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Setting the Stage

The Stage Is Set

The Story of MarkIn Tom Wright’s book Paul and His Recent Interpreters, 1 he suggests the following:

As soon as we think about it, we know we should do our best, in reading any texts from other contexts, to avoid two dangers: anachronism, imagining that people in a former time saw the world the way we do, and what Coleridge called “anatopism,” imagining that people in a different place saw things the way we do. Of course, we are at liberty to read the texts how we like —just as, notoriously, the guardians of ancient scrolls and manuscripts have sometimes been known to use them for shoe-leather, or for lighting the fire. But we know instinctively, I think, the difference between use and abuse. History is about what happened, and why it happened. We do not advance that quest by projecting our own personalities, or cultural assumptions, on to material from other times and places.

Wright’s perception has been my experience in teaching over the years. The two presuppositions that he shares: people in a different time and place see things differently that the way we do. Our modern inclination toward individualism has increased our own belief that “we are at liberty to read the texts how we like.” I ran into this early in my life with my mother, who was predisposed to have a Bible verse to sling at me for almost any infraction that she believed I had committed. Her favorite verse was in 1 Thessalonians in the King James Version (1 Thess. 5.22: KJV): “Abstain from all appearances of evil.” She had a list of things a mile long that I was to “abstain” from. When later in life I suggested to her that that verse did not mean what she believed it meant but meant, something else altogether, she just rolled her eyes and said, “If it was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me!” Really! She said that to me. I smile all these years later and remember the encounter, but seriously she could have been a “poster girl” for quoting verses to prove a point.

Read the Bible as Story not as fragments. Click To Tweet

Reading the text of Scripture is becoming or maybe more firmly “has become” a lost art. We read the Bible in fragments. The internet to some degree has expedited that notion. In the sacred text, we fight an uphill battle because it is has been fragmented for as long as we have been alive and many more years before. The addition of chapters and verses in the 1500s, which was originally meant to help find ideas in the text, has become the way in which we are taught to read the text. I’m sure that the ancient authors would be somewhat perturbed that their material has been treated in such a way, not to mention the frustration that God must feel when his kids seem to claim that he only speaks in fragmented thoughts.

We are fascinated by story in the entertainment realm. We watch serial programs on TV, sometime binge watching possibility that the people at Netflix brought us with programs like “House of Cards.” We get hooked on the plot and characters and sit for hours watching one episode/chapter after another. We sit through endless advertising to watch a half hour program or an hour program which often leaves us hanging for the next episode.

That kind of devotion creates our imagination. However, reading often takes a second chair and reading the Bible drops near the bottom of this list. If it’s not visual, it’s difficult to keep focus. Yet, with the era of smartphones, where visual is at our fingertips, we are still more likely to read Facebook posts that are sometimes augmented with a visual of pictures or videos. Or the new fragmented versification of thought with Twitter with its 140 character format. The average size for verses in the sacred text is small. Both verses and Twitter as idioms are very close. Twitter has furthered the fragmentation of reading.

It is difficult to hear the story of Scripture when the itty bitty pieces are the talk of the day. It is difficult to hear the thrust of the story as a subversive text seeking to overthrow the present empire of the day, which is comprised of national governments, corporations, or the ChurchWorld.

The sacred text should serve our ears as an alternative version of life that animates our life differently than the lives that we live, lives that our culture has co-opted us into with a nationalist form of Christianity. The story of Scripture is a subversive story offering an alternative imagination and an alternative way of life, a life that can be formed and sustained in the life of a community of faith. I know, we all think that is what we are doing when we go to church at the corner of walk and don’t walk, Sunday after Sunday. But is it? Is it really? Probably not! Why?

It is difficult to have a fresh hearing of the text when we are fed the text in fragments that support whatever the latest fad or news cycle has going. It is difficult to have a fresh hearing of the text when our own society is the mindset/worldview from which we read the sacred text.

Most Bible reading is reading into the text a meaning foreign to the text helped along by the fallaciousness of quoting verses, posting verses, and memorizing verses with full immunity. Most sermons are a cobbling together of verses that are not related to each other all to create an allusion of a theme that is not present.

Here’s an example:

Sermon Topic: Be a Sunday School Booster

Introduction: Proposition: people don’t go to Sunday School because they like to sleep in, Proverbs 24.33-34 is used as the proof text suggesting that folks don’t go to Sunday School because they are too lazy.

The sermon proceeds with three points, yep, go figure, three points.

  1. Because we need to be better than we are:
    Three Scriptures are used to bolster this point (Phil. 3:14; 3:1-2; 2 Pet. 3:18)
  2. Because we need Christian fellowship
    Three more Scriptures to help make this point (Gal. 6.2; Gal. 6.12; Rom. 12.10
  3. Because we need to learn God’s Word
    Two Scriptures to make this point (2 Tim. 2.15; 2 Tim. 3.16-17)

Even a casual reading of these passages will demonstrate that they have nothing to do with the points being offered. The texts are presented and read but not interpreted, just used as “Bible bullets” to make the sermonizer’s point.

Think about it this way. If you were to mix the milk from eight nursing mothers and feed it to one hungry infant, what do you think the results would be?
If you were to mix the milk from eight nursing mothers and feed it to one hungry infant, what do you think... Click To Tweet Anemic preaching and teaching produces anemic Jesus followers. Sermons like the one above are not helpful! Neither is the plague of verses thrown at us by Christian publishing.

It’s simple. We are inundated with the culture we live in. We don’t even think about it. We just accept it as normal and then argue it as correct when challenged.

The purpose then of this book is to present the Gospel of Mark in a way that is not focused on verses but is focused on the story as the author presented his work, i.e., narrative theology vs. systemic theology.

Rather than systematic theology, which is little more than stringing a group of verses together to demonstrate what one thinks Scripture is saying about a certain topic, narrative theology refuses to treat Scripture in a way that Roger Olson calls “not-yet-systematized systemic theology.” 2 Narrative theology also repels the idea that we can know much beyond what the storyline tells us. It is a theology that believes that the whole story should be taken into account and that any smaller story must find its place within the larger narrative

While the chapter and verse range has been retained, they are there for markers. I have removed the chapters and verses from the text entirely. 3 One of the major changes is the removal of chapters and verses from the text and follows a structure, for the most part of The Books of the Bible (TBoTB), which divisions follow the literary structure of the book rather than chapter and verse structure. In each section of the study, the page numbers are clearly marked for TBoTB if you choose to read the paper version. The TBoTB uses the New International Version, 2011.

My hope is that you will have a fresh reading of the text and that the comments that I offer will be helpful in your own journey. It is fair to say that the way in which this book is written has been influenced in its structure by Tom Wright’s New Testament “Everyone” series. This is surely not to co-opt Wright into the content, which remains mine, although influenced by many authors over the years.

Finally, the word “immediately” (eutheós) appears eighty-seven times in the New Testament books. Why is that important? Because it is used by Mark almost half the times it is used in the New Testament. That provides a bit of a clue to the urgency that Mark wants his audience to sense and feel about the story of Jesus. It is a fast-paced story, surely fit for a hurried society in which it was first introduced and the fast-moving society in which it now lives.

Helpful Resources

Easy to Understand
Tom Wright. Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone [Paperback] Advanced
Ben Witherington III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.
William L. Lane. The Gospel according to Mark: The English Text With Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (The New International Commentary on the New Testament)


  1. N. T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 3.
  2. Roger E. Olson, “Holley-Hull Lecture: A Relational View of God’s Sovereignty,” patheos.com. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2015/10/holley-hull-lecture-a-relational-view-of-gods-sovereignty/ (accessed October 13, 2015).
  3. The text used in these studies is the International Standard Version © 1996–2011. Version 2.0. Used by Permission.
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