Michael Card on the Gospel of John

Michael Card on the Gospel of John August 8, 2015

I am grateful to IVP for sending me review copies of Michael Card’s most recent book, John: The Gospel of Wisdom, as well as his latest CD, John: A Misunderstood Messiah.

Were it not for Michael Card and his music, my life would quite likely have been very different. I ended up studying theology because of a conversion experience in a conservative context, and that same context made me wonder whether studying multiple years made sense, given the imminence of the Lord’s return and the urgency of proclaiming the Gospel. Music was very important to me, and I was struck by the depth that Michael Card’s lyrics had as he explored Biblical themes and stories through song. When I learned that he had a Masters degree in Biblical studies, that persuaded me of the usefulness of such study. If that had not happened at a critical juncture, who knows whether I would have continued on the higher education track that eventually led to me doing what I do today.

I thought I should review the book and CD in the same post. The truth is that one doesn’t even need to know that Card is a musician to appreciate the book, nor does one need to have read the book in order to appreciate the CD. Each stands on its own. But when one brings the two together, there is still more that one gets from each.

The book is a commentary on the Gospel, and its approach is inspired by William Lane, who taught at Western Kentucky University, and with whom Card took classes. He is quoted as having said on multiple occasions, “We must engage the Scripture at the level of the informed imagination” (p.12). The reader is encouraged – and given resources to facilitate – our not merely reading the words on the page, not merely putting ourselves into the story, but reading in a way that fleshes out the details and connections between the story and the setting in time, place, culture, and faith which one can only reach by drawing on a deep knowledge of ancient Jewish literature. Card effectively uses his imagination not only to draw the reader of his book into the Gospel’s pages, but also into its world. As he writes (p.27), “The use of parenthetical device makes John wonderfully present in his Gospel. He is beside us as we are reading, explaining, giving us details his experience has taught him need to be provided. It makes it easy to imagine that we are sitting at John’s feet hearing not simply his rendition of the life of Jesus be experiencing his whisperings, his asides. His Gospel is more a living monologue than a written story.”

Card’s approach of “informed imagination” leads to moments of insight that are truly striking. He suggests that manna might literally be rendered “? !” (p.91). He notices that the greeting of Jesus after the resurrection, “peace to you,” is the equivalent of “hi” in English, while also indicating the need to applaud Thomas’ doubt more often (p.209). And his view of the mention of 153 fish fits with the explanation a student of mine offered of that detail (p.214).

Although Card sometimes reflects conservative assumptions which are open to challenge – e.g. that John son of Zebedee is the author of the work – on the whole, the commentary is a devotional one that draws heavily on scholarship which reflects the mainstream scholarly understanding, and not views that are unique to conservative Evangelical circles.  The Gospels are said to be testimonies rather than biographies (p.210), and the final chapter is said to be a later addition (pp.212-213). The Mandaeans are given a mention (p.34), and even though they are inaccurately said to be a group that “worships John the Baptist as the Messiah,” the very fact that they are mentioned in a relevant manner puts Card’s book ahead of most others. Appendices highlight major themes and the Gospel’s distinctive material. A bibliography provides recommendations of commentaries, other books, and articles.

The CD is in the folky style of contemporary Christian music that fans of Card’s music will recognize immediately. The album includes a re-recording of the much older songs Scribbling in the Sand and Stranger On The Shore, as well as new material. There are also a couple of instance of other vocalists contributing to songs, as well as Card himself.

Card has an amazing gift for turning Biblical stories into songs which capture the essence of the story, without being awkward because of an attempt to stick rigidly to Biblical wording, and without straying so far in the direction of creative retelling that the connection to the text is obscured.

Both the commentary and the songs are a great example of the exploration of the Biblical text with the imagination and with creativity. If the text has become something static and unengaging to you, I’d recommend a dose of Michael Card’s writing, whether as text or music. You may find yourself engaging and interpreting the text in ways different than he does. But I doubt Card would mind. His passion doesn’t seem to be to have people understand the text his particular way, but to dive in and explore it. Even though I suspect that Card and I are on somewhat different pages theologically at this point in my life, his music and words have been an important influence in my engagement with the Bible, and I hope that they will play a similar role for others.

 

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  • James Pate

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this. The church I attended before moving used Michael Card’s curricula for its Bible study group, and I agreed with some things that he said, while disagreeing with other things. It was interesting to see where he overlapped with liberal scholarship, and where he diverged from it. I’ve been thinking of reading some of his commentaries, particularly the ones on Mark and Matthew.