3 John

William Blake, The Ghost of a Flea, c.1819-20

The Third Epistle of John, the shortest book in the New Testament, is tucked away in a sort of water meadow between the towering peaks of St. Paul’s dialectical masterpieces and the terrifying bog of Revelations. The John letters, 1, 2 and 3, come after James’s letter—which attracted Luther’s scorn—and First and Second Peter.

No one knows who the John is who wrote it, nor precisely to whom it is written, one Gaius, or Caius. The writer calls himself simply Elder, and the members of the Christian community, for which he has some overseeing responsibility, he calls friends—an unusual formulation in the New Testament.

There is a dodgy fellow the friends are to beware of: a certain Diotrephes, who is boastful and unruly and, it seems, given to tweeting, or, as the Elder puts it, “prating against us with malicious words.” Against Diotrephes, the Elder recommends the example of the good Demetrius. He commends the friends’ charity toward strangers.

I thought of this sketchy but suggestive little history recently when in the space of a week I received contrasting communications, through a network of former classmates. One expressed, with dark portentousness, the belief that Obama had been a closet Muslim intent on banishing Christian prayers. The other delighted in recovering a tape of a sermon by one of our teachers, the Rev. Milton Wells, in which he lamented the growing materialism of the times. This was from 1958.

I find my old Bible. (A small leather-bound Eyre & Spottiswoode innocent of all commentary or other helps. It is now nicely soft and scuffed.) A sharp recollection arises from its India-paper pages. From that very year of 1958.

It was my last year at seminary, and seniors were expected to play an active role in chapel and other devotional and improving occasions. I think it was a Saturday morning, breakfast in the dining hall, always sparsely attended. It was my turn to read some scripture and say a few words before prayers. The lesson I chose was 3 John, in its entirety only 14 verses. I forget what it was I said on that day. I do remember the effect on me, in preparing that homily, of the line from verse 11, “He that doeth good is of God.”

From that moment I came to believe that the whole evangelistic enterprise was foolish and immoral, a tissue of dishonesty and manipulation. From there it was only a short step to the Personalism of William James and Edgar Brightman. I had the idea at that stage that God, being a person, was just making it up as he went along, like the rest of us—on a learning curve, we would now say—and so could use help from anyone “that doeth good.”

Hermann Hesse, 1877–1962

Now today a long, long way even from that half-way house and I am re-reading Hermann Hesse’s future utopia, The Glass Bead Game, and have arrived at the point where the hero, Joseph Knecht, is offered the mission to effect a reconciliation or concordat between Castalia and Mariafels, between Magister Ludi and Benedictine, between the house of science, reason and art and the house of religion, and I feel an affinity with Hesse, pilgrim and seeker, child himself of a strict Swabian Pietism, writing hopefully in the shadow of catastrophe. Not unlike the Elder of 3 John. “He that doeth good is of God.”