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‘The Gospel of John’: A Gift for the Soul in Manhattan

Ken Jennings in The Gospel of John (© 2019 Maria Baranova)

Broadway actor Ken Jennings just about stole my heart earlier this month as he talked about The Gospel of John. He’s made Scripture into a prayer and a performance. It’s been at The Sheen Center in New York City and continues to be through the end of the month. Which is coming up, if you haven’t noticed. If you’re anything like me and have had a way too scattered, too busy, not focused Advent, get yourself to this, if you can. I had seen on social media the idea that I should read one chapter of the Gospel of John a day through Advent — it seems to be perfectly numbered for that. Guess what I haven’t done? But what I have done is been immersed in a man’s humble and grateful prayer. He uses his talents to draw us into the Gospel, into John’s experience of Jesus, into the life and heart and mind and soul of the Savior of the World, among us, teaching us, loving us, talking to the Father for us. It’s moving and gripping and funny and dear. It’s what art should be, giving glory to God. And here in such an explicit and yet tender way.

Ken Jennings is Jersey born and Jesuit educated, as he’ll tell you when you start to get talking about how The Gospel of John came to be. He’s a Broadway actor best known for his role as Tobias Ragg in the 1979 Broadway premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

He begins with the sign of the cross. This is prayer. And yet there you are in the audience, watching. But there’s more happening. I think it’s just about one of the best things a cultural center owned by the Catholic Church for engaging culture and ideas could be doing.

We had a conversation after a preview performance earlier this month. In it he explained that the process of editing (for which he did not feel worthy), Jennings consulted a Jesuit priest, an Episopalian priest, a Baptist minister, and a Catholic religious sister. He relays that the Baptist minister said: “If they hear an hour and a half of the Gospel of John straight through, that’ll be more than they’ve heard straight through in their lives than before.” We laughed about how a Baptist would say that about Catholics!

We talked too about how different parts hit him different ways each time he approaches the Gospel, and how he is still, after all these years still getting to know John and the Gospel — including during the performances. It struck me as exactly what our relationship to the Gospels should be like — a continual discovery.

John happens to be my favorite of the Gospels — considering I just put together a book called The Year with the Mystics, that’s probably no big surpise. We talked about that, too. How mystical is beautiful and not indecipherable. And seeing it performed surely makes that clear, makes everything clearer, as you enter deeper into the prayer by being present and receptive.

You’ll be grateful if you can make the time for The Gospel of John and delight in someone making it a part of himself in such a way as Jennings has. Even if you’re nowhere near New York, it might be a gift you give yourself (and the people around you, because you’re unlikely to remain unchanged) — reading this or any Gospel for Christmas.