October 30, 2003
The secret sharer

I got several interesting responses to my questions on the secrecy in Mark. The post itself has sort of wandered off into a discussion of Gnosticism. I will say that, though I read Elaine Pagels' book on the Gnostic Gospels and it's an interesting subject, and I appreciate Jeremy's comments, I'm not really going to try to juggle the Gnostic point of view in my discussions here. The Gnostics basically have a different Bible that totally recontextualizes the whole Jesus story, sort of like the Quran does. I am presently considering the Bible in its standard form, so my analysis is going to stick to that.

Anyway, Tom suggested that the parables are all in a meta-parable:

His instructing the crowds in parables is a parable of His earthly mission. The pattern of Jesus telling a parable in public, His disciples failing to understand Him, His explaining the meaning to them, and their subsequent revelation of His meaning to the crowds exactly matches His crucifixion, His disciples' despair, His appearances to them, and their subsequent proclamation of Him as the Christ. Everything in Jesus' life, as Mark records it, is parabolic.

The sequence may also serve a catechetical purpose. Adherents to this new faith would be drawn to it for all sorts of reasons, as Messianic hopes, curiousity, and the need for healing drew the crowds to Jesus. Much of what they would learn, though, would be utterly baffling. God's Son is crucified? And that's a good thing? And He's here with us right now?

Mark Shea, quoting Chesterton, also goes for a meta-parable: "it is the Gospel that is the riddle and the Church that is the answer." (I haven't had time to read the whole chapter he links to.)

This is a good reminder of what Tom pointed out when I started this: the Gospels were instructional tools for the early church. I mentioned in the earlier post that my study notes connected the parable of the sower with the struggles of discipleship, from which the beleaguered early Christians might presumably draw comfort and inspiration. With all this in the recent past, probably everyone would have felt more part of "the continuing saga" than I do now.

I was thinking of this the other night, actually, when I talked to my new pastor. Among other things, I asked him what he thought of the secrecy Mark. With regard to the healings, he said he thought Jesus was trying to avoid making a spectacle of himself. He pointed to how star preachers of today do faith healings with all the TV cameras and razmatazz, and lamented that they couldn't be more like Jesus.

I hadn't thought of it like that, but it makes some sense. As the appearance of Simon Magus in Acts will show us, there were other healers and magicians floating around in those days, and Christians were at pains to distinguish themselves from them. And it sets a certain tone of self-denial. We've been scratching our heads because it's such a funny way for a messiah to act; but if you think of it as an example for a line of human preachers, it makes a lot more sense. Subsequent preaching in Acts and so on wasn't kept secret, but perhaps Jesus' efforts at suppressing knowledge of his powers, his fleeing the crowds and so on, sent a message against self-aggrandizement.

The parabolic approach to teaching may have functioned the same. Lynn pointed to Ellen's post about the sower parable, concluding that, "It's OK to ask questions, to be puzzled, we discovered during that session, because it's when we ask that we are answered."

Again, we have an example for teaching here. Don't whack people over the head with your knowledge; whet their appetites, stimulate their curiosity. It would be nice if more evangelists followed that one too...

Posted by Camassia at October 30, 2003 07:28 PM | TrackBack

Certainly in specifically discussing Mark there is no great need to go into Gnostic ideas. But if you put Mark in the context of the Gospels as a whole, Gnostic ideas can't be ruled out altogether, because of the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John includes Gnostic-like concepts that are not found in the synoptics. The inclusion of John in the Canon shows the prevalence and strength of such ideas in the early church. It is very difficult to read the synoptics while ignoring colorings added to readings by knowledge of John.

Posted by: Rob on October 31, 2003 01:40 AM

And not only did Jesus not want to make a spectacle of Himself, He didn't want other people to make their own spectacle of Himself, by seeing him as another, even a new and improved, healer and magician. The mere fact that He was telling people not to tell might have made Him different in their minds, even if it didn't stop them from telling.

Posted by: Tom on October 31, 2003 06:43 AM

Ah, found someone who says it better than I do. This is an article from the Yale Daily News, and Bruce is my former abbot (I now live in Korea). About halfway down into the article Bruce talks about "conversion..." and I think it's a valid and strong way to talk about "missionary" work in contemporary Buddhism. Again, the idea of invitation. The big question is always: invitation to what? As a good Buddhist, I should say: to undertstand yourself.


Posted by: andi on October 31, 2003 08:52 AM

I very much like what you write about a "certain tone of self-denial." Rowan Williams takes this a bit further in his Christ on Trial:

"Throughout the Gospel (of Mark), Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe that there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others. What will be said of him is bound to be untrue - that he is master of all circumstances; that he can heal where he wills, that he is the expected triumphant deliverer, the Anointed. In Anita Mason's novel The Illusionist, this is hauntingly expressed in the reworking of the scene of Peter's confession, where Jesus, in response to what Peter says, replies, 'You have said something that should never have been said, and there will be a heavy price to pay ... There is a kind of truth which, when it is said, becomes untrue.'

"Remember, the world Mark depicts is not a reasonable one; it is full of demons and suffering and abused power. How, in such a world, could there be a language in which it could truly be said who Jesus is? Whatever is said will take on the coloring of the world's insanity; it will be another bid for the world's power, another identification with the unaccountable tyrannies that decide how things shall be. Jesus, described in the words of this world, would be a competitor for space in it, part of its untruth."


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on October 31, 2003 09:32 AM

Camassia-- I enjoy reading your posts on Mark, and offer comments as a Gnostic 'cause it's who I am. :) It can get contentious tho', so I'll try to keep the overt heresies to a minimum and leave the Gnostic hat at the door (and at my own blog).

That said, I couldn't agree more with this statement: "Don't whack people over the head with your knowledge; whet their appetites, stimulate their curiosity." I think that Jesus understood that people tend to be individualists by nature, and tend to see information that they've figured out on their own as more valuable and real than information that's forced upon them by screaming, showy fundamentalist maniacs. I also think that Jesus gives a lot of credit to people in his teachings-- he understands that people are generally good and generally wise enough to understand his teachings.

Posted by: J. Puma on October 31, 2003 10:07 AM

J., I don't mean for you to stop commenting, just don't be offended if I don't deal specifically with your comments the way I do with others. It's complicated enough sorting through the viewpoints of the assorted Catholics and Protestants in this discussion, my brain can only put up with being stretched so many ways! Gnostic Gospels are probably best dealt with separately. (Speaking of which, did you know that Lynn is going to blog about the Gospel of Thomas?)

Posted by: Camassia on October 31, 2003 10:33 AM

C.-- No worries-- I didn't take it that way. :) I agree that Gnostic beliefs are pretty alien to most Christian discussion, but I hope to add a bit of perspective from the Gnostic standpoint on occasion.

Funny about Lynn and Thomas, as I've just started doing the same thing on fantastic planet! Hope you'll drop by.

Posted by: J. Puma on November 1, 2003 12:52 PM
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