I highly recommend you listen or read the transcript of the session on the Gospel of Mark on the ABC’s Religion Report recently. John Carroll is a sociologist, and author of the recently published The Existenial Jesus (Melbourne: Scribe, 2007).
I am personally fascinated by the gospel of Mark, and share Carroll’s opinion that in comparison, Luke and Matthew are boring (though Luke has some really great original stories). I share Carroll’s fascination with the narrative of Mark, and the way in which it is really “strange”–especially when you try to read it without any of the reference points we tend to gather from the other synoptics. I also think it is significant that he has linked John’s Gospel directly to Mark’s, saying that it is John which really gets Mark, and which amplifies his story by way of footnotes.
So there is much that I found intensely interesting in his presentation. I will probably buy (or at least borrow) his book to read it.
However… Carroll’s is an “extra-ecclesial” reading of the text. I may have said before that “Context is everything”, and the “context” for the Markan text is “THE CHURCH” (capital letters intended). When you try to read the Gospel not only outside of the Church (which has been its context ever since it was written) but as if it were opposed to the Church, you end up with an incredibly skewed reading.
The best way I can show this is with the question of the identity of Jesus. Carroll is quite right that this is the central issue of the Gospel of Mark. He is not, of course, the first to notice it. He points to the passage of Jesus walking on the water of the Sea of Galillee toward the disciples and saying “Do not be afraid. I AM.” Now we usually translate that as “It is I”, but Carroll’s rendering is quite accurate. Not only does it link this revelatory statement with the Johannine “I AM” sayings, but every Christian scholar will immediately connect it (as the Johaninne sayings are connected) with the passage in Exodus 3 where YHWH reveals himself as the great “I AM”. Yes, it is about identity–Jesus’ DIVINE identity. But Carroll makes it into some sort of existential angst on Jesus’ part. Carroll wants us to believe that Mark is some sort of 1st Century Albert Camus and Jesus is the quintessential “Outsider”. It’s existentialism 1500 years before Martin Luther ever tripped over the line from medieval to modern by expressing the faith as “I believe that God created ME and all that exists.” In other words, its a little “retrospective” for my tastes.
The result of this reading is that the text ends in typically post-modern meaninglessness. Here is the conclusion to the programme:
Stephen Crittenden: Well let’s come back to the reason you wrote the book though. I imagine one of the things you’re hoping people who read your book will do is go back and read Mark. But what are you hoping they’ll do then? Are you hoping they’ll go back to church? That sounds like a stupid question after this conversation, but what are you hoping they’ll do?
John Carroll: I don’t know. I’ve been as best I can a servant of this text, trying to re-tell it and interpret it in a way that will speak today. What happens then, I don’t know, in fact I don’t even know if my – I’m still sort of submerged in the text.
There are some good observations: the connection between “rockiness” and “withering” is interesting–although Carroll interprets this as anti-Petrine rhetoric, which is at odds with the traditional Petrine reading of the Gospel. I also like the way he points out that whenever the disciples are told “Do not be afraid”,they almost faint from fear! I am also a fan of narrative criticism or the narrative approach to reading scripture (which is why I am so insistant on the “literative” meaning of scripture), and so I appreaciate his statements along the lines that the gospels are foundational stories for our civilisation and that Jesus can only be known by his story.
Mark is a great story. I am nearing the end of my “Walk through the Scriptures” for Anima Education, and I intend on the last day to show the video produced by Scripture Union many years ago of an Australian actor doing a performance reading of Mark’s gospel. Oscar Wilde was quite right when he wrote that “For pity and terror there is nothing in the entire cycle of Greek tragedy to touch it”. But an “extra-Ecclesial” reading will only ever see it as a meaningless tragedy, and will never experience it as the revelation of God’s glory (which St John shows it to be in his gospel).
For a good review by someone who knows something about existentialism but not much more about Christianity than John Carroll, see here.