Developing an informed imagination is like gathering wood so that you can enjoy a fire.
John: The Gospel of Wisdom
Author: Michael Card
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Perhaps the highest praise I could give for John: the Gospel of Wisdom by Michael Card is that it creates a desire to become a better student of the Scriptures. This sentiment applies to any of the four commentaries, one for each gospel, which Card has authored over the last four years.
I greatly esteem his work as a musician, songwriter and recording artist, for which he is probably best known. He gave us “El Shaddai,” the song made popular by Amy Grant. And yet, for all his accomplishments in music and as an author of many books, I think this four volume commentary set is his most significant work.
His exposition of the Scriptures over the years in song and book have brought him to the place where he can make the gospel accounts of Christ come to life in the imagination of his readers. One of the beauties of this effort is that these commentaries are made to be read instead of just being a work you consult. They are scholarly but accessible, detailed but brief. Card has achieved a wonderful balance.
His intent goes beyond providing information. Card sets an example of gathering facts in the service of a sanctified use of imagination. It’s like gathering wood so that you can enjoy a fire. It’s seeing the Scriptures come alive through gaining a clearer picture.
Card writes, “It is always the informed imagination. We must become committed to doing the work, to finding the best sources, beginning with the primary sources, the earliest writings: Mishnah, Talmud, Josephus, Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus. These ancient sources do not exist only for the scholars. They are all readily available, now more than ever with electronic books. (Many of them are free!) (13)”
So the greatest benefit may not be reading Card’s exposition. It’s following his example of learning how to interact with the Bible in such a way that it becomes more than just words on a page. Right from the start (in the preface), he demonstrates the method he learned when he references John 7:37, the verse he identifies as being “responsible for opening the door of my imagination to engage with the Scripture” (11).
William Lane, a man Card regards as a mentor, opened that door by asking a few simple questions in a lecture hall filled with students. Out of the silence, Lane began to quote from memory a passage from the Mishnah (the collected teachings of the rabbis between 200 B.C. to A.D. 200), which provided background information on what occurs on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Lane instructed the class to take that information and return to the passage where Jesus cries out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink …”
Card describes his watershed moment as follows, “This was the first time I had ever read the Bible with an informed imagination. The words on the page that a moment ago were a dry devotion became a motion picture in full color…. The thought of it still takes my breath away over thirty years later” (12).
Aside from seeing Card’s technique at work, I appreciate his valuable insights. He offers the following in relation to Jesus being full of grace and truth: “Jesus is full of grace and truth, but not truth as anyone in the history of humankind has ever known. Not truth as a right answer or truth as the correct words, but truth as a person—living, breathing and eventually bleeding and dying. Truth that one comes to know personally in the context of a life, not between the pages of a textbook. From this moment on, knowing the truth will not necessarily mean being right but rather being faithful. Knowing the truth will no longer mean knowing the answers but only knowing Jesus Christ” (36).
Card also has relevant discernment. In reference to the man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5), who had been sick for 38 years, he writes, “Jesus understands that there is no point in engaging with this man. If he is ever to walk again he must simply be commanded to do so. Because Jesus, in his humility, so often says, ‘it is your faith that healed you’ (compare Mk 10:52; Lk 18:42), some have taught that a person must have faith in Jesus to be healed. This story flies in the face of that erroneous idea. The man has no idea who he is talking to” (77).
When covering Jesus’ difficult sayings in John 6, Card wisely avoids getting sidetracked through discussion of the various ways this passage has been interpreted. I might have wanted him to go further, but he keeps it straightforward without any divisive application.
When he does make application, as is the case in the beginning of John 6, it has a broad nature: “My mentor William Lane used to say that the followers of Jesus should always work at the level of their own inadequacy. We shouldn’t be satisfied simply doing the things we are good at. We should strive to be right on the edge so that if the Lord doesn’t show up to help us, we will fail miserably” (85).
“The story of the woman taken in adultery is one of the most problematic passages in the New Testament in terms of authenticity (103),” Card writes in his opening remarks on John 8:1-11. He goes on to say, “Against its genuineness are the facts that the oldest manuscripts of John do not contain it, and none of the church fathers referred to it, showing that their manuscripts did not contain the passage either.” Card explains that “the most widely held explanation to these problems is that the story was cut from the earliest copies of John because Jesus seems to be condoning adultery. Later it was restored, though its original position in the text had been lost.”
Card’s examination of the evidence leads him to conclude that the accepted explanations are inadequate. He briefly outlines the case for the authenticity of the passage. Right or wrong, I appreciate his ability to gather facts and form his own conclusions. Because it’s not found in the oldest manuscripts, I have suspected that the passage did not belong, but Card gives me another viewpoint to consider.
I appreciate his attention to detail. It’s what makes him a fine scholar.
I wonder if the publisher could package this four volume series in a box set. Regardless, it will be a fine addition to any library, personal or institutional.
Along the way, Card has recorded an album of songs, one for each of the four gospels. His ability to incorporate Scripture into song is second to none. Again, the publisher might want to consider a box set for the CDs.
Look for the forthcoming CD review, John: A Misunderstood Messiah.