“DOODLING IN THE MARGINS”
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
April 23, 2017
So this will not surprise most of you, but I was never very good at staying focused on one thing in school. I was diagnosed with ADD in college and that helped some, but still, I have never been very good at staying focused. Because of this, if you go back and look at my notes and books from school, particularly high school, you will find one consistency between all of them. That is doodles. I would doodle all over them. I would make little geometric designs. I would write little thoughts or phrases about other stuff I was working on or thinking about. Sometimes I would make lists, like all the running backs for the Dallas Cowboys that I could remember, stuff that was generally unhelpful. Part of this was because I was often bored with the topic but it was also because I just couldn’t keep my mind focused.
One of the cures for this that I have found, as I have aged, is to doodle about the topic at hand. This actually helps me focus. If you ever see my agendas from a meeting, you will notice that I write all over them, and often stuff that is pretty obvious or redundant. Same when you look through a book I am reading for a class or something. There are lots of little words or phrases in the margins. These doodles, which are more focused, help me to keep my mind on the task at hand. Now, why do I bring up doodles? Well, it is because as an experienced doodler I think the last sentence of the Gospel of John looks to me less like a well thought out ending from the original author than it does like a doodle.
And it’s not just me, almost every serious scholar, well, almost every, thinks this sentence was an add-on. They almost universally believe that these are not the words of the beloved disciple, but instead one of his followers. If you want to know the tell, and it should be obvious once you think about it, it is the first person singular pronoun. When the writer suddenly references to herself as, “I” when she writes, “I suppose the world itself…”. That is almost certainly not John. John hasn’t written that way the entire time. This is somebody else. And it is somebody else who is not the most gifted of writers. Let’s explore, very briefly, what some recent scholars have had to say about this sentence. The German Catholic scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg wrote
“The affected sentence gives the impression that an ambitious writer still wanted to add a spirited conclusion…If this writer likewise belonged to the editorial circle, he was not its most capable person.”
Ouch. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for this little sentence. And so these criticisms seem to have gotten into the ether and we don’t really pay attention to this sentence. I have never preached on it. It is not prescribed in the lectionary. In fact, I have never heard or read a sermon on it, or seen it referenced in any theological work I’ve ever read. It just sort of hangs there. And that’s what happens to doodles. They mostly come to nothing. They aren’t the real text so why even deal with them.
But that’s a shame, really, because there is a lot to like about this particular doodle. First, there is a sweet naïveté to it. The hyperbole underlies a belief in the author in the grandness of the story of Jesus; belying an earnestness, “there is so much more to see with Jesus, y’all should come look!” Second, that pronoun just hangs there. The little “I” leads us back to this real person who may have just wanted to be included in the sweeping, literary masterpiece that is the Gospel of John. He has attached himself to some pretty good coat tails. And finally, there is the obvious implication that there is much more to the story of Jesus than we can find even in a Gospel as robust as this. There is so much more to Jesus’ story, and this is where this little doodle finds its real power.
Let me tell you what I mean. I’ve never really been into Elvis Presley but somehow I have visited Graceland not once but twice. I don’t really know how it happened except that on two occasions I have found myself in Memphis with nothing better to do. Well, one of the things you see is a roomful of Elvis’ books. The curators rotate different books through that room and the Elvis faithful can walk through and look at his books. And guess what’s in all the margins of every book? Doodles! Elvis was a doodler. He wrote all over these books. I remember the first time I went they had one of his Karate books on display. Elvis loved Karate, because of course he did, and the margins were full of little comments and thoughts. Doodles. And I have to admit, most of them were pretty inane. I don’t remember what he wrote, but I do recall Tasha and I reaching the consensus, based on these doodles, that it’s a good thing he could sing and dance because an academic career may not have been in his future. Anyway, who am I to judge, I filled margins with great OU defensive linemen.
But my real point is that what made those books worth seeing at Graceland, and the reason people lined up to see them was not because the books were so interesting but because Elvis’ doodles brought them to life. He had held those books. He had read them. He’d had thoughts about them. They’d affected him and shaped him in ways large and small. The doodles tell us that story. Just as the doodle at the end of John tells us that story of that one man whose life was so shaped that he believed that the entire world couldn’t hold all the books written about Jesus if everybody wrote down their stories.
And here is what we can see if we look closely. The Bible is, of course, a special book. There is nothing like it. But the stories of faith that compose our lives, the encounters we have with God, those are the doodles which bring this book to life. That time when you had a special experience in prayer, or when your faith led you to help someone you would have ordinarily ignored, or when you heard something in Sunday School that opened up God to you, or when a sermon changed a relationship you had with somebody, or when in a moment of grief a member of your church family held you, those are real stories which are scribbled all over the margins of this book. You may not be able to see them at first glance, but they are everywhere. Our lives, our stories, they are the little scribbles in the margins which bring the grand stories of the Gospels to life. Is the Gospel of John really so compelling if nobody alive could add their own stories to it? Of course not. Our stories aren’t canon, but they bring the canon richness and depth and beauty. They show that it is a living document and not some dusty old book.
And when we understand this. then we can understand what John’s little editor was getting at when he says, “There were many other things Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Jesus is still doing things and there are so many stories to tell that we can see this little fellow was correct. The story of Jesus is not a small one; it is a story so big that the world cannot contain it. Our lives are part of that story: the encounters we’ve had, the stories of grace and hope and peace and forgiveness and mercy and salvation. On their own, none are more than a little doodle in a margin, but when seen together they compose a book so large, so great, so rich in grace, that the world itself could not contain it. Pretty good…for a doodle. Amen.