Sensing the Divine. John’s word made flesh.
Andrew D. Mayes
Oxford: BRF, 2019
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Review by Rev Simon Foster (Retired), former rector St John's of Lattingtown, Diocese of Long Island, USA
The writer of this book identifies three aims for his text. First, to ‘appreciate afresh the meaning and significance of the most outrageous of all Christian claims: the idea that the divine Word took flesh in Jesus of Nazareth’. This is done through looking at John’s Gospel, ‘identifying and celebrating its sensuous tactile character’. Second, to ‘see what implications this has for the practice of Christian spirituality, and what this suggests for contemporary ways of praying and acting’. And third, by ‘pondering its significance for the nature of mission in today’s world’. In fact, this could easily have been three books: a) A commentary on John; b) Spirituality arising from reflecting on John; and, c) Exercises to deepen incarnational spirituality.
Overall, the book seeks to celebrate John’s insight and the revelation that Jesus is God in the flesh. The sensory, human and earthy things in the gospel are the lens of analysis and reflection. The writer draws out the very down to earth, fleshly and sensory as the modus operandi of Jesus in this Gospel. The chapters include: ‘Feeling intensely’, ‘Touching infinity’, ‘Glimpsing glory’, ‘Hearing God’s voice’, ‘Tasting eternity’ and ‘Welcoming the aroma of heaven’. All this fleshly, earthy humanness culminates in the down to earth, dramatic real life-transforming and life-giving power of Jesus and his gospel message.
Mayes’ book is a compendium of Bible commentary, Concordance, Lexicon, and insights from the Church Fathers and Mothers as well as a resource book for retreats – personal and group. There are thought-provoking questions and exercises to connect more deeply with the incarnation and incarnational, and the fleshly rootedness of Christianity. The book brings together and synthesizes many other relevant texts to support its aims.
Christians and others, students, clergy in parishes, anyone in ordained ministry, and lay people will all be enriched by reading this book.
However, there are two potential dangers with the overall effect here. The first is that focussing on notions and aspects of fleshliness and earthiness can be taken too far. There is reference here to the ‘nausea and claustrophobia of the upper room’. Then, in relation to ‘Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified’ (John19.20), Mayes comments, ‘Jesus swings from a tree in the garden. If Eden had a tree of life at its centre, this garden is dominated by a life-giving and redemptive tree’. And elsewhere, ‘Maybe we sense the very perspiration of Jesus’ as John ‘explicitly tells us that Jesus was exhausted by his journey and placed himself by Jacob’s well in the sweltering heat of the midday sun’. These are, of course, creative intimations but they are surely not explicitly in the Johannine text.
The second danger, flowing from all this, is that care must be taken not to obsess with one chief lens for analysing a gospel and its relevance. More cross referencing with the Synoptic Gospels and their form, foci and styles and the turning down of the flesh/ human/earthy ‘detection dial’ may have provided a more balanced assessment of the actual Johannine text. Nevertheless, this is a refreshing book which will be useful to a wide variety of people.