Novak (novak) wrote,

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Personal: A Student Challenges Me

It's great to see a student who is willing to rise up and argue a point with me already at the freshman level. I had a really cool exchange of letters the last few days by a student who wanted to take issue with a passing comment I'd made in an assignment about my reckoning the Gospel of John as the most influential or consequential text in human history. Such a reckoning is of course beyond us in any certain way, but it's just satisfying as an instructor to see a student really getting into a tussle with the ideas and willing to try to draw implications from it....
Hello there,  [...]

On an unrelated note, I would like to dispute your assertion that John's gospel is the most influential work ever written. John draws extensively, particularly in his prologue, from Genesis, Wisdom and the Old Testament in general. Would that not then make the Old Testament more influential? (I also have a theory about the 'word' and 'wisdom.' - interchangable? is Jesus the male incarnation of the word to 'lady wisdom?). I would argue that the Old Testament is more influential. I'd also throw out the following as among the most influential: The Koran, Analects by Confucious, The Art of War, The Republic, Confessions (Augustine), Confessions (Rousseau), Lives (Plutarch - for some reason one of my favorite books...) Summa Theologicae (Aquinas), 95 Theses (Luther - not a book, but just as powerful), John Locke's Social Compact Theory, Marx on Communism, and I think the most influential book of the 20th century, although some would say it was poorly written by a former paper hanger, was Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler. It's largely ignored due to its racist, fascist and ultimately evil twists, but the propaganda espouses was ingeniously put together, although the charisma of the author contributed to its success. I received a suspicious glance when i checked it out from the library. I'd argue that its better people know the history and its arguements so as not to repeat it rather than shelve it because its offensive.

Wow...I honestly intended to just ask for the date of our final. Talk about a sidetrack. Well, none the less, there you go, my list of most influential books.

I'll see you in class, Thanks!


     Cool note, A.
     2)  "Influential" is definitely a judgment call: I certainly agree with you on that.  This might actually be an interesting discussion or issue to raise in class, even though I didn't intend for the claim I was making to be that important for the purpose of the class, really.  But I would throw out half of the texts you mention – all the Modern ones – as being too recent to have had the kind of broad influence I'm thinking of.  
Mein Kampf I wouldn't call influential at all: Nazism would have happened and been just the same without it – the book itself didn't influence events; it was merely symptomatic of them.  The 95 Thesis, too, are too specific in their scope to be influential as such: they too are more emblematic of the larger issues moving the Reformation. The Confessions (Augustine), Confessions (Rousseau), the Summa Theologiae, The 95 Theses, John Locke's Social Compact Theory, and Marx on Communism I would all also cast aside as derivative of the New Testament in some way, rather than offering something truly distinct.  For this reason, too, the Koran becomes something less: a regional derivative – however great its importance – of Judaism and Christianity. 
     So that leaves you the Asian texts and the Classical pagan ones. 
Lives is still probably too specific a topic to have that broad a cultural influence.  The Analects might have a stronger argument to be made for them, but I'm less certain in saying how central they are: the Hindu and Buddhist religions and religious philosophies don't seem to have such a centralized, agreed-upon canon of key texts as the West does in the Bible. 
     That leaves, to my mind, your most powerful argument being the derivative nature of John from the Hebrew texts you mention.  Yet while John is definitely running with Genesis and Wisdom (among others) as you describe, it is more than simply the addition of those books: its synthesis is creative enough that contemporary Jews were not all able to accept it.  The Western texts I mentioned above are still largely ideas that could be conjured out of the texts or mindsets of the New Testament itself.  Even when reacting against Christianity (like Marx), they are still products of a Christian worldview.  Marxism is simply a Christian heresy when it comes down to it: a materialist political reading of Christian social ethics, and a good example of ethics going astray due to bad supporting metaphysics.  John cannot be derived from the addition of Genesis and Wisdom without the Christ event itself.  That unique history allows the synthesized reading of the OT in a new way, but also, it seems to me, sets John as sufficiently unique enough to have its hat in the ring for such a "Most Influential" book.  And for Western history, all the consequences of the world shaping along lines informed by Christianity – the bad with the good – of all our politics, economics, anthropology, philosophy, science and theology, seem to me to justify my observation about John's influence, over and against all the bad and the good derived from other great worldviews and texts. 

     Mike Novak


Thoughts.... If my knowledge of theological history is at all accurate, and I will be the first to admit I don't know it well, then John's book would not have become influential until many centuries after it was written. Oral tradition was the primary mode of spreading the gospels, was it not? If this is then the gospel in general would have been spread much more so then John's version would it not?

I do disagree with your assessment of mein kampf, it is hard to separate mein kampf from Nazism because it formed Hitler's theories into concrete language which helped his oratory power. The progression of Nazism would likely never have happened, or progressed as far as it did, without Hitler's personality and orations. Mein Kampf therefore allowed Hitler to compose his thoughts and helped Nazism along.

I thought a little bit about the books I listed, and I don't retract my statement: they are influential books, but because of what the population is actually reading, their circulation isn't very high... Harry Potter likely has more influence today then any of the books I listed with the exception of the Confucious and the Koran. I can see your point about the Christian writings, they are derivatives of the New Testament. I actually would argue that John is influential - tied Judaic texts together to promote Jesus, for the same reasons Mein Kampf is - tied Nazi theories together to promote fascism. As for Marx, communism is about the takes the metaphysics and makes them look good while ignoring reality - and specifically excluding God at all. I'd be curious as to where you see this as a heretical form of Christianity.

In the long run, I don't think its possible to determine what the most influential book is - whats influential in the west isn't in the east and vice versa...if you look at the populations, the eastern influences likely affect the most people, which would also throw Mao's little red book into the hunt. I am however finding it hard to refute that the New Testament, not particularly John, was the most influential to our Western Civilization.



     Hey A,
     Yeah, you're actually mimicking old 19th century critique of the historicity of scripture.  Now we know that John was circulating in written form throughout the Empire within a generation.  That old business about corruptable "oral traditions" is dead and buried.  It's an "oral tradition," yes, at one level – we'll talk about this in a few days – but only like JFK is an oral tradition among your grandparents or parents. 
     I still have to argue the status of
Mein Kampf: I don't think you're getting my point.  Writing it might have been influential for Hitler himself, but as a text itself, it really didn't have any historical significance.  It didn't create Nazism or aid its rise or influence masses for it and inspire generations of further literature, philosophy, theology, art, and music in the way something like the New Testament still does.  As a book of influence, it was pretty much stillborn.  Its power today is only evidential: as a witness to what Hitler's thought was, not as an ongoing, still-engaged-with-culture "voice of Hitler still speaking to us."
     I agree that the ability to truly measure something like "most influential text" is beyond us, and that I was engaged in an exercising of "ballparking," but I'm not going to back off yet of what I wrote earlier. Again, consider what I just defined as "influential" above: that ability to inspire and affect all these different fields, for generations.  The bulk of the books you mentioned
did do exactly that: like Plutarch's Lives bearing fruit in some of Shakespeare's plays, like Julius Caesar.  While I'm not going to argue against Harry Potter's popularity, I think we're at far too early a point in history to be able to tell if that will really be influential at all.  See what I mean?
     Mike Novak

Hey there!

    A final thought on Mein Kampf, before I stop spinning the wheel. It was not widely read, but it allowed Hitler to get his plan together for the rise of it directly influenced Nazism via Hitler, and so was influential, but not widely circulated. And I will agree it is no longer affecting us, so in a way I'll cede the point. I believe its one of the '100 banned books' if I'm not mistaken... a huge mistake I hope we'll never regret.
    I will also cede the point of the Bible as a whole being the most influential...and perhaps even that John is the most influential book in the bible. I don't know that that makes it the most influential ever, but then again I think we've agreed we can't determine that. It does make for interesting discussion though.

    I do worry about our tendancy to censor or ignore the nastier aspects of history...I'm not arguing for large scale circulation of Hitler's theories, but if we ignore them completely, it merely creates an opening for another similar event. It does seem that the UN favored Hezbollah in this summer's conflict. And other regions with racial/ethnic tensions could easily have similar genocides. Darfur and Sudan, case in point. It seems that it would be better to study Hitler's thoughts and recognize similarities in others than to ignore his thoughts and fall victim to fascism, vintage 1933, all over again. Islamic extremism for example, is not thought of as fascism, even though it essentially is just that. People are not well served by being ignorant. (ignore-ant).
    Communism is another force that could easily make a resurgence, setting the world back half a century. Paritcularly in Latin America, where Hugo Chavez is rattling his saber. In a way, Chavez is laughable, given Venezuela's lack of influence and importance in the world scene. On the other hand, populism, as it is defined in Latin America is a sort of communism-lite. Socialism with elements of dictatorships under the guise of democracy. I'd like you to mark my words. Chavez will not step down peacefully, even if he loses an election. I do laugh when he threatens the U.S. with oil...there is ONE nation in the world that can refine Venezuela's thick, acidic crude oil...the U.S. I gaurantee the U.S. can survive without Venezuelan oil for far longer than Venezuela can survive without Venezuelan oil. None the less, the man will be a thorn in America's side for years to come.

    One day I intend to write a book, or at least a lengthy essay on what the U.S. should do with its foreign policy in the coming years. However, I am forced to write a much shorter essay on deconstructing media for English tomorrow, so I'll cut myself off.

Have a good one!

Tags: books, cultural, historical, personal, philosophical, political, prologue to john, students, teaching, theological notebook
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