Book Review

Robert Kysar, Preaching John. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002. 252 pp., paperback. ISBN: 0-8006-3226-5. $18.00.

Much of Robert Kysar's professional career has been devoted to John's gospel. From his provocative John, the Maverick Gospel (1976) to the present mature volume, the Bandy Professor at Chandler School of Theology (Emory University) has reviewed and reconstructed scholarship on this gospel in order to make it accessible to a modern audience. Kysar has included homiletic suggestions and examples in this book (even sermons from his wife, Myrna) in order to underscore his title. Kysar is dependent on the sterling work of Raymond Brown (his "Preface" pays tribute to the late Professor from Union Seminary in New York) in his revolutionary commentary on the fourth gospel in the Anchor Bible series. But beyond Brown, Kysar is conversant with recent narrative approaches to this wonderful gospel: Culpepper, Duke, O'Day, Staley, Stibbe, Talbert are found in the bibliography. (One significant omission is the powerful work of George Mlakuzhyil, The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel [1987].)

Hence we have an up-to-date review of scholarship on the gospel of John. The book even focuses on recent scholarly discussion so as to bring the contemporary pastor abreast of Johannine research. Here is the strong suit of this volume (the latest in the "Fortress Resources for Preaching" series). Kysar succinctly summarizes recent discussions so that the modern preacher may get up to speed with Johannine reflections. Metaphor, irony, symbolism, dualism, narrative patterning: all are investigated, discussed and illustrated from John's work. Footnotes point to more detailed treatment for those interested in digging further. In all, this aspect of the book is very helpful. If a pastor wants a once over lightly of contemporary discussion on John's gospel, this book fits the bill.

Kysar treats the bulk of the gospel in the main portion of his book (pp. 1-174); an additional chapter ("Fragments of Texts," pp. 175-217) fills in gaps omitted. The reason for the twofold structure is due to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Kysar has adjusted the first part of his work to the texts from John chosen for the lectionary; "Fragments" picks up some pieces omitted from the lectionary calendar.

Each section or subsection of the book includes a sermon or sermon fragment in which the reader discovers Kysar applying the theory of penetrating John's text to the practice of proclaiming that text to a modern audience. Much of this bridge building between John's community and our own is predictable liberalism: poverty, racism, multiculturalism, militarism, "America" as failure. John's text is used to bully pulpit these favorite agenda issues of contemporary socio-political liberalism. If one needs an example of fundamentalism of the left politicizing the gospel/pulpit, here it is. Kysar's rants against "conservative/traditional" America are profoundly illiberal—no left-wing agendas are criticized, for instance. Herein Kysar cannot rise above his own horizon: he himself is a social, theological and political liberal. John serves his (Kysar's) agenda.

But this is precisely what Kysar believes he must do. Since John's gospel is an interpretation of an interpretation (i.e., John is promoting his own agenda, p. 8), Kysar simply follows in his train. Given the premise that the gospel writer is reconstructing (or, more modernly, deconstructing) the Jesus event, Kysar reconstructing the reconstruction (or deconstructing the deconstruction) is perfectly reasonable. Of course, this means that there is no final truth in John's story of Jesus—only "truth" to be apprehended by man/woman in his/her shifting perception of "truth." As truths change, John's voice will change. If Kysar makes John sound like a member of the Democratic party that is because Kysar is (likely) a member of the Democratic party.

Hence the sermonic pieces in this volume ring with the calls to social justice, involvement in poverty and anti-racism. It is as if Kysar has not made it beyond the 60's—but perhaps that is where he truly lives. His golden age is the halycon decade of King, Kennedy and the Berrigan brothers.

There are moments when Kysar asks his audience/reader to "enter into" John's story of Jesus and "claim [it] as [our] own story" (p. 6), but this means that John's gospel is shaped to a 20th/21st century milieu. Kysar's dialectics change "eternal life" into present "quality of life" (pp. 71, 75); John's "Logos" is an "alien" Christology (pp. 14, 180)—paradoxical and pluralistic, not metaphysical (i.e., Logos may not be equated with deity or a person of the Godhead); "faith" is an existential "leap" (pp. 67-68)—with a dutiful nod to Rudolf Bultmann; Christ's passion is "love," not atonement; "judgment" is present/ imminent, not eternal/permanent.

The majesty of John's soaring gospel (from heaven and to heaven) is gutted by Kysar's reimaging of John's imagery. Always the present, the horizontal, the earthly for Kysar; never the eternal, the vertical, the heavenly. Kysar's understanding of John's world is that it was invented (p. 40) in order to enable John's readers/hearers to live in their world. Kysar simply continues the inventive story for his readers/hearers. Sadly, the sermon pieces illustrating our author's homiletic application could have been written by many contemporary Reformed and evangelical preachers. The pieces are relevant—about the earth and life on the earth, not about life in metaphysical union with the (Son of) God of heaven and heaven's arena, reflected/witnessed in the earthly realm. There are catchy stories, movie illustrations, poignant life situations, directions to look to Jesus in these pieces, but the Jesus to whom Kysar directs is an invention—a re-invention—a continuous re-invention in the image of the church's current cultural context.

When we put his book down, for all of its summary, scholarly insights, we are left not with John's story of Jesus, but with Robert Kysar's story of Robert Kysar.

—James T. Dennison, Jr.