I have a love-hate relationship with language like this. I love how it makes me feel to read the sentence aloud: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Just the sound of the words—the repetition of the word word and the same plain syntax (three reversed was statements joined by and)—operates as an invitation into mystery. John’s sentence is the only passage of scripture—except maybe “Jesus wept”—that I have memorized without expressly setting out to do so. Something about it is fundamentally appealing and simple. Indeed, it’s so straightforward that, unlike most of scripture, it's is pretty much identical across the translations. Somehow, the words just seem to want to be said and kept.
That said, the sentence has always frustrated me. The way philosophers often frustrate me. And some artists. And many theologians. Just say what you mean and be done with it, I want to tell them. Or don’t say it at all.
I mean, if John was talking about Jesus, why didn’t he say Jesus? It would make things so much clearer. Jesus existed from the beginning and was with God and was God. Done. No consideration of the various permutations of the word logos in biblical Greek. No long discussions of the timeless Greek form of the repeated was, as compared to the poor simple past tense in which we must house it in English. Instead, a clear-cut declaration of Jesus’ participation in the creation of the universe.
Or maybe it doesn’t mean that at all. Maybe, as some suggest, this is just John’s way of introducing the big story of Jesus on time on earth. Forget the sentence’s reverberations with the first words of scripture: In the beginning… Focus, instead, on the vagaries of John’s next words—“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (TNIV)—where weird preposition use (how, exactly, does one make something through someone else?) and passive voice call Jesus’ actual participation in the creation into question. The word, here, seems not to be the Creator himself but merely a vehicle of God’s efforts. But then, if that were so, how could it be that the word also was God?
Kris likes the ambiguity of John’s opening sentence.
“It’s like poetry,” he told me. “It’s not so much the meaning that matters as how it makes you feel.”
The students in my poetry workshop are of the same opinion about poetry. I told them the other day that part of their job in responding to one another’s poems was to report if something didn’t make sense.
“But why’s that a bad thing? I like poems that don’t make sense,” one of them remarked.
I tried to differentiate bad lack of clarity from good ambiguity—with my usual lack of success. This fight happens in every poetry workshop I teach, and it only gets worse as the semester progresses. Often, those who write the clearest and most concrete and best poems are the ones most steadfastly dedicated to everyone else’s right to be vague and abstract and meaningless.
I had my students' upcoming first poems in mind as Kris went on about the poetic quality of John’s sentence.
“Then you’re saying it doesn’t mean anything?” I asked him.
“No, I think it means something. That God’s message existed from the beginning. His plan. That Jesus was God’s plan all along.”
“And that Jesus was there with God the Father. At the creation.”
“Well, yes, I guess. After all, Jesus calls himself the Word.”
And the Bread, I could have told him. And the Gate. And the Shepherd. And the Vine. Fodder for generations of theologians and songwriters.