I’ve been helped by a gradual realisation that attending to chunks of John’s Gospel may work best if viewed as listening to music rather than following a line of reasoning.
My knowledge of music theory is minimal, but I’m vaguely aware of the way in which a theme might be stated by one instrument, repeated, picked up by another instrument or by the whole orchestra, developed, and revisted. I can often clearly hear this going on and, whether I do or not, can often feel the emotional pull of the theme’s reappearance. I am more often simply unaware that this pattern is what has given a satisfying shape to the listening experience.
So, as we work our way to the fifth of the five Sundays when the whole of John 6 is being read, I put away previous years’ irritation at having to preach around “I am the bread of life” so many Sundays running, and my desperation that the choice of appropriate hymns was exhausted in about the second of the five weeks.
From the opening hint that this is the Passover movement of the piece, and then the rehearsing of the feeding of thousand men, there is unleavened bread, lamb-blood-daubed doorposts, barley loaves and fish. With a change of tune there is Jesus walking on water and the “I am” announcement. Then the gift of manna in the wilderness is layered in, until the “I am the bread of life” theme is finally stated at verse 35, expanded upon, partially reflected back at verse 41, repeated at verse 48, and developed at verse 51. Suddenly in that verse we have soared into eating flesh and blood, sounded out with variations in each of successive verses 53, 54, 55 56 and 57.
We haven’t been argued into a fresh understanding but swept up into it; our tune; the phrases which recur in our heads long after the music has stopped.
And then, for other reasons, I happened to take down William Temple’s Readings in St John’ Gospel * and found the third of three ‘general considerations’ he gives in his Introduction does not use the analogy of music but gets very close to the same awareness saying
One marked characteristic of the mind of the Evangelist... is... he does not argue from premises to conclusions as a method of apprehending truth. Rather he puts together the various constituent parts of truth and contemplates them in their relation to one another. Thus he seems to say ‘look at A; now look at B; now at AB; now at C; now at BC; now at AC; now at D and E; now at ABE; now at CE’, and so on in any variety of combinations that facilitates new insight. It is the method of artistic, as distinct from scientific, apprehension, and is appropriate to truth which is in no way dependent on, or derived from, other truth, but makes its own direct appeal to reason, heart and conscience.
* Having coincidentally most recently posted about my paternal grandparents being cousins, children of sisters Jessie and Annie Mallam, themselves granddaughters of the Oxford Mayor Thomas Mallam, I mention in passing that the book is dedicated to the memory of Temple’s school friend Professor J L Stocks who was a cousin of both of my grandparents as a son of Jessie and Annie’s sister Emily.