Book Review

Subversive Wisdom: Sociopolitical Dimensions of John’s Gospel

by Bert Newton

Reviewed by Jason Boonesubversive wisdom

Bert Newton has written a slim book that carries a lot of weight.  Subversive Wisdom : Sociopolitical Dimensions of John’s Gospel  adds  a new perspective to the Gospel of John, a Gospel that often gets categorized as the “spiritual Gospel”.  And for good reason. John’s account of Jesus’ ministry features encounters and thoughts that mark out the spiritual dimension of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection.

But to leave the significance of Jesus in the spiritual realm is to lose sight of the radical expression of love found in His existence. The spiritual expanse of Christian faith is the Holy foundation for a people who seek peace and justice in the physical world. But the two must work in concert. Separated from the spiritual ground of being in Christ, working for peace and justice quickly take on Sisyphus-like proportions. Drudgery, never-ending toil with no progress, this often is the job description of a peacemaker divorced from the spiritual nutrition expressed in writings like the Gospel of John.

On the reverse, a spirituality that never sees the light of the world misses the point. Through Christ, God melded to the world in an intimate, permanent fashion.  There will no more floods that violently rid the world of malice and sin. The redemptive solution to the problem is the body of Christ, ordinary men and women living life together, animated by the Holy Spirit, who transform the world by encountering it with non-violent love. The spiritual life and its physical expression are symbiotic gifts to the world.

Newton does an outstanding job of illustrating the socio/political dynamics found in John without discounting the spiritual aspects and does so in an accessible way. I found the book to be at its strongest in Chapter 7, “Wisdom’s Assault”, which looks at the idea of Jesus as the personification of God’s Word/Wisdom. And so it’s through Jesus that we see clearly that the wisdom of God is countercultural. Countercultural to the time and context that Jesus lived, but just as countercultural to our own modern/post-modern outlook today.

Carefully considering that counter-cultural wisdom Jesus embodied led me to reflect on what customs, concepts, idols I hold sacred and how I would feel if Jesus turned them upside down, as He consistently did to the authoritative customs, concepts and idols of His day.  How would I respond to His relentless love and disregard for the barriers I place in opposition to that love? What barriers to that love do I contribute to on a systemic, political level?

There’s enough here to keep theologically-minded friends engaged but presented in such a way as not to alienate others. Its length, structure and clarity would make it a fine candidate for an adult Sunday School class or book club. Its insights will make Subversive Wisdom an important part of appreciating the Gospel of John for years to come.


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