Two days ago I was able to attend a live reading of the Gospel of Mark.* The goal was to experience the Gospel in a way similar to an early Christian community – orally. As Michael Bird correctly notes,
“Our earliest Christian literature is the textual product of the oral activities of the early church, including proclamation, apologetics, exhortations, prayers, debates, hymns, creeds, and storytelling… Several scholars have drawn attention to the Gospel of Mark as a text designed to be orally performed and to be aurally penetrating.”
Some observations after hearing Mark performed:
1: I’m irreversibly textual.
I’m not sure it’s possible to “go back in time” and make-believe that we are an illiterate community. While listening to Mark, it was obviously clear to me that I am a textual person. Part of this is my personality (I learn better that way … I’m not an “oral learner”) but I believe that in a large way all of the developed world is irreversibly textual. In other words: I think textually… I process information textually… I organize material textually. I found myself consistently fighting the temptation to “see the words” in my mind or to place the story to a chapter or verse (chapters and verses are a separate problem: “Have We Ruined the Bible?”).
2: Mark is a genuinely good story.
Bird, and other New Testament scholars, are correct to identify Mark as a legitimately engaging oral narrative. It keeps one’s attention with its pace, it has more than enough humor, and it contains a good amount of dramatic tension. Many of the “themes of Mark” that I knew intellectually, such as the Messianic Secret, had even more of an impact when I heard the entire text at once.
3: The cumulative effect of a story is greater than the sum of its parts.
There’s something wise about keeping a story together instead of breaking it into pieces. A narrative seems to have a “cumulative meaning” – a powerful impression left on the mind when it is told all at once. There are many confusing events in Mark that make me want to stop and ask questions, but with the story continuing on one is forced to accept these elements as they are and keep following the narrative. In fact, having these questions unanswered and lingering in the back on one’s mind actually brings out the overall meaning of the story.
4: I’m often as confused as the disciples, but I want to follow Jesus.
Jesus is an attractive, mysterious, and powerful figure. I want to know him, I want to be like him, and I want to follow him. I’m often afraid. At times I have denied him. But I’ve never been able to shake this haunting feeling that he has risen and I am called to follow him into the future.
* Our church hosted the event and Mark was read by my good friend (and one of our Elders) Jake Milwee. While planning the event, we found out that we were definitely not the first to do so: see Mark’s Gospel Live, Performances of Mark’s Gospel, and Mark’s Gospel (performed by Max McClean).