'Fourth Witness' by Kit Widdows. Published by Writersworld. (Enstone, Oxon.) 2004. £8.50 pbk. 173 pages. ISBN 1904181222Reviewed by Stephen Mitchell. Stephen is a SoF trustee and author of 'God in the Bath: Relaxing in the Everywhere Presence of God'
Fourth Witness stands in a long and honourable tradition. From medieval mystery plays to contemporary films like The Passion of Christ artists have used their imagination to bring the gospels to life and to re-examine them.
Itís a tradition that is easy to despise. After all, as Albert Schweitzer observed, people use the gospels as a mirror for their own beliefs. But then the very gospels themselves must, to some degree at least, have been the product of the evangelistsí creativity and beliefs.
For some people this means an end to the quest for the historical Jesus. For myself, the God of Jesus was never to be found in historical fact or figures but through the imaginative retelling of the stories of faith. For Kit Widdows, the author of Fourth Witness, it is more complicated. Kit works in a busy city parish. He also works with his Diocesan Board for Mission and Social Responsibility. The writer of Johnís Gospel is his hero and he wants his Jesus to be known and accessible to 21st century readers:
I said that my hero was the writer of John, but in truth, the hero is Jesus. I want him to escape the straitjacket that has been placed upon him by much Christian worship and pious Bible reading, and for us to see him again as his friends and opponents saw him. If this Jesus offends you, then I am sorry for it, but then again, it wonít be the first time he has done that. p. 166
Johnís Gospel is traditionally dated later than those of Matthew, Mark and Luke. These first three gospels not only have a great deal in common, they clearly use a common source. Kit, along with some scholars, believes that Johnís Gospel contains an early, alternative and authentic witness to Jesus. Fourth Witness opens in the Upper Room and the washing of the disciples feet:
Jesus was fidgeting. This was uncomfortable, as I was leaning against him on the couch. It was not surprising, after the stress of the last few days, never knowing whether we would suddenly be engulfed in a hail of stones or arrested by the police. But it was unusual. I still felt a sense of strong self-assurance from him, a curious and uncomfortable peace, but at the same time he was tense and edgy.
Then with one of his swift and decisive movements, and with less than half an apology to me as I had to save myself from falling, he was on his feet and taking off his cloak. p. 3.
Itís a clever and effective decision to hang the whole tale of the gospel around the passion story, cutting back to the earlier events as the narrator recalls them. Itís also true to the gospels, the greater part of each being the passion narrative. Equally effective is the decision to have John tell his story in the first person. I marvelled at the authorís ability to get across so much of the historical detail behind the original text without it grinding down the pace of the story.
Johnís Gospel is also one of the most self-consciously theological of the gospels. Its construction depends heavily upon the great 'I am' sayings and the long discourses given to Jesus. How can these be got across to a 21st century audience? Sometimes I felt Kit succeeded brilliantly as with his depicting of the 'I am the vine' conversation and the discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well. At other times, I felt the sheer difficulty of bringing the imagery into anything like 21st century thought was too much:
'Hear then the word of truth;' (that smile was on his lips again) 'You ate bread and were full, and think it wonderful. You failed to see beyond the bread. Donít go chasing after dead bread. You will be hungry again tomorrow. Come and listen and I will tell you about Godís own bread. Be open to what I can give you. Indeed it comes from God whose ambassador I am.'
But this doesnít detract from the bookís value. People and practitioners of faith have the task of approaching the same stories afresh week by week, year by year. They do not look for a one true, eternal, message of the story, but at how this story is speaking to their present situation. For them the gospel must live and speak with new life and power each time it is read. Kitís book provides a valuable resource for them.
I also commend this book to those who havenít read Johnís Gospel for a while. Not only would they be surprised at just how radical Johnís Jesus is but also appreciate some of the problems of making sense of this ancient text.
Kit Widdows, Vice Chair of Sea of Faith Trustees, sadly died in December 2007.