Beloved Disciple, but not the Belovedest

by David W. Van Etten

Dave is the youngest contributor to "Meanderings." His insights are valuable, not just for their freshness, but because he brings a discernment and love that is so heartfelt, he breathes real life into the Jesus Teachings. This is what he wrote by way of introducing himself:

"My mother was a Sister of Loretto and my dad was a Jesuit before they met at the University of San Francisco during the summer of 1967 where they were both taking summer school classes. They left their religious orders, got married, and had a daughter--my sister, Mary Grace--and a son, me. My parents live in San Jose and run a home daycare center, affectionately called the Van Etten Zoo. My sister lives in San Jose with her husband Andy Miller and their two kids, Anna Marie and Jake; she works for the San Jose Sharks. I am finishing my last year of law school at Bolt Hall, the University of California at Berkeley. I continue to wrestle with the life lessons learned growing up at the Van Etten Zoo and the theological instincts I developed during my Jesuit education in college at Santa Clara University."


I recently picked up the Pope’s latest book about the historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, while I was recovering from knee surgery. At the time I was holed-up for a week in my girlfriend Abby’s apartment with my leg entombed in bandages and a machine-generated ice sleeve and a dramatic black brace. I was entirely dependent upon her care, which she gave generously. The room smelled like a bored invalid. I don’t know if it was the pain pills or the underlying pain, but I was ready for a sparring match with the theologian formerly known as Cardinal Ratzinger.

I didn’t intend to instigate another tussle with Abby.

“He knows each sheep by name, and they recognize the sound of his voice,” I shared with her, explicating a passage and elaborating on the Pope’s theory of love. The shepherd comes through the gate, while the robber hops the fence. The shepherd is responsible for the sheep, while the robber possesses the sheep like property. Benedict’s theory of love is a theory of belonging. I was actually quite taken with Benedict’s reflections—surprisingly so.

Abby responded, “What I fear about with all this talk of sheep is the blind following. I don’t see how Jesus’ sheep are any different than a dictator’s sheep.”

She was right, of course. Scriptural passages would usually raise the same interpretive suspicion in me.

But I was irritated that she wouldn’t join me on my afternoon reverie and enjoy the fleshiness of the particular passage: a shepherd naming his sheep and genuinely knowing the personality of each sheep; the sheep recognizing the sound of the shepherd’s voice when he calls their names. The shepherd hoisting the fleecy body of a stray across his shoulder, and carrying the weighty animal back to the fold.

“I feel like you are criticizing the way that I love again,” she said.

My irritation transitioned to mild fury, and I barked at Abby. Barked—that term appropriately fits the series of curt warnings with raised tenor that passed through my teeth. Why does my afternoon reading have to lead to our problems? Why can’t I just muse about Love-with-a-capital-L out loud and express my rare appreciation for something Benedict has to say? Why does it always have to be about us?

Of course, she was right again.

The last time I waxed philosophic about love, I directly criticized what I see, in these off moments, only as neediness. On that occasion, she had jokingly said to me, “Dave, do you love me?”—mimicking the way a stereotypical high-schooler might say, “Do you think I’m pretty?” But her joke didn’t seem entirely in jesther attention was focused intensely on my response—not just my verbal answer, but my exaggerated swoon. Then I stood on my soap-box, and informed her that our exchange made me feel a little awkward and sad. Why couldn’t she just love, without the constant reassurance of being loved?

The lover’s quarrel echoes a familiar theme in my life. My close relationships eternally return to the same impasse: we are special friends, but how special are we? I resist anyone trying to ascend too high in the intimacy ranks. I tell myself that I’d much prefer that everyone remained intimacy-equals, more or less, rather than creating separate classes of officers and grunts.

Perhaps I might flesh out the intimacy impasse by contrasting Benedict’s reflections on the Twelve Apostles with my own reflections on the Twelve Kids at my parents’ home-daycare business.

Pope Benedict makes an interesting move in Jesus of Nazareth: he argues that the Gospel of John is more historically authentic than the Synoptic Gospels because the Gospel of John is more beloved. He flips conventional wisdom—at least when “conventional” refers to my Jesuit-shepherded studies—on its head.

In the religious studies classes I took in college at Santa Clara University, the Synoptic Gospels Mark, Matthew, and Lukewere considered more historically authentic, in part, because they were composed closer to the events of Jesus’ life and death. Since they were written only a couple generations after the events they describe, the accounts were more reliable. One is reminded of the childhood game of “Telephone,” whispering a long phrase into the ear next to you and watching the message whispered around the room. By the time the message returns to you, the words and the meaning of the message has changed amusingly. The Gospel of John, written a generation later than the Synoptic Gospels, must have morphed similarly, according to critical historicism.

Further, the Synoptic Gospels seem more authentic, more Jewish, more folkish, less contrived, and the Synoptic Gospels agree overwhelmingly with each other. Meanwhile, the Gospel of John seems more Greek and theological and different, with all of its talk of Logos and its redaction of Synoptic events. Teachers often explained the Gospel of John as a hybrid account, marrying the simple Synoptic story with something philosophically interesting but alien—something neo-Platonic and Gnostic.

Benedict, in contrast, asserts that the Gospel of John is actually more authentic because it carries the wisdom of Jesus’ beloved disciple, John. Essentially, John was party to more late-night conversations with Jesus, and held a closer confidence and intimacy with Jesus than the other Eleven Apostles. The Apostles John and James were sons of Zebedee, who owned the Jerusalem apartment in which the Last Supper was held. John sat at Jesus’ side, the place reserved for the host or the host’s eldest son. Thus, John was not only closer to Jesus, he was also Jesus’ host.

What does this matter? Benedict argues that John was a better eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life: his intimacy and his customary relationship made John privy to more of Jesus’ public and private works. John had ordinary conversations with Jesus, if any conversation with Jesus was ordinary, and better understood Jesus’ internal debates.

Further, Benedict argues that the apparent "Greekness" of the Gospel of John can actually be understood as a combination of two authentic factors, rather than evidence of foreign influence. First, John came from a very learned and priestly class. We should not be confused by John’s fisherman occupation. His father, according to the Benedict was also a Galileean fisherman who employed many other subordinates; and his father was also a priest who regularly attended his ministerial duties in Jerusalem, like many other prominent priests. Thus, the learnedness of the Gospel of John isn’t necessarily "Greekness", but instead high-priestly Jewishness. Second, the philosophical lyricism of the Gospel of John may be understood as containing genuine vestiges of the late-night conversations held between Jesus and John. Rather than alien thought transposed onto the Jesus narrative, the flights of Logos may actually be Jesus talk and Jesus thought interspersed with the Jesus narrative.

Although the Apostle John did not write the Gospel of John, Benedict argues that Apostle John’s intimate wisdom was carried intact to publication. Apostle John’s own beloved disciple, John the Presbyter, acted as a trustee to the special eye-witness account until that account was written and broadcast to the world. One is reminded of the genealogical relationship between Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. Don’t we accept that Aristotle has an authentic understanding of the Socratic theory of knowledge, even though Aristotle’s writings are different than and temporally distant from Socrates? Similarly, can’t we posit that the Gospel of John has an authentic relationship to the historical Jesus and his theory of love, despite the generational differences and distances?

My response to Benedict’s reflections about John, the beloved disciple, cut two ways. On the one hand, I really like the idea of beloved discipleship. It is a wonderful way to re-read the New Testament and re-relate to each other.

On the other hand, I really don’t like the Pope’s recurrent need to highlight "belovedest" relationships. Benedict doesn’t use the term “belovedest,” but I think it aptly fits the awkward tendency toward superlatives in the Pope’s thought. Jesus is not only the new Moses, but he is also the most Moses-est man in all human history. John is not only the beloved disciple, but he is also the beloved-est disciple—logically diminishing the beloved quality of everyone else who came into contact with Jesus.

It’s as though Benedict just doesn’t get it. Obsessing about superlatives and special-ness reveals an uncertainty about the underlying relationship. When I need to be the most loved I am concerned about being loved at all. One feels that the Pope protesteth too much.

When Jesus was asked if he was the Son of God, what was his response? He said his Father was the greater; he washed his disciples' feet, saying we should do the same.

My sister and I were raised in a home-daycare center, the family business that my parents called the Van Etten Zoo. We were licensed to care for twelve children; and over the past three decades, we have cared for an ever-rotating group of twelve. Some children arrive at six in the morning and leave the house at six at night. Some arrive as infants and don’t leave until junior high school.

My sister and I never harbored any doubt of our parents’ love. That said, my parents tried very hard not to give us any special treatment or mark us out as different. I am sure this was difficult at times, and only varyingly successful. The Twelve Kids knew that my sister and I remained in the house, even after they left in the evenings. They knew the rooms they napped in were “Mary Grace’s room” or “David’s room.”

But I also feel in my heart of hearts that the Twelve Kids did not belong differently than my sister and I. There were not two classes of beloved and belovedest in the household.

My mom knows each of us by name.

She literally remembers names. A few years ago, a woman named Denise Bissonnette contacted my mom out of the blue, saying my mom was her teacher in Kankakee, Illinois forty years ago when my mom was still a nun with the Sisters of Loretto. My mom’s immediate response: “Oh yes, Denise, you had an older brother named Andy, and an older sister named Mary, and two more older brothers named Tommy and Eddy, and a younger sister named Michelle.”

More metaphorically, my mom genuinely knows our names. She knows each child’s personality and routine. She knows the parents or the creative family that raise the child at home. She knows the teachers’ temperaments and the seasonal swings of each school-year. She knows each trouble, each comfort, each joy. My mom strikes me as the very hub of neighborhood life, the person who anchors a thousand different lives. It defies description. My mom understands how each child loves differently and how each child needs to be loved differently in turn.

We recognize the sound of my dad’s voice.

We literally recognize his voice. When my dad sneezes it’s like the firmament of the house shakes: “Yaaaah-HOO.” And when my dad calls your name, because its lunchtime, or because your parent just arrived to pick you up—I don’t care if you’re playing in the farthest reaches of the backyard, busy on a swing—you come running to that voice.

More metaphorically, we genuinely recognize the sound of my dad’s voice. He guides the Twelve, in form and in substance. Formally, my dad is a father figure to the kids, sometimes the primary male role model in their lives. Substantially, the kids listen for and respond to his guidance. I watch it and marvel. The way the kids relate to my dad reminds one of pack dynamics in the wild. They gravitate toward him when he walks in the room. Some kids butt heads with my dad because they are not sure how to relate to a caring man they respect. When my dad unexpectedly laughs, or sings a line from a song, or cheers enthusiastically for a sporting triumph, the room quickly fills with looks of wonder.

There was only one instance in the history of the Van Etten Zoo when we contemplated expelling a child from our services—many, many years ago. The boy was about as disruptive as you can imagine. The energy of the household tightened when he entered the room. He yelled at the other kids. He yelled at my parents. His mom and step-dad were distant even when they were standing in front of you. My parents told them they simply couldn’t do it any longer. My parents said they just couldn’t take care of the boy.

Later that summer evening, as night fell, my parents walked over to the boy’s house and asked his mom if she would bring the boy back to the daycare. He returned the next day. Every few years that boy returns to our house and visits for a couple hours. Each visit he submits a new photograph of himself—and more recently, of himself and his wife and his baby—to place on the wall of photographs in the kitchen, replacing the photograph submitted during his previous visit.

My parents sat and listened as I described my lover’s quarrel with Abby, my perception that she always needs to be the belovedest. Love was not a quid pro quo, I complained. I didn’t know how to continue maintaining her well-being indefinitely.

We all want to experience unconditional love, said my dad. We all want the self to disappear from the way that we love and the way that we are loved. But life only gives us a little taste of unconditional love every now and then. “Like appetizers,” said my mom.

And then the two of them opened up about their own relationship and the daily work that goes into its maintenance. I knew my parents had disagreements. But I was rarely privy to the internal dynamics of their relationship: how they communicated with each other; how they addressed the differences that could be addressed, and accepted the differences that needed to be accepted. Their late-night conversations always took place out of ear-shot, so to speak. But now, understanding my relationship challenges, they shared more about their own.

People have different ways of loving and being loved. Even one’s parents.

What I realized was that the differences between Abby and I could not be wholly attributed to our family backgrounds. Some were universal differences between men and women. Some were unique differences between the two of us, each of us strange, each of us alone.

What I realized was we are each stray hearts—insecure, stubborn, lost. Your loved ones call you by name, nudge you back to the fold, and remind you that you belong. You get hoisted onto a shoulder and carried back through the gates.

 

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