Jesus, Christ and Servant of God: Meditations on the Gospel According to John
Reviewed by Michael Willett Newheart
By David Johnson. Inner Light Books, 2017. 278 pages. $35/hardcover; $25/paperback; $12.50/eBook.
It is certainly not surprising that Quaker publisher Inner Light Books would publish a collection of meditations on the Gospel of John, for light is a prominent theme in John. Early on we read, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people,” and later on Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” John is often referred to as “the Quaker Gospel.” So Australian Quaker David Johnson (son of John?) writes Quaker meditations on this Quaker gospel for a Quaker press. What is he “pressing” for? Johnson writes, “Each of us is invited to follow the inward Light in trust, seeking the possibility of a life of real holiness admitted by Jesus for himself.” Jesus is Christ in that he makes God present for us, and he is servant of God in that he does the will of God.
Here Johnson continues to pursue the task he set out in his previous book, A Quaker Prayer Life. In reading the gospel, Johnson attempts to move his reader “from the head to the heart,” from the intellectual to the spiritual, from information to transformation. Johnson certainly doesn’t neglect the head, for he includes some important information about John, but he aims for the transformation of the heart. The last line of the epilogue is representative: “Open our hearts, O God, to the Light of Christ.”
In 2007–2008, Johnson read every verse of the Gospel of John. For eight months he didn’t read anything else. It was a spiritual journey for him. He notes how the Holy Spirit opened up new meaning for him, and so these meditations are the fruit of that labor of the Spirit in Johnson’s life. He therefore produces what is in essence a Quaker commentary on the Gospel of John. He covers virtually every passage in the gospel, beginning with the Prologue (chapter 1 in John), continuing with the conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman (chapters 3 and 4), moving on to the Feeding of the 5,000 (chapter 6), the miracle of healing the man born blind (chapter 9), the raising of Lazarus (chapter 11), the Farewell Discourses (chapters 13–17), the trial before Pilate (chapters 18–19), and the Resurrection accounts, which include the miraculous catch of fish and the fireside chat with Peter (chapter 21). And he reads these passages in the company of early Friends as well as modern mystical writers such as Thomas Merton. (Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people he quotes are male.)
This book is Christocentric but from a universalistic bent. It centers on Jesus, as the Gospel of John so radically does. Yet it is also open to the truth of other faiths. Johnson often refers to other religious traditions, such as Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism, and says that they communicate that same search for the Ultimate.
This book reminded me of another one with an almost identical subtitle, Conversation with Christ: Quaker Meditations on the Gospel of John by Douglas Gwyn (Quaker Press of FGC, 2011). Curiously, Johnson does not refer to it, though he does refer to two of Gwyn’s works on early Friends. He also does not refer to Quaker biblical scholar Paul Anderson, who has written a number of important works on the Gospel of John. I think particularly of Anderson’s 2000 Pendle Hill pamphlet, Navigating the Living Waters of the Gospel of John.
Nevertheless, Johnson is successful in his project. He shows how “the Quaker Gospel” might still speak to those yearning for authentic religious experience in this age of pluralism. Johnson connects the time of the Gospel of John to the time of early Quakers to today. Anyone interested in a Quaker—or mystical—approach to John could read this book with benefit and inspiration.
This book found me in something of a “dark night of the soul,” so I resonated with his approach. In reading his book, I felt the light of Christ shining in my own (New)heart.