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The gospel and the Gospel of Mark


The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark

George Kimmich Beach

And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness, and he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him. Mark 1: 12-13

Intriguing questions addressed in the book:

Jesus proclaims, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Was this a colossal blunder, foretelling the imminent end of the world? Or was he calling people to reach out in faith and grasp the healing presence of God?
(See Chapter 4)

In Mark, Jesus’ ethics seem pragmatic or even calculating, as when he says, “The measure you give will be the measure you get,” and “Forgive so that you may be forgiven.” Do these admonitions contradict the idea ofunconditional love and forgiveness?
(See Chapters 12 and 31)

Mark says that Jesus “did not speak to them without a parable.” Never? Why would he constantly veil his message in figures of speech and obscure stories that even his disciples fail to understand? What unlocks this secrecy?
(See Chapter 14)

The oldest manuscripts of Mark end abruptly, with three women discovering that Jesus’ tomb is empty. Resurrection appearances such as those found in the other Gospels are absent. What can it mean that Mark only says, “He goes before you into Galilee”?
(See Chapter 40)

About the author

George Kimmich Beach is the author of Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Skinner House Books, 2005) and Questions for the Religious Journey (Skinner House Books, 2002). He has edited three volumes of essays by James Luther Adams, including An Examined Faith (Beacon Press, 1991). A graduate of Harvard Divinity School and Wesley Theological Seminary, Beach served Unitarian Universalist churches in Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia, and an urban ministry in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Madison County, Virginia.

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From the “Introduction”

A pathway into the origins of the gospel is also a pathway forward from the present, toward the future we choose. This book seeks to uncover that pathway.

All that we know of Jesus and his original message is derived from a few ancient texts, among which the Gospel According to Mark is particularly fascinating and often perplexing. Mark came first among the four Gospels of the New Testament, and as such planted the seeds from which subsequent traditions, especially those in narrative form, have grown.

The Seminal Gospel is an exploration of Mark and an extended personal reflection on what his telling of the story of Jesus can mean to us today. Its two focal points are intimately related. One is Mark’s text, taken so far as we are able, on its own terms. This especially means resisting the temptation to overlay our preconceived ideas about Jesus and his message on the text. The other focal point is simply what we, the readers and the author, bring to our reading. How distant our world is from the first century world of Jesus and the others vividly portrayed by Mark! And yet the humanity and passionate concerns of these people is immediately felt. In their story I recognize my own story. My hope is that readers who follow my explorations and reflections may more fully discover their own stories.

These two focal points are in tension with each other; but taken together they can generate significant insight. Like the two points which define the arcing line of an ellipse, they hold the promise of joining fuller understanding of a central religious tradition to fuller understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings. This kind of outward exploration and inward reflection will require of us a certain effort, perhaps forty days’ worth—here offered in forty chapters for convenient, if not easy, daily consumption!
. . .

This book culminates a labor of research and writing which has extended, desultorily, over several years. From time to time I’ve asked myself, to what end did I embark on this journey? At length I have answered: to rediscover the origins of the gospel, the good news, brought by Jesus. In my attempts (however desultory!) to follow the pathway he blazed for us, I have sought to understand where it leads today.

The study has taken the form of a devotional and educational exercise. Without originally so intending, I came to divide Mark into forty segments. Some readers may want to make the reading of Mark’s Gospel a spiritual practice during the forty days of Lent. But any forty days or more days will do! Taking time for patient reflection is what counts.

The commentary is intended to stimulate and focus the reader’s understanding of the story of Jesus that Mark tells. We do this best, I think, when we actively interrogate the text, asking, for instance:

• Who does Mark think this Jesus is, and what do I think about him?
• Setting aside all the ideas about Jesus I’ve picked up over the years, what puzzles me, or surprises me about Mark’s way of telling the story?
• We often hear people say they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” Why does Mark’s Jesus not use either of these terms?
• What insights do I gain into what it means to be faithful—for Mark in his world-age? And for myself in this world-age?

In his essay, “Naming God,” the noted philosopher and Biblical scholar, Paul Ricouer, writes:
Naming God, before being an act of which I am capable, is what the texts of my predilection do when they escape from their authors and their first audience, when they deploy their world, when they poetically manifest and thereby reveal a world we might inhabit.3

In this book Mark is the text of my predilection, and I find that it invites me to name God in my contemporary life-experience.

For those who are accustomed to questions of defining God, or of proving (or disproving!) God, naming God may seem an exceedingly odd notion. But with spiritual awakening comes the paradoxical recognition thatGod is by definition indefinable. And still more certainly, the recognition that attempts to prove or disprove the existence of God founder on the fact that they must presume to have defined God before they begin. (Often they will say, “Well, everybody knows what ‘God’ means! The only question is, does this God exist?” But the premise in this line of thought is entirely false.)

The present work is a personal and reflective commentary on the Gospel of Mark. More pointedly, it is an invitation to the meta-noia—the radical rethinking of my experience that Jesus’ first words in Mark, the first Gospel, call for. Professor Ricouer helps frame the central question of the inquiry into this text of my predilection. Does itdeploy and poetically manifest a world we might inhabit—a world in which the gospel is available to us as a main-spring of faith? More simply stated: Does this ancient text enable me to name God in my contemporary experience?

Consider that your first answer may be, “No,” or perhaps, “No, but I’m intrigued.” Religious understanding requires, I believe, not just sight but insight, breaking through the crust of appearances and being grasped by something vastly deeper. So caveat lector! Before you enter Mark’s world, consider that it may prove seductive.

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