Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mark's Jesus and the Mystery of the Holy

"But Mark's point is different.  The disciples are not given the gift to know, and what they have been given is in the singular, mysterion, not a secret but a mystery.  This may be well the key word in Mark's narrative.  One can scarcely miss the associations it suggests with the mysterium tremendum ac fascinosum.  Jesus himself is the singular 'mystery of the kingdom,' and he is so as the Holy One.  He is recognized fully only by God and other spiritual forces.  He radiates an intense and fearful power.  It is a power, furthermore, that at once attracts and repels, so that some are drawn to him and some reject him.  Most of all, the mysterion resists understanding.  It cannot be deciphered, controlled, or reduced to a formula.  The mystery of the holy, even when revealed, remains beyond reach.

[Johnson goes on to describe Mark's portrayal of the disciples as both specially called to share in the ministry of Jesus and relentlessly ignorant of what his messiaship entails]

These literary observations suggest something of Mark's religious purpose in shaping the story of Jesus and the disciples in this fashion.  Mark's readers would naturally, as we still do, identify themselves with the disciples.  Mark therefore uses the relationship to teach his readers.  The message is mainly one of warning against smugness and self-assurance.  He seems to be saying, 'If you think you are an insider, you may not be; if you think you understand the mystery of the kingdom and even control it, watch out; it remains alive and fearful beyond your comprehension.  If you think discipleship consists in power because of the presence of God, beware; you are called to follow the one who suffered and died.  Your discipleship is defined by his messiahship, that is, in terms of obedience and service.'"

~Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament:  An Interpretation, 3rd. ed. (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2010), 153.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Orthodoxy - Oppressive Tradition or Protective Framework?

The following is copied from a Facebook comment I made on a friend's post about Rob Bell's new book on hell, Love Wins. It is a distillation of many of the things I have been thinking about while finishing up my course work for a winter intensive on the history of Anglicanism, and I put so much effort and thought into constructing it I decided it was worthy of a blog post. It is aggressive, intentionally so, probably because I have spent so much time thinking about Church history these past three days. I'm painting with a broad brush, so if any of the experts out there want to correct me, I'm game.

"Okay. Deep Breath.

Orthodoxy and tradition are the reason you even have a bible to read. It's the 'religion of men' that has handed down the word of God from generation to generation, preserving the apostolic witness to Christ. The bible didn't just drop out of the sky whole-cloth--that's what Muslims believe about the Quran, not what Christians know about the historical development of the Bible. This isn't an attack on biblical Christianity, but an insistence that holy truth cannot solely be discerned via one's personal devotions and 'common sense' reading of the bible. When we approach God and his word, we do so as part of a long tradition of God's faithful departed and in fellowship with his living followers.

The history of heresy has taught the theologically astute how to smell a rat. I've been enthralled before to Bell's tightrope walk between orthodoxy (that just means 'What the Church has always believed,' btw--born of a virgin, crucified, risen, coming again, fully man-god, etc) and welcome his fresh and culturally astute perspective. But part of the project of remaining relevant to culture and the existential situation of the common man is repeatedly calling the relevant back to the apostolic witness. Paul Tillich said it was first our job to answer culture's questions and we got liberalized, de-spiritualized Christianity which might as well be Unitarian. Karl Barth, on the other hand, insisted that God gets to ask the questions first, not man, and helped preserve historic Christian truth within our highly pluralistic culture and contributed greatly to the development of Vatican II.

So if those of us with theological training twitch when we hear someone suggesting that, contra what Christians what have always believed, they have it figured out, it's only because we recognize that the long tradition of the faithful has been hard at work preserving the apostolic witness to Christ. Just so you could have an English translation of the bible with which to decide whether Rob Bell is right."