Eric Huntsman, Becoming the Beloved Disciple: Coming Unto Christ through the Gospel of John (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, Inc., 2018). $19.99 print.
Professor Eric Huntsman of Brigham Young University has released a new book exploring how the characters in the Gospel of John serve as representative types of disciples. “The Gospel of John powerfully portrays Jesus as the divine Son of God; contains many stories and thought-provoking symbols not found in the other Gospels; and paints intriguing, relatable portraits of characters with whom we can identify, thus providing us instructive models of discipleship,” writes Huntsman. Modern Latter-day Saints can identify with different archetypal disciples in the Gospel of John and “liken” them, to borrow a familiar phrase from the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 19:23), to their own paths of discipleship today. “These varied characters [in the Gospel of John] confirm that there are many ways to experience discipleship and that we should strive to understand fellow believers who have different walks of faith.”
The title of Huntsman’s book, Becoming the Beloved Disciple: Coming Unto Christ through the Gospel of John, is taken from the “the enigmatic, unnamed figure usually referred to as ‘the Beloved Disciple’” in the fourth gospel. This “one character provides the key to what is essential and unifying in the Gospel’s message” according to Huntsman. “Though usually associated with the apostle John himself, his anonymous appearance in the final chapters of the Gospel allows him to serve as the everyman or everywoman. Leaning on the bosom of the Savior at the Last Supper, standing at the foot of the cross, and running to the empty tomb, he teaches us what we must believe and become to truly be counted a beloved disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Gospel of John, in fact, has a sustained focus on discipleship. “Discipleship is an important theme of the Gospel of John, highlighted more in this Gospel than in the others,” writes Huntsman. “The result is that rather than being limited to a smaller group of chosen special witnesses, discipleship [in John] appears more broadly as something with which we can match our own experience of trying to follow Jesus.” The way the Gospel of John effectively communicates the importance of discipleship is through utilizing literary and narrative devices to tell a compelling story.
Like other scripture, the Gospel of John is inspired not only in what it says but how it says it. In other words, it is literature as well as inspired writing. In dramatic literature, characters advance the plot and help readers understand the story and the principles it is trying to teach. Characters in ancient literature, including scripture, were likely to be types as well as representations of historical figures. Because they represent different types of people and their experiences, we can more easily see ourselves in the characters and then apply the scriptures to our own lives. John then illustrates the principles of discipleship through sharply drawn characters who all experience the journey of belief, action, and becoming differently.
The premise of Becoming the Beloved Disciple is that by understanding the characters in John as archetypal figures, we “better understanding [them], both historically and as presented in the text. As we do so, we may find that they are more like us than we expected.” The types of disciples Huntsman analyzes include:
- First Disciples, including John himself, Andrew and the anonymous “other disciple,” Peter and Philip, and Nathanael. These disciples who answered Jesus’ call to the ministry form the first links in a “great chain of witnesses” who represent disciples who, after “finding the truth,” are “eager to share it with both family and friends.”
- Women like the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, who “serve as models for us of women who gained a sure knowledge that Jesus is the Son of God, that he can work miracles in our lives, that he died for us, and that he rose triumphantly from the tomb.” Observes Huntsman, “While testimony comes from the Spirit, often the women of Christ who raise us, teach us, or share our lives with us are the ones who plant and nourish the seeds of faith.”
- Hesitant Intellectuals such as Nicodemus, who could not fully understand the message of Jesus, and so hesitated to fully commit himself before he could intellectually comprehend what he was hearing. Nicodemus serves as the type of disciple who may have sincere questions and doubts yet preserves in faith. “The example of Nicodemus reminds us that we must be careful about judging the spiritual journeys of other people. Sometimes we can be too quick to judge the faith of others, faulting them for questioning or perhaps insisting that people testify that they ‘know’ when sometimes what is important is just believing or having the desire to believe (see Alma 32:26–27).”
- The Socially Marginalized who, like the Samaritan woman, often find themselves on the fringes of mainstream culture or society. An ethnic and religious minority in first century Jewish Palestine, “This woman, an outsider who becomes an insider, became a model disciple by responding in faith and then actively bringing others to Jesus.” What is, furthermore, “particularly powerful about the Samaritan woman’s experience is that her role as an outsider underscores that Jesus came for everyone regardless of race, ethnic background, gender, or lifestyle. In this regard, Jesus is a disruptor of categories and social conventions.”
- Impulsive but Devoted Disciples like Peter and Thomas who may be guilty of “foibles or errors” but also belong to “a long string of noble but imperfect prophets.” Despite their weaknesses, “these figures of the past were justified by God, who still used them to accomplish great things.”
By seeing ourselves in one or more of these categories, Huntsman invites us to examine how we can refine our own form of discipleship. “Whatever our own discipleship looks like,” Huntsman insightfully points out, “however we came to the Lord, whatever faith issues we have wrestled with, whatever losses we have suffered, and whatever mistakes we have made, there are fundamentals that we should all share.” By focusing on these fundamentals, and striving more each day to enhance our discipleship, “we can be embraced in the love of Jesus, which love we can feel and receive in great measure through priesthood ordinances.”
Becoming the Beloved Disciple offers a refreshing synthesis of scholarship, faith-promoting anecdotes, and pastoral insight. Huntsman blends personal experiences from his own path of discipleship with examples from Latter-day Saint history while offering important clarifications with his training as a New Testament scholar, making the book a splendid example of how Latter-day Saints can find great benefit by engaging the scriptures “by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). As Michal Austin writes in his foreword, Becoming the Beloved Disciple is “a meditation with depth and substance, that combines great faith and first-rate scholarship to provide an example of how we can interact with John to become better disciples.”