The recent essay I had to write for our New Testament 1 course has given me a lot of food for thought*, particularly with regard to the techniques employed by Mark in seeking to persuade us that Jesus is the ‘Christ, the Son of God.’
Have you ever thought that if you or I set out to convince someone that they should follow Jesus, give him their personal allegiance to the point of death, that we probably wouldn’t be content to simply present a narrative?
I’ve just come back from a mission week where we were engaged in a whole range of evangelistic presentations. We gave out CD’s and knocked on doors. I sat in on a ‘dialogue meeting’ (question and answer time with Christians and non-Christians), and spoke at a Chapel service. Each activity was designed to engage with people and persuade them that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Yet we didn’t once engage in the form of persuasion and teaching that was employed by the writers of the Gospels.
I really don’t want to fall into the sad, trendiness, of those ‘Evangelists’ who want us to simply tell each other our ‘stories’. Narrative theology is all the rage at the moment and it has been very influential in thinking through how we preach and proclaim God’s word. It helpfully reminds us to be attentive to the form in which God’s word presents truth. It’s good to remember that the literary form of the scriptures isn’t just an accident of history. There are no accidents in history.
So why does Mark tell a story where he (and we) might reasonably have chosen a more direct form of argument?
I thought about this a lot while I was working to understand the overall significance of the feeding miracles for Mark’s presentation of Jesus.
I think the feeding miracles form a piece of the interpretative framework which Mark is unfolding for the reader. By that I mean, Mark isn’t just writing a narrative of Jesus’ life. He’s writing a narrative that will have a certain effect on the reader. Mark is creating a framework that is designed to create a reader who will encounter the events of Jesusâ€™ death equipped to understand them as (among other things) the climax of Jesusâ€™ kingly provision for his followers.
Mark establishes a resonance in the mind of the reader through his description of events. As you progress through the narrative, Jesusâ€™ breaking bread to feed the hungry crowds, echoes in his breaking bread for his disciples at the Passover.
Jesusâ€™ compassion, his power, his superabundant provision, are in the mind of the reader as he or she comes to the final meal that Jesus shares with his disciples. As the bread is broken once more, Mark adds the final touches to the framework through which the reader will encounter the death of Jesus.
The narrative structure of Mark is intended to create a reader who is capable of understanding the true significance of the disturbing events at the end.
Mark faced the difficulty of presenting a message to individuals who could not possibly have the framework of experience to understand its significance. How could anyone hear of the execution of a man for blasphemy and come to the conclusion that he is the answer to our seeking after God? In itself, the death of Jesus is a deeply ambiguous event.
We face the same problem as we seek to share the message of Jesus with people who are completely unequipped to understand it. On a practical level, the average Aussie doesn’t see themselves as occupying the same narrative world as Jesus, our questions about life seem different, the history of answers to these questions – the culture we share seems very removed from the world of the New Testament. On a spiritual level, the average Aussie is unable to understand the message of Jesus due to darkness and ignorance brought on by rebellion against God.
For anyone to encounter Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection – and to correctly understand the significance of these events – requires that they themselves be transformed into the kind of person capable of understanding. This requires the spiritual work of removing blindness. And it also requires the approach taken by Mark and the Gospel writers. The person will need to be transformed by the narrative so that they come to occupy the same thought-world, so that the reader is shaped to stand at the correct vantage point, the proper angle, from which to view the cross.
That’s why its fascinating to study the narrative techniques by which Mark does this shaping, and to wonder how we could apply similar techniques to our engagement with people.
Who’d be interested in writing an evangelistic book along these lines?
*topic of the essay was “What is the significance of the feeding miracles for Markâ€™s presentation of the ministry of Jesus?”