Saturday, January 28, 2012

Gospel of Mark: Disciples Called to Animate the Messianic Narrative

Karl Barth once wrote, "Theology responds to the Word which God has spoken, still speaks, and will speak again in the history of Jesus Christ which fulfills the history of Israel" (Evangelical Theology, 20). That is to say, the Word of God is not a frozen specimen to be dissected, rather a living and active testament to what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in and through the person and work of Jesus and those who profess to be Jesus' disciples. In this vein, Scripture warrants readers to move beyond mere passive spectating and into real participation, i.e. what Ched Myer's calls "theological animation." [1]

This is particularly significant when one engages the Gospel of Mark.[2] All too often the Church has approached the Gospel as though it were gifted to God's people in order to siphon desired timeless "Truths" and ascent to absolute certainty about a series of theological propositions (especially those that assert the divinity of Jesus).[3] This oppressive and malevolent posture against Scripture not only domesticates the gospel within the (not-so) friendly confines of ivory theological towers, but also and especially de-fangs the biblical narrative of its contemporary significance intended to provoke the prophetic imagination of disciples past and present.

The Gospel of Mark exists for so much more. That is, Mark's writing is the intentional and subversive development of a "new literary genre" for the first-century Roman world: gospel (Myers 92). This gospel invites the people of God to shift their perspectives from the dominant and oppressive center, as occupied by the political and religious elite,[4] and towards God's activity on the margins, i.e. the prophetic periphery. In other words, the Gospel of Mark is a call for hermeneutical and socio-political repentance that challenges our assumptions about what is good, just, right, and characteristic of the kingdom of God. Ched Myers writes:

"The evangelist Mark, too, enlisted into the war of myths in his day; he did so by writing his gospel, by retelling the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his struggles with the 'powers' of Roman Palestine. Today, how we interpret that Gospel depends upon our reading of, and engagement in, the war of myths that still continues." (4).

Therefore, whenever we engage in Bible Study, either as individuals or in the context of community, we eavesdrop on a cross-cultural religious and socio-political conversation (45). This rolling dialogue challenges the powers-that-be [5], past and present, which infringe upon God's dreams for the world and God's special concern for dwellers on the periphery.

That said, it is the task of anyone who reads the Gospel of Mark to pay close attention and uncover the poignancy of this "war on myths," not so much for the purpose of intellectual ascent, rather as means to animate radical discipleship in twenty-first century contexts. In so doing, disciples of the crucified and resurrected Messiah will begin to discover that the gospel is not only what God said, but also and especially what God continues to say in and through the person and work of Jesus. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the message of Mark, we will soon discover that this divine activity often takes place, much to our surprise, on the periphery of our power-hungry world. It is only fitting to end where we began- with Karl Barth:

"The community does not speak with words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; by its characteristic attitude to world problems; and, moreover and especially, by its silent service to all the handicapped, weak, and needy in the world. It speaks, finally, by the simple fact that it prays for the world. It does all this because this is the purpose of its summons by the Word of God. It cannot avoid doing these things, since it believes" (Evangelical Theology, 38).

[1] Much of my reading on the Gospel of Mark is framed in light of Ched Myers' work, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis, 1988). All citations here are from this text, unless otherwise noted.
[2] This post was written in preparation for and use within an upcoming course on the Gospel of Mark, as prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B).
[3] This is not to say that the divinity of Jesus cannot be derived from the Gospel of Mark; rather, this theological conviction, contrary to much of what is taught and assumed, is not the primary focus of the gospel writer
[4] "The 'center-periphery' model is in many respects germane also to the world, and hence the site, of Mark himself. The ancient Mediterranean world was dominated by the rule of imperial Rome. However, whereas I read from the center, Mark wrote from the Palestinian periphery. His primary audience were those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine are those who are in a position to enjoy the privileges of the colonizer" (6).
[5] A great and related read on these "powers" is Walter Wink's, Engaging the Powers (Fortress Press, 1992).