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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 60, 2012

DOROTHY A. LEE, Hallowed in Truth and Love: Spirituality in the Johannine Literature (Melbourne: Mosaic Press, 2011). Pp. 268. Paperback. $34.95.

I read this book in Mississippi, a place with its own pathos-laden spirituality, sitting—quite literally—under a fig tree, wondering what to expect from a study of spirituality in biblical texts. Dorothy A. Lee assumed the role of Philip to my Nathanael, inviting me to ‘come and see.’ It’s an ambiguity Lee anticipates and addresses at the outset, identifying three ways in which the scope of such a study might be understood: in relation to the content of the biblical text; in terms of a reader’s transformative connection with the text; and as a way of living informed by the text—what Richard Hooker might have called a ‘Scripture-informed spirit.’

Of these, the author’s primary focus is the spirituality that emerges from the Johannine writings themselves. She offers a biblical definition of spirituality as “the role of the [Holy] Spirit in engagement with the human spirit,” where spirituality is understood to be “part of the substance of Scripture and not simply a matter of its application” (11). Lee’s discussion of the rightful place of any discourse on spirituality within the field of biblical studies—or theology more generally—may be frustratingly brief (at just under four pages) for readers wanting some further persuading on this point. Adducing the work of Sandra Schneiders, among others, her own position in this respect is clearly stated, if not fully argued, with the extensive endnotes to the Introduction providing ample resources should this prior question linger.

Lee’s is very much a text-centred approach; one that draws unselfconsciously upon all of the advances in literary-critical techniques of recent decades, yet without abandoning more strictly historical-critical concerns, or the likely rhetorical impact of these writings on their first audiences. That said, the book is structured thematically, which serves the author’s purposes far better rather than would being governed by the flow of the narrative or admonition. Part 1, for example, on the Gospel of John, includes chapters on Spirituality and the Word, Worship, the Spirit-Paraclete, Absence, Discipleship, the Senses. Central to the theology of the Fourth Gospel, Lee demonstrates from the outset that the Word is also its spiritual heart: a communication of God’s very self that invites the world to share in the creative and redemptive intimacy of that filial relationship whereby the Son narrates the Father, such that speech and deed are one, and what is said cannot be separated from how it is said in the flesh of Christ.

As the woman at the well discovers, this self-disclosure serves as both lamp and mirror, illuminating and reflecting the human condition in its hunger and thirst for life and its tragic enslavement to sin and darkness. In turn, other characters in the Gospel come to worship at the divinely ordained temple of the incarnate Word, with Jesus himself at once an object of worship and true worshipper, hallowing the community of faith as it is gathered into his communion with the Father, as signified in the cross: “his worshipful exaltation to the Father’s side, the ultimate prayer of his human life” (251). Worship is thus shown to be intrinsic to Johannine spirituality, as a corporate and corporeal response to being drawn into this circle of love. There is a sacramental world-view here: encountering “the invisible through the visible, spirit through matter, glory through flesh” (31), but never as cheap grace. With its source in the Spirit of truth, worship is concerned with truth-telling—about God and humanity—truthfulness that includes a properly hermeneutical dimension, as the Gospel is constantly interpreted under the Spirit’s emboldening guidance.

Which is not to say worship ought not be beautiful, as Lee’s reading of Revelation in Part 2 makes clear. Indeed, its attractiveness is part of the prophetic, counter-cultural critique that the imagery of worship delivers in the Apocolypse, where the Spirit represents the Church’s mission as gate-keeper of the heavenly city, not to keep its gates closed, but to keep them open, to offer welcome and hospitality to those outside—a poignant image to reflect upon in Mississippi, as in our own context. Again, this is not some anodyne, self-indulgent piety: “Sacred ritual is not a delicacy to be enjoyed by aesthetes in the Book of Revelation … True worship indicates where the heart lies; it becomes the foundation for radical action” (227), which includes an ecological dimension.

The interpenetration of biblical theology and biblical spirituality is again evident in Lee’s treatment of the Johannine Epistles, also in Part 2, along with the shift in starting point. As in Part 1 where, rather than present a ‘Johannine theodicy,’ Lee draws us into the community’s experience of divine absence, so here she describes how “[s]piritual encouragement, moral exhortation, pastoral care, and theological instruction go hand-in-hand … all of it directed to the lived experience of the believers” (201).

The implied author of the Letters, probably responding to docetic influences dividing the community, offers an “emphatic proclamation of a tangible and palpable reality” (203), which must issue in the concreteness of the believers’ mutual love—love which does not prevent or erase suffering, but which casts out associated fear and dread, resting securely in what has been heard and seen and touched of God’s love in Christ. There is a profoundly relational dimension in the writer’s appeal, through the use of caritative language, which unites the affective and the cognitive components inherent in both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. The specificity of the pastoral, ecclesial and theological issues addressed in these various texts is duly honoured by Lee in this well-sustained account of their resonance. In the end, perhaps what binds them most in terms of things of the spirit is a function of reader-response. For all their diversity of provenance and genre, in each of these Johannine writings “the five senses are roused … enabling the reader to grasp the incarnational texture of salvation” and to encounter an integrative spirituality that “sees the body, not as incidental but essential, the means of redemption: the salvation of flesh by flesh” (192).

Review by
MCD University of Divinity, Kew VIC 3101