Book Review: the Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, Crossing Over Into God by L. William Countryman
by Peter Menkin 1/20/2009 / Book Reviews
Excellent book about John's Gospel; englightenment and the mystical way
Enlightenment in Christ, a mystical sense of the cosmos, an exegesis of the Fourth Gospel (John's) are all some of the things that make this book by L. William Countryman a useful and imaginative text of the Bible. The full title of the work includes, "Crossing Over into God" which gives one the idea that entering into a life that is capable of following a path to mystical union and also as a writing "preserve the outward form of a 'life' of Jesus" becomes for the believer a warm and rewarding goal. Albeit more acheivable and perhaps even held by more people of the Christian faith than know it, they may be enlightened, yet interested in or wishing to be introduced to a theology that is so available.
Before writing in this review about the definition of these spiritual matters, well defined in L. William Countryman's book right from the beginning, here is a sense of the way the book is constructed. Divided into sections, the work takes on the life of Jesus as described in John with subjects like "Conversion," "Baptism," "Eucharist," "Enlightenment," New life," "Union I, II, III," and an "Epilogue." One can see that this introduction of the life of Jesus allows the reader to discover in the Christian Way that Jesus "...has already ascribed to the logos a glory far greater than that of any miracle worker--'glory as of an only child from the father'. Now he tells us that Jesus 'revealed his glory' through the sign, meaning that the same note of unique access to God is again struck here." For this reader, this kind of consideration began to lead him to recognize that there were large and enormous meanings for living life attributed in the mystical way, and that enlightenment is attainable. Something not always so common in its statement about Christianity in these times.
This quote from the introduction explains enlightenment: "...an experience of things or persons outside myself as direct and unmediated as my experience of myself is." The author, in going through the book of John, tells the story of the blind man whose site is restored. This is a world rebuilding event for the blind man, and it suggests a new understanding of the world (cosmos) and the beginning of a new life and relationship that was out of joint with God, as Christ offered. So the book exposits. Regarding the blind man who can see: "The experience of mystical enlightenment is precisely this kind of world-shattering and world rebuilding event, which grounds our view of the world no longer in tradition or intellectual or religious systems, but in the unshakeable recollection of an immediate, personal encounter with ultimate reality."
For me, this was a dramatic statement. In part, so dramatic because as I read along I read the idea that the change was not a "thunderbolt" like President George Bush had when he stopped drinking, or a supernatural healing like one might have heard about that was a miraculous kind that ended a cancer. Though there is the miracle aspect, and the healing aspect, it was more a quieter experience resulting from realization that there is new life in the living a life in Christ. Perhaps "New Life" should be capitalized.
Another note of the author's is that the universe, or even the world, are part of a larger existance than creation, a cosmos of greatest scope. Christ is the logos, the ultimate part of this scene, a creator and existant before of the cosmos. My intent in this review is to acknowledge this observation by the author, and to say it is The Reverend Countryman's theme that Christ as logos has brought the cosmos to relationship with itself and God. "Jesus is the only link between and creation..." This is the new reality. Making water into wine at Cana "...is indeed a sign of Jesus' authority--not only of the ability to work miracles but of the ultimate, creative authority of the logos who substitutes grace and truth for Law."
One must like this kind of book to read it and enjoy it, for it does take on subject and inspiration which needs to be a taste for the reader. Another taste the reader is required to have is a taste for a book that is both about the Bible and also one that is theologically oriented. L. William Countryman is a teacher at Church Divinity School of the Pacific of The New Testament. So the reader must have both an interested in and a taste for The New Testament to enjoy this book, with a special interest in John.
The writer of the book is a believer who wishes to introduce and bring others to belief, while at the same time expounding his interpretation of the Bible. Of the book of John, he writes: "The language is deliberately mysterious. There is no intention to clarify matters. Indeed, for the enlightened, there is no need. Jesus is, in the last analysis, all there is for human beings." Not your average statement, is it?
When telling the story of Lazarus being brought back to life, the writer makes a short, but important point. "The power and authority of Jesus are such that he is life--and no one associated with him can possibly be deprived of what he is..." (Here is that statement that I found so telling:) "...Death may seem to supervene, but it is not the ultimate reality."
Please note that the Bible texts are those of the writer, L. William Countryman, who translated from the Greek. This is a scholarly work. The publisher of this book, Trinity Press International, has published other works by the author. In expressing what I think of the Bible text as published here, I thought it readable and helpful to the commentary and interpretation. Another reviewer (The Living Church) has said, "Countryman offers what he calls both an 'act of scholarship' and an 'act of prayer..." I thought the book a prayerful book, but more it is one with a sense of reverence.
I like that the book ends with "Epilogue," John 20:30-31:
"So, then, Jesus did many other signs, too, in the presence of his disciples which have not been written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the anointed, the son of God, and so that, as you believe, you may have life in his name."
The theological school where the author teaches, located in Berkeley, must be pleased to have so clear a thinker as The Reverend Countryman. So I add my small voice to those of many others who believe him to be a good writer and an asset to his school, which is located in the area of Northern California where I live. Hence, I am interested in what he writes perhaps a little more than someone who would be far away. But I want to say in this review, that you as a reader will find this a worthwhile book regardless where you live, especially if you have an interest in the Bible, the Fourth Gospel of John's, or in the subject of living a life more in Christ.
The book says that believers go through a series of stages, not unlike those used as chapters to bring us through John. What "...does it mean in human terms, to 'believe'?" There is conversion, baptism, eucharist, enlightenment, new life and union. "In union...one passes beyond believing into knowing; and this knowing is everything Jesus had to give--that is, it is the same as love and everlasting life." The writer concludes his book with the statement that one may have life in his name, that returning to the father is what one does, and in so doing a person becomes one with him and with God, "...and with all who have acknowledged that they belong to him."
Do I as a reviewer believe that the Christian Way includes this path outlined by L. William Countryman? I am so inclined. Others may enjoy and learn from his interpretation of The New Testament book by John, though not so engaged by mystical union and enlightenment as their norm or ambition in living a Christian life. The book was not written as an argument to convince others to live the Christian Way in a certain manner, but as an introduction to those prayerful considerations, yet mostly as a clearly composed and interestingly presented text about the Fourth Gospel. One comes again to the book' title, perhaps unusual to many, when he says "Crossing Over into God." I think this is the consideration that the author offers us as a reader--at least for me. "Crossing Over into God:" We do this in life, we do this in death. One comes to Him and through him to the Father, which is the proposal of the book with its story of Christ's life and the human part in it.
Peter Menkin -- Epiphany 2006
Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA where he writes poetry. He is an Oblate of Immaculate Heart Hermitage, Big Sur, CA and that means he is a Camaldoli Benedictine. He is 64 years of age as of 2010.