three parts: politics, charity and the knowledge of
The knowledge of Satan has four subdivisions: the knowledge of Satan
proper, the politics of philosophy, geometry and industry. But these last
four exist only in Europe” (Duvignaud, 1970:232).
Traditionalists of course have sought inspiration for their replies to
modernism primarily from the past. We see that not only in the
fundamentalist movements of contemporary American Protestantism, but in
similar fundamentalist movements the world over. Among Hindus, Sikhs,
Muslims, native Americans, Jews, and a wide variety of Christians,
“stoppage,” as Peter Berger calls it, i.e., calling a halt to the
perceived evils of modernity, has taken the form of neo-traditionalism.
And as I shall argue in a minute, it is no accident that among such
neo-traditionalists who are Christian there has also been an enormous
attraction to the Gospel of John.
For some people, then, modernity has been a mixed blessing at best. Of
course as sociologists of knowledge have frequently pointed out,
modernism, counter (alternative) modernism and de-modernism are always
You cannot have one without the other. Modernism, energizes and creates
the reactions to it. Thus as long as modernism continues, and in my
judgment it will for the foreseeable future, so also will protests against
it. So long as it remains the dominant paradigm, perhaps in the
transmuted form of the information age, it is predictable that its critics
will sustain the energy which drives them.
John as Anti-Language and Anti-Society
It is in light of all this that I would like to consider a
characteristic of the Gospel of John which I believe makes it such a rich
resource for either traditionalist or revolutionary protests to the
dominant paradigm (in this or any other age). It has to do with language,
or better yet, anti-language in its relation to the plausibility
structures of society.
First a word about anti-language and the Gospel of John. The concept of
anti-language was first introduced to New Testament scholars by Bruce
Malina in a 1985 article on the Gospel of John in
sociolinguistic perspective. In both that and his later work on the topic
Malina followed the lead of sociolinguist M. A. K. Halliday who recognized
that an anti-language derives from an anti-society which is “set up within
another society as a conscious alternative to it”
(Halliday, 1976:570). A genuine anti-language, as opposed
to simple slang or idiom, is the product of an alienated group. It is not
mere affectation or literary flair. It lives only among the genuinely
marginalized who protest the values of the society in which they live. An
anti-society, along with its anti-language, is thus a form of social
protest from the margins of a dominant social order.
While time here does not permit a full review of anti-language, a couple
of characteristics of it will suffice to illustrate the point we wish to
make. One is what Halliday calls “re-lexicalization”
(1976:571). By that he means old words that are given
new, insider meanings. As Halliday puts it, “same grammar, different
vocabulary.” Moreover, he makes clear the fact that this new vocabulary
is concentrated in those areas that are central to the protest of the
subculture and which distinguish it most sharply from the surrounding
It is important here to stress that anti-language does not consist of new
words. It uses old words, common to the vocabulary of the dominant
culture, but given distinctive meanings by an alienated group. It is the
kind of re-lexicalization which abounds in the Gospel of John. Words like
world, grace, truth, light, glory, door, vine, way, life, abide, shepherd,
believe, see, above, and below are all common vocabulary in the dominant
culture of the first century. But not the way John uses them. His
meanings are sometimes distinctive, and sometimes, at least to us,
incomprehensible. So that while John’s special words frequently obfuscate
matters for the ordinary reader secrecy and mystery are necessary
properties of anti-language they function as closed communication that
fosters solidarity in an anti-societal group. Moreover, this social
function of the Johannine vocabulary is at least as important as its
According to Halliday a second characteristic of anti-language is
“over-lexicalization.” Think about the way John multiplies synonyms, at
least terms that are synonymous for him if not for the dominant society:
spirit, above, life, light, not of this world, freedom, truth, love. All
are basically synonymous. So also are their opposites: flesh, below,
death, darkness, this world, lie, hate. All these terms describe
contrasting spheres of existence, opposing modes of living and
being. But there are more of them than strictly necessary. John
multiplies words, not concepts. Thus with very little appreciable
difference in meaning, John speaks of believing into Jesus, following him,
abiding in him, loving him, keeping his word, receiving him, having him,
and seeing him.
Like re-lexicalization, over-lexicalization also has an important social
function. Part of it is a continuing search for originality vis-à-vis the
dominant society. Hence John provides the re-duplication which draws out,
lingers over, extends and fine tunes the differences between his
anti-group and all others. Over-lexicalization also has to do with
competition, opposition and display. Synonomy, the piling up of
signposts displaying one’s difference from the dominant order, betrays a
group with attitude. The Johannine community has it and has it on full
As an anti-society, then, the Johannine community has a language all its
own. It is an anti-language, an original tongue. Any new member of the community had
to learn the language in order to be part of the group. As he or she did
so they assumed a new identity, one which could stand over against “this
world” and the “Judeans.” Their insider lingo effectively articulated the
group’s opposition to the values of the dominant paradigm. It may also
have been a form of resistance to competing groups of Christians whose
style and language the Johannine group thought remained “of this world.”
It is natural then that in this moment, as in any other moment when a
dominant paradigm leads some to protest, that for the protesters immediate
rapport is found with the language of John’s Gospel. Among some
fundamentalist groups, deeply saturated with Johannine language, it offers
a way to articulate their opposition to what they see as the threat of
secular humanism. For them it does so far more effectively than the
language of the synoptics, which after all functions much more nearly like
ordinary language with social referents understood by all.
When one joins one of these fundamentalist groups one learns to speak and
display their Johannine-like acquired tongue. Equally, it is these same
qualities in the Johannine language which offer the radical, perhaps even
the postmodern, outlook another form of protest. Language becomes a form
of play, a way of mocking the ordinary, of creating and displaying a new
identity. The sheer creativity of Johannine language often resists the
attempts modernists make to pin it down. Instead remains an alternative
It stands apart, mysterious, secretive, original, full of attitude and
As one looks toward the twenty-first century, it would be naïve to
think that the modernist paradigm will disappear. Moreover, were it to do
so the particular protest movements it has spawned (both fundamentalist
and postmodernist) would disappear as well. But so long as modernism does
persist (and if not it then some other dominant view of things), critics
from both sides will remain on its margins.
In fact the looming intensification of both technology and bureaucracy in
our way of life leads one to believe the discontents attendant to them
will only continue to multiply. To critics in either the church or the
academy, then, the language in the Gospel of John will continue to offer
rich resources. In the academy, one suspects the Gospel will continue to
resist our attempts to explain its meaning and force us to ask about its
social function. And for the church, increasingly marginalized in the
world-view of technocracy’s children, the Gospel will continue to
offer both traditionalists and radicals a lingo all their own.
Berger, Peter; Berger, Brigitte; and Kellner,
1973 The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness. New
York: Vintage Books.
1970 Change at Shebika. New York: Pantheon.
1976 “Antilanguages.” American Anthropologist 78
1978 Language as Social Semiotic: the Social Interpretation of
Language and Meaning. London: Edward Arnold.
The Gospel of John in Sociolinguistic Perspective.
48th Colloquy of the Center for Hermeneutical Studies (ed. Herman
Waetjen). Berkeley: Center for Hermeneutical Studies.
1994 John’s: the Maverick Christian Group. The Evidence from
Sociolinguistics.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 24:167-84.
1964 The Human Metaphor. South Bend: Notre Dame University
1995 Reading with a Passion: Rhetoric, Autobiography, and the
American West in the Gospel of John.
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