The Gospel of John
in the Twenty-First Century

Richard L. Rohrbaugh
Lewis and Clark College
Portland, Oregon

Published in Readers and Readings of the Fourth Gospel.
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.

Modernity’s Discontents

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 knowledge:
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.
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 simultaneous processes.
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 society.
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 “meaning.”
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 display.
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 tongue.
It stands apart, mysterious, secretive, original, full of attitude and possibility.


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.

Works Consulted

Berger, Peter; Berger, Brigitte; and Kellner, Hansfried
1973 The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness. New York: Vintage Books.

Duvignaud, Jean
1970 Change at Shebika. New York: Pantheon.

Halliday, M.A.K.
1976 “Antilanguages.” American Anthropologist 78 (1976):570-84.

1978 Language as Social Semiotic: the Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

Malina, Bruce
1985 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.

Sewell, Elizabeth
1964 The Human Metaphor. South Bend: Notre Dame University Press.

Staley, Jeffrey
1995 Reading with a Passion: Rhetoric, Autobiography, and the American West in the Gospel of John.

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Richard L. Rohrbaugh