Between the Lines: A Conversation with David F. Ford – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with David F. Ford about his book The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit.

David F. Ford (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, where he has taught for more than twenty years, and director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Program. He is also a Fellow of Selwyn College and the author or editor of more than fifteen books, including The Shape of Living. Ford is one of the founders of Scriptural Reasoning and has been extensively involved in generating new modes of engagement for inter-faith relations in the post-9/11 world.


In this book, your sequel to The Shape of Living, why did you choose to concentrate on the Gospel of John and on the poetry of Micheal O’Siadhail?

The Shape of Living combined my experience of life with the earlier poetry of Micheal O’Siadhail and a variety of biblical themes. Since then, O’Siadhail has written several very fine volumes, including Love Life on thirty years of marriage and Globe on the contemporary world, and his publishers have also just brought out all he has written in his Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books). I myself am now deep into a ten-year project writing a commentary on the Gospel of John and will be delivering the 2015 Bampton Lectures for Oxford University on the theme “Daring Spirit: The Gospel of John Today.” In addition, a good many things have happened in my own life since writing The Shape of Living fifteen years ago, including time in Rwanda, a great deal of interfaith engagement (especially with Jews and Muslims), and the extraordinary last six months in the life of my father-in-law, Dan Hardy.

The Drama of Living feels like a more intense fusion of those three elements than before. Perhaps it is the effect of being older, but the interplay between the poetry, the Gospel, and life today seems freer—there is more of the drama of my own life in this book, and I felt free to explore the big questions of meaning, truth, life and death in ways I had not before. I tend to think best while writing, and it was an exciting process, with all sorts of fresh insights and discoveries.

Why O’Siadhail’s poetry? I find him the best poet writing in English today (and it is good to see so many more people discovering him through his Collected Poems). He gets heart, head, and imagination together; his poetry is wonderfully musical, and he’s not afraid to use classic forms as well as inventing his own; and he is accessible. Above all, he takes on the great themes of life, love, meaning, and death. I see poetry at its best as the supreme form of meaning through language, and I find myself returning to O’Siadhail’s poems again and again.

Why John’s Gospel? I love all four of the Gospels, and at different times in my life have concentrated on each of them, but John’s is distinctive, mysterious, and both the deepest and the most dramatic. This Gospel is the result of many years of following Jesus and entering more and more into the depths of who he is and what it means to live “in the Spirit.” I also have come to see it as particularly well suited to the twenty-first century, and The Drama of Living tries to work out what that means. One of the things that fascinates me most about John is the sheer superabundance of meaning. There always seems to be more on every rereading, and he symbolizes that by images of abundance and overflow—large quantities of water turned into wine, water gushing up, wind blowing unpredictably, baskets of food left over after Jesus feeds the crowd, and so on—all summed up in the Spirit being given “without measure.”


What can the Gospel of John teach us about love? How is love central to the Gospel?

The first mention of the word love in John is God’s love for the world in chapter 3, but I see the key truth about love coming at the climax of the prologue in 1:18, where Jesus the Son is pictured, in the NRSV translation, “close to the Father’s heart”—literally “into the bosom of the Father.” This for John is the deepest secret of reality, the dynamic of love at the heart of the universe, and the whole Gospel can be seen as an invitation to readers to trust that this is so and be part of the reality of this love. At the Last Supper the beloved disciple (who I think is left unnamed so that everyone can identify with him, just as the mother of Jesus is not named at his crucifixion; and the term “beloved” gives the core identity of any disciple) is seen reclining “on the breast of Jesus,” and we are reminded of this again at the very end of the Gospel. So there is, as it were, a chain of love pictured through this image of intimacy: the Son close to the Father’s heart, the beloved disciple close to Jesus’s heart, and all the rest of us invited to be there with him.

The climactic act of Jesus is to lay down his life for his friends—only in this Gospel is discipleship described as friendship. And it is clear that this love, the embodiment of God’s love for the world, is for all: Jesus says, “I when I am lifted up will draw all people.” The crucifixion is the revelation of the love at the heart of the universe and is also utterly realistic about all that opposes that love: the drama of loving and hating, light and darkness, continues. The crucifixion is also the place where we get the deepest insight into the community Jesus desires to form. Only in John does Jesus bring those two unnamed people, the beloved disciple and his mother (who might, as I suggested, be seen as representing all of us), into a new community that includes family but transcends it. He says to his mother: “Woman, here is your son,” and to the beloved disciple, “Here is your mother”; and John adds, “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (19:26–27). We are asked to imagine that this hidden life in a family-like community of friendship is where, in the coming years, the testimony and reflection took place that went into shaping this extraordinary Gospel.

This is what I call in The Drama of Living the ordinary, daily, and largely hidden drama of loving that all of us are part of. I see John as deeply concerned for this. Compared to the other Gospels there is little specific ethical teaching by Jesus (no Sermon on the Mount, for example), but the “new commandment” is summed up by Jesus as “Love one another as I have loved you.” That “as” challenges his followers to pray, think, and imagine in the Spirit what is genuinely in line with how Jesus loved. We are invited to read and reread the dramatic stories of the encounters of Jesus throughout the Gospel of John, and the extended farewell discourses in chapters 13–17, and then improvise on them in our situations. The Gospel can be read as an introduction to who Jesus is—the one who loves like this—and an invitation to take part in the ongoing drama of loving in which he continues to be the main character. We are given a script on which we improvise in the Spirit every day, and the main aim of my book is to try to help people do this wisely.


Next week Dr. Ford will explain “Scriptural Reasoning” (and its impact on religion and society) and the importance of “face-to-face” engagement (and what it means for how we interpret texts).

For more information on Dr. Ford’s new book, The Drama of Living, click here.