PeaceSigns was delighted to talk with Bert Newton, a regular PeaceSigns contributor, about his latest book, Subversive Widsom; Sociopolitical Dimensions of John’s Gospel. Pick up a copy, we recommend it highly!
Bert, can you tell us a little about your own faith journey?
I was raised evangelical, mostly Southern Baptist. Up until I was 10 years old, my father was a missionary with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, and we lived in Morocco and then later in Jordan.
As a child in Jordan, I saw incredible poverty. We lived in a middle class neighborhood in Amman, but a couple of short blocks away there was a large slum where people lived in make-shift shacks; these shacks were built out of old tires and other discarded material and were not big enough for anyone but a small child to stand up in. I remember women from that slum coming up into our neighborhood during the winter to scavenge scraps of bread off of the street to take home and feed to their families.
We also saw war. The U.S. armed both Jordan and Israel who fought with each other. We were there during the Yom Kippur War (but we knew it as the Ramadan War). At one point, all the residents of our city were instructed to put blankets over the windows of their homes and use as little light as possible in an attempt to black out the city so it could not be found by Israeli bombers. We spent two nights huddled under the dining room table in the middle of our house, praying that the Israeli planes would not find Amman. Either the Israeli air force failed to find the city or it did not actually try.
These childhood experiences made a huge impression on me. During that time, we would hold church services in our home and have Bible studies as well. In many of the church services, we would watch films, usually dramatizations of Gospel stories. Our Bible studies were also usually in the gospels. So I was being immersed in the Gospel, in the teachings and life of Jesus, while witnessing extreme poverty and war. The contrast was not lost on me; it later shaped much of how I think and how I interpret the world and the Bible.
What led you to write Subversive Wisdom?
I love the Gospel story. It is a story that has shaped my life and my thinking, but the difference between the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John had always bothered me. In John, Jesus says some very beautiful things about love and truth and life, but he also says things to people that come across as supremely arrogant. For example, in one place he tells people that the reason they don’t agree with him is because their father is the devil. Now, of course, many pious readers give Jesus a pass on this sort of argument because we know that Jesus is God, but in the story he is also a human being talking to other human beings who deserve better than that. Would any of us simply believe someone who came along saying that he is “the light of the world” and “the way, the truth and the life” just because he said so? If we were to ask him to prove it, as Jesus opponents do in John, and he told us that our father is the devil, would we accept that sort of answer? It’s this of behavior that is ascribed to Jesus in John that led me to engage in a deeper study of this gospel which eventually became a book. I knew I had to be missing something.
Who is this book for?
This book is for anyone who wants to study John at a deeper level; anyone who wants to understand the literary and historical context of John, as well as the literary themes in the text itself.
Did writing it change your personal views of the book of John at all?
Absolutely! I came to realize that John is written in a way that presents Jesus as the Wisdom of God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Wisdom of God is personified as a woman who walks the streets calling out to people to listen to her and to learn from her. That is exactly how Jesus acts in John; he sometimes suddenly cries out in public, unprovoked, about who he is and how people should heed his call; he talks like Lady Wisdom, sometimes almost quoting her. For example, Lady Wisdom invites people to eat her bread and drink her wine; Jesus issues the same invitation in John. This portrayal of Jesus as Lady Wisdom explains Jesus’ extraordinary behavior in John.
I also came to understand the political message of John. The way this gospel is told strikes at the heart of all systems of domination, driving out the satanic spirit of those systems. John presents Jesus as One greater than Caesar – Caesar was proclaimed in Roman propaganda to be “a son of a god,” “Shepherd of the people,” the One who “wipes away our sins” – upending the whole social structure of the empire (world), creating a new society where a king is one who washes other people’s feet.
What’s the central message of Subversive Wisdom?
My book interprets the message of John’s Gospel as proclaiming that Jesus came into the world as the Wisdom of God, reversing the world’s wisdom, making the first last and the last first. As Wisdom, Jesus subverted the world’s social order, calling into being a community of people who wash each other’s feet. He defeated the powers of this world through refusing violence, being willing to die as an act of love, and rising from the dead in victory over the powers. John’s gospel tells us that if we take Jesus’ spirit into ourselves, if we start living according to God’s subversive wisdom, then we participate in and experience Jesus’ victory over the worldly systems of domination and the powers of death.