For my Realistic Living Pointers this month, I am sharing with you the last half of the introduction to a new book that I am publishing on our Realistic Living blog site.
The Creator of Christianity a commentary on the Gospel of Mark by Gene W. Marshall The entire book can be purchased for $10 on this site:
While you are there, look around. We are also publishing the 8 spirit talks that Gene gave at the June 2018 Realistic Living Summer Program, plus a Study Outline for the above book, and Study Outlines for The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is by Jon Bernie, and Dangerous Years by David W. Orr. All this is in addition to the monthly Realistic Living Pointers.
Following is the second half of the Introduction to the Mark Commentary.
Interpreting Scripture Today
Today, Christian theologians, who want to go to the roots of the first century Christian “revelation,” face the reality that people in the first century used the now obsolete two-tier, story-telling metaphor. That old manner of talking about ultimate matters had been the way of talking about ultimate matters for as long as anyone could remember.
In spite of the fact that their way of talking is no longer adequate for us today, we cannot claim to be Christians if we fail to interpret our scriptures. Therefore, to do scriptural interpretation adequately, we must translate for our era of culture what those early writers meant in their own lives when they used that old form of metaphorical talk that is now basically meaningless to us. Throughout this commentary, I will be illustrating what such metaphorical translation looks like.
Christian theologians today also face a second challenge. Within our current culture we tend to overlook metaphorical meanings altogether. We tend to view all statements literally. We learned to be literal from the current prominence of the scientific mode of truth. In the scientific style of thinking, words mean something only if words point to something in the realm of facts, observable by the human senses. Influenced by this overemphasis on facts, both religious agnostics and religious literalists fail to see the poetic or contemplative type of truth that is contained in the wild stories of the Bible. The agnostics are right to see that many stories of the Bible are preposterous when viewed literally. And religious literalists, who think they are defending Biblical truth with their literalism, are actually ignoring the profound truth that is hidden in these wildly creative stories.
For example, Mark could tell a story about a 12-year-old Israelite girl being lifted from the dead, and his hearers could understand without qualms that this was a story about the 12 tribes of Israel being called back to life from a sleep-like-death. Listeners to such writing caught on to these metaphorical meanings without any need for help from a word like “metaphorical.” Why? Their minds were not yet characterized by an overemphasis on literal truth.
Fictitious stories still mean a great deal to most of us today. Thousands of youth and adults have enjoyed deeply the stories of Harry Potter. We know that these are fiction, that Harry’s magical ways are not to be taken literally. Yet we identify with him and his close friends in being magical persons who do not fit into the general society and who need to keep their true nature secret from most people. In other words, we can still see truth in fictitious stories, if we let ourselves do so.
So as we read the Gospel of Mark, we need to keep in the forefront of our thinking that Mark is composing his “good news” in a hot-fiction mode of truth. We need to interpret Mark’s preposterous story telling in a contemplative manner. In our dialogue with Mark, we are challenged to notice how we have had or can have these same life experiences in our own lives today.
How has literal biblical interpretation been a factor in your life?
What biblical poetry still puzzles you today?
Cross and Resurrection
It is fair to say that the symbols of cross and resurrection are as central to an understanding of the Christian revelation as meditation and enlightenment are to an understanding of Buddhism. Yet both cross and resurrection seem cryptic, even weird, to many people today.
Members of our current scientific culture may be excused somewhat for having a weak understanding of resurrection. Most of us know, if we are honest, that belief in a literal return to life of a three-day-old corpse is superstition. Yet this meaning of resurrection has been paraded as Christian by many interpreters of the resurrection symbol. Mark did not see resurrection in this light. Or perhaps we might better say, “Mark did not see resurrection in this darkness,” for a literal return from the dead means nothing deeply religious to Mark or to you or me. If such an event were to happen today, it would be open to hundreds of speculative explanations, none of which would be profoundly or convincingly religious.
Mark’s understanding of the cross is equally opaque in our culture. Some modern authors even accuse Christianity of having a morbid preoccupation with death, suffering, and tragedy. The crucifix, or even a bare cross, is viewed by some as silly and grim—like hanging a guillotine on your wall or around your neck. But for Mark the horror of the cross is seen as priceless food for the soul. How can that be? Surely, we have some thoughtful exploration to do, if we are to grasp the Gospel (the good news) that Mark claims to be announcing.
I know of no better way to introduce the symbols of cross and resurrection to a contemporary explorer of Christianity than with a commentary of Mark’s Gospel. I will show in this commentary that Mark understands the resurrection as intimately connected with the cross and that both are about possible experiences that every human being can have. As characters in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples do not experience the fullness of resurrection until the very last chapter of Mark’s narrative. Until then resurrection for them is a secret. At the same time Jesus experiences resurrection in the first 13 verses of Mark’s commentary. For the rest of this narrative, Jesus is what a resurrected person looks like walking, talking, eating, sleeping, praying, healing others, and challenging the status quo. The character Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is an exemplar of living the resurrected life unto death
Meanwhile the disciples are what it looks like to be on a journey toward resurrection. They are dramatized as dumb dumbs on both cross and resurrection. So we can view Mark’s narrative as about two journeys that are both aspects of our own life journey: (1) the journey of spirit awakening that is taking place in the lives of the disciples and (2) the journey of the spirit-awake human—what that looks like in action—that is, how Jesus’ presence, words, and actions are dramatizing the qualities of the resurrected human and how such a presence among us is healing to others. The full meaning of the resurrection will remain Mark’s secret until chapter 16, but cross and resurrection are primary symbols in Mark’s narrative beginning in chapter one.
Again, both these journeys can go on in the lives of all of us: (1) we, like the disciples, can journey toward full enlightenment (death-and-resurrection living), and (2) we, like Jesus, can resolve to live our resurrection life (spirit enlightenment or profound humanness) in the real world, in the historical challenges of our time and place. As resurrected women and men, we, like Jesus can expend our new life of profound humanness for the healing and well-being of others. We are invited to identify with both Jesus and the disciples in Mark’s narrative.
In the first 13 verses of chapter one, Mark’s character “Jesus” has his own death and resurrection experience—in the same sense that you or I might have our own death and resurrection experience—in the living now of our own conscious lives. It is important to notice that Mark retains the complete humanness of Jesus by having him in these early verses undergo John’s baptism of spirit washing and Jesus’ own calling to spirit mission, a calling that any of us might also experience.
After those first 13 verses, Mark’s Jesus is on a different journey than the disciples. The disciples are on a spirit journey toward resurrection. Jesus depicts the journey of the resurrected human in action. He is what a human being looks like who has been resurrected to his or her profound humanness, after having died to his or her temporal relations as his or her primal devotion. I repeat, Mark’s Jesus-story is about the journey unto death of a human being after entry into the resurrected life.
In Luke’s second book, The Acts of the Apostles, we see more about what this second journey of living the life of resurrected humans looks like as the story of real-world historical persons other than Jesus. Peter, Paul and other men and women are presented by Luke as further “resurrection” exemplars. Luke wants us to get it that we who live “in Christ” are living the resurrection life. Indeed, we are to be the resurrection of Jesus. We are called to be the body that rose on Easter morning.
It is probably easier for most of us to identify with the disciples who are moving toward resurrection step-by-step through the course of Mark’s story. We can also identify with the crowds who are intrigued, but puzzled, by Jesus’ parables. We can even identify with those persons who reject Jesus.
Mark’s Jesus uses parables to trick the sleeping into noticing their sleepiness and into seeking more truth. Then to his more committed disciples, Mark’s Jesus explains his parables further, expecting them to catch on to their own profound humanness sooner than the crowds.
Mark is assuming that the readers of his Gospel will be carried along, like the disciples, toward the total unraveling of their egoism to an embodiment of the resurrected life that was walking and talking among them in the body of Jesus and later in the body of the church, that came to be referred to as “the body of Christ”—that is, the body of the resurrected one. So in Mark’s narrative, we are entitled to identify with Jesus ministering to his blind followers as well as with identifying with the blind followers to whom Jesus is ministering.
As we read Mark’s gospel, let us keep in mind the originality and imagination of this remarkable person we are calling “Mark.” We are dialoguing with Mark, not with Jesus. Jesus is a character is Mark’s story. We are in a conversation with Mark in the same way that reading a Harry Potter novel is a conversation with J. K. Rowling, rather than Harry Potter. Of course we can have a conversation with Harry Potter as one of Rowling’s characters. Similarly, we can have a conversation with Jesus as one of Mark’s characters.
In the following commentary, here is what I am going to do. I am going to quote in order the entire Markian text. After each section of Mark’s narrative, I will do a commentary on the quoted verses and follow that with a few discussion questions. I am assuming the best of New Testament historical scholarship, but I will be doing what I call “21st century theologizing for the ordinary reader.”
So what are you looking forward to in this study?
And what puzzles you most about this enigmatic document called “The Gospel of Mark”?
This entire commentary including every verse of Mark’s Gospel
can be purchased for $10 on this site: