Breaking the Fourth Wall

FatherTim

John 14:23-39

Do you know what I mean by the term breaking the fourth wall?  It’s a dramatic term, to refer to an actor who momentarily breaks out of the story itself in order to address the audience.

So, for illustrative purposes, imagine a movie we’ve all seen, The Wizard of Oz.  Do you remember that scene where the wicked witch flies over Dorothy and her cohort and writes a message in the sky?

We, the audience, hear the witch coming—a sound something like a whistle to represent an accompanying wicked wind, I suppose.  We then see what Dorothy sees—a small speck up in the left corner of the sky, a speck that we can only guess is the wicked witch—if we squint our eyes really tightly and tax our imaginations.  We then hear the witch’s cackling laugh, followed by some foreboding words, something like, “I’ll get you, my pretty; and that little dog of yours too!”  And then we see Dorothy’s terrified facial expression as she clutches Toto ever so tightly.  And, finally, we see the sky again, this time with the wicked witch as a small speck on the right side of the screen; and written across the sky is the message, “Surrender Dorothy!” skywritten magically from the tail of the wicked witch’s broom.

Do you remember this point in the movie?

My father in-law does!  The way he tells it, it was just here, at this point, just when the wicked witch wrote these words in the sky—little Jeffy was about four years old—“where I lost it,” he tells us.  “That’s when I just knew Dorothy was a goner!  Up to that point I’d held it together.  But at seeing the words, ‘Surrender Dorothy,’ I just couldn’t take it anymore.  And I began to cry.”

Poor little Jeffy!

But what if—let’s imagine for a moment—what if, right at this point, right at the height of all this serious, scary drama—what if Dorothy all of a sudden comes to her senses, looks straight into the camera, and says, with a snarky expression on her face, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

Now she doesn’t do this, we all know—perhaps my father in-law best of all.  But if she were to do so, that would be to break the fourth wall.  She would come out of her story and into the audience’s.  Get it?

It’s not soliloquy.  For in soliloquy the actor never actually leaves his or her story and comes into the audience’s.  But neither is it narration, for a narrator is in the audience’s story, always removed from the story being viewed.

Nevertheless, breaking the fourth wall accomplishes what soliloquy and narration accomplish—temporarily taking the audience out of the story of the moment and simultaneously moving it forward—usually to great, and often very humorous, effect.

Like the recent movie Deadpool.

I haven’t seen it personally, but I understand Deadpool succeeds marvelously here: the story of a Marvel Comics character, Deadpool, ever aware he is trapped within the medium of a comic book.  Throughout the duration of the movie, time and again he stops whatever he’s doing to face the screen and offer the audience some snarky commentary; often producing explosive laughter.  Those who’ve seen the movie are left to wonder if perhaps Deadpool’s frequent success at breaking the fourth wall is in fact his only real superpower.

Anyway, that’s what I mean by breaking the fourth wall.

So, why do I bring all this up?  Because, a lot like Deadpool, St. John the Evangelist frequently breaks the fourth wall.

Do you know this about the Gospel of John?  Perhaps you’ve heard this, or studied this in a Bible study.

The Gospel of John was written last of all the Gospels, sometime between the mid-80s and the year 100 or so.

Mark was written first of all, probably around the year 70, around the time when a Roman commander named Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem.  We know this because there are echoes of the destruction of the Temple in Mark’s Gospel.

Matthew and Luke probably wrote their Gospels a few years later, for they offer more echoes of Jerusalem’s fall; and some subsequent echoes.

But none of the synoptic Gospels—nothing in Matthew, Mark, or Luke—suggests that Christians had begun to congregate and be persecuted as a sect or group.

Yet these echoes abound in John’s Gospel.

John 9:22, for instance, says (emphases added): “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

Again, John 16:2 says (emphasis added), “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

And again, John 20:19 reads (emphasis added), “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

In other words, there is a threat of excommunication that shows up commonly in John’s Gospel; but such threats nowhere show up in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  The logical conclusion is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke must have been written before Christianity was recognized by the Jews as a contrary sect.

But John—whether on purpose or by accident—breaks the fourth wall.  He breaks out of the story being told, the story of Jesus’ life, in order to give his audience some commentary regarding their very specific plight: of being excommunicated from their community’s synagogue.

We just heard three examples of John breaking the fourth wall.

And here, in today’s passage, we see a fourth example.  Judas (not Iscariot) asks Jesus a question; and John breaks the fourth wall in Jesus’ answer to Judas’s question.

“Lord,” Judas asks, “how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?”

Judas is looking around him and scratching his head, just like John’s audience was looking around them, scratching their collective head.  How is it, Judas wonders (how is it, John’s audience wonders), that only a few of us—only a small group of us—seem to know the actual truth?  I mean, there are all these other people around us, all these Jews hanging out in the synagogue (or, if you will, the mainstream church) week after week.  Well, why is it that they’re not getting it, that they’re not recognizing you, Jesus, as the Messiah?  Why is it that only a few of us seem to be understanding what you have come to teach and to offer the world?

Does this question ever bother you?

Let’s cut to the chase here.  The present day Christian church is in a tight spot.  Quantifiable evidence has tracked incontrovertible decline over the last four decades.  Why is this?  Why is the church in decline?  If Jesus is the true Savior of the world, then why is the church shrinking?

But it doesn’t stop here.  Why is it that the group of people least represented in the American church today is the twenty-somethings, the millennials?  If Jesus is the truth, and no one comes to the Father except through him; if he is the way and the truth and the life and all that; if he is in fact the true Word of God, then why isn’t it obvious to the millennials?

But it doesn’t stop here.  For, if Jesus is the true Messiah and Word and Way and Truth and Life, then why are there so many other religions around the world, religions that either relegate Jesus as just a good man or teacher or flatly reject him altogether?  If he is truly human and truly divine—God, very God—then why don’t more people see him for what he is?

But it doesn’t even stop there.  For, if Jesus is the answer to all the world’s problems, then why has more unjust violence been done in his name than good?  Why the Crusades?  Why the longstanding violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants?  Why all the warfare in the Middle East?

If Jesus is truly the Messiah; if Christ truly is the way to the Father; if Christianity’s main message is love, the first and great commandment, then why aren’t more people seeing it?  Why is it only the few?

These were the fears of the Johannine Community, John’s original audience.  And—guess what—these are our fears too!

So, John breaks the fourth wall here and provides an answer to his audience: he provided an answer to the Johannine Community, his audience back then; and he provides an answer to us, his audience today.

  • Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
  • But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

When my father in-law was a little boy watching The Wizard of Oz and he lost it—when he began to cry, right when the wicked witch wrote that terrifying message in the sky—imagine what his response would have been if Dorothy had broken the fourth wall; if she had stopped her panic, looked right into the camera, and said, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

One thing’s for sure.  Little Jeffy would have been shaken out of his immediate context, out of his fear.  Little Jeffy would have been jolted out of the scary drama that was Oz and into a greater reality.  Little Jeffy would not have lost it.

And maybe even—I don’t know—maybe he would’ve laughed.

Today, John has done for us what Dorothy did not: he’s broken the fourth wall.  And he’s done it for our benefit.

The world’s a fearful place.  It’s full of serious, scary drama, like Oz: drama we can get so caught up in that we fail to see beyond the fourth wall to the greater reality, to the audience, that great cloud of witnesses.

But today, even if for but a moment, John has broken the fourth wall.  See beyond it!  Catch a glimpse of the Greater Reality!  And let it to shake you out of your fear, out of your immediate context, out of the scary drama of our world.

And maybe even—I don’t know—maybe you will be able even to laugh.

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