“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars,
do not be alarmed.
Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.
Nation will rise against nation,
and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines.
These are the beginning of birth pains.
‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
Be on guard! Be alert!
You do not know when that time will come!
– Mark 13 –
OK, OK, OK, y’all.
Can we skip Mark 13?
I am not happy with Mark 13, friends.
I had the honor of chatting with Blake Chastain on his really great podcast, Exvangelical, a few weeks ago (link here for the interested). I had already read through Mark 13 a few times and was almost physically dreading writing about it. Before I talked to Blake, I thought that the solution to this dread was producing a really stunning piece of theological exegesis. I love exegesis, and haven’t done the kind of heavy hitting, using-my-Biblical-languages, opening-8-commentaries kind of exegesis in awhile. I was going to find words for this text that helped us wrestle with a thousand difficult issues. I was going to be confident.
When I talked to Blake, though, and said some things out loud about tackling Mark 13, I realized that my struggle with this text is probably the deepest kind of struggle anyone just beginning the journey from fundamentalism can have while wrestling with Scripture.
So today I’m just going to chat. Chat about the Bible. Chat about why it’s hard. Chat about deconstructing faith and the Bible and religion. Chat about Jesus.
And maybe we’ll get around to Mark 13. Maybe.
I was taught to read the Gospels as a script, verbatim, a word for word record of what Jesus said. I was taught that Mark didn’t write this – Jesus said this. Jesus’ words were the final word on faith and life, which was only an assumption that you could make if you believed that what was written in the Gospels was exactly what Jesus said. Authorship wasn’t part of our idea of the Bible – there was no “motivation” from the author of Proverbs, or “intent” from the author of James. It was all just – God’s words. God’s exact words. A literal play-by-play, because a Holy Spirit video recorder was present for every event recorded in Scripture. What it meant for Mark to be inspired by the Holy Spirit was that the Holy Spirit grabbed his hand and wrote words for him, with no input from Mark whatsoever. While writing, Mark wasn’t himself. Had no opinions. Didn’t live under assumptions from his culture. He kind of floated above it all, in a disembodied, disconnected version of himself. (For the theology geeks here – yes, modern Biblical literalism is pretty similar to Gnosticism).
So a passage like this would not be informed by Mark’s experience of the destruction of the temple, would not be informed by Mark’s experience in the early church, would not be informed by the particular experience that Mark had hearing about Jesus and what Mark wanted Jesus to mean to the world. When fundamentalists read the Bible, it doesn’t matter what Mark thought, wanted, experienced, because Mark as a human being is not part of the recording of the Gospel narrative. Maybe when he wasn’t writing the Bible (like when he ate lunch with a friend, or went to work) Mark had some sins, some failings, bad theology, and maybe he thought slavery was cool and that women weren’t really fully human (like everyone else around him because that’s how cultural assumptions work), but that never crept into his writing because the Bible is not a record of what full humans experienced of the Divine in time and space and place. The Bible is a disembodied, floating, ephemeral Spiritual Text that only records events that literally happened. Fundamentalists pay lip service to the fact that the Bible was written by sinful humans, but it’s not really their theology – because they don’t acknowledge that humanness while reading the text. Because if the sin, or cultural assumptions, or even just the opinions of the authors crept into their recording of their experiences of the Divine, the Bible would no longer be Holy.
So with those assumptions, I used to read Mark 13 pretty literally. This describes is actually what is going to happen at the end of the world. Jesus said all this, exactly as it is written. Interpreting this passage means trying to understand what Jesus was trying to say. Because we can trust this record as an accurate reflection of Jesus’ words.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of reading is where the Left Behind series and general Christian apocalyptic traditions come from (Chris Stroop writes a great piece about this here).
I stopped reading the Bible literally a few years before grad school, but didn’t really have a map for how else to read it. So when I got to grad school, a splash of smart liberal Scriptural interpretation can make a young philosophy nerd who grew up in an anti-academic religious environment punch drunk. And I got pretty punch drunk.
I learned about how each of the different authors of the Gospels had different stories about Jesus that they were trying to tell. I learned that Markan priority means that we believe Mark was written first, in part because it’s the shortest Gospel, and also because Mark’s Jesus is so baffling – other Gospel writers expanded and demystified Jesus. I learned that Mark is painting a picture of Jesus as a powerful healer with religious power and authority, that Matthew is invested in Jesus as a good law interpreter and teacher, that Luke sees Jesus as a prophet anointed to preach repentance and restoration (this explains why Luke is my favorite Gospel – repentance is my jam), and who the heck knows what John is doing over there but it’s really metaphorical and it’s big into Jesus as a Passover offering. I learned a lot of other things about how to interpret the Bible, how we can trace different voices of different writers with different intentions through the Pentateuch and how each story in Scripture carries with it the weight of the moment in history that each author wrote in.
It felt freeing. It felt magical. It felt like enjoying the Bible more than I had since high school when I used to memorize Bible verses by sticking them to notecards on my window ledges and in my car. The Bible was fun again! The Bible was full of exciting codes to crack, things to learn, languages to interpret, and finally – the Bible was full of answers again. Thank. God. Because fundamentalism told me that I’d get all my answers from this book, and it was a terrible few years when it didn’t.
So that makes this passage in Mark incredibly easy to understand, yeah? Through this lense, this passage in Mark was written to wrestle with the loss of the temple, the “cultic center,” which was the center of Jewish religious practice and meaning. Since the cultic center, the center of life and faith and worship, is gone, what does it mean to practice religion, and what does it mean to be a community? Is there a new way to understand “who we are”? How does a community make meaning out of what they perceive as the beginning of the end of their central identity? And what did Jesus have to say about this? This passage in Mark can be read as words by Mark, written to a particular group of people wrestling with particular problems and trauma.
Yay! We solved it!
But now I am stuck.
Because I sure didn’t interpret the other 12 chapters of Mark like this, did I?
I took those words of Jesus seriously. That is what Jesus said. And we wrestled with it, sometimes heavily, and sometimes joyfully, but we wrestled with 12 chapters of Mark under the assumption that Jesus actually said the things that Jesus was recorded as saying.
But now – now that we get to some uncomfortable stuff, now that the text is tricky, am I just gonna drop that method of interpretation?
And swap to another one?
Was I supposed to read the other 12 chapters like this, wondering not how to deal with a God who acts more justly because a woman demanded that God be just, but instead, should we have wondered why Mark thought that God was like this? Should we have looked at Jesus’ words as Mark’s words, written in the context of the early church that already had the writings of Paul?
Which words of Jesus are things that he actually said?
And then which words of Jesus are close enough to what he said, but kind of filtered through a particular cultural lense, like the subtle differences between Matthew and Luke’s Beatitudes?
And then which words of Jesus are just words put in his mouth by a 1st century author, looking to make sense of world events by giving his religious leader particular words to help cope with the trauma?
And does it matter?
Are scholars right when they say that the search for the historical Jesus is ultimately a fool’s errand, that we can’t really know who Jesus actually was and what Jesus actually said, we can only know things that people thought and said about him?
That all we can know about Jesus are the words that strangers put in an ancient man’s mouth?
When I encounter something like Mark 13, it’s tricky knowing which interpretive hat to put on. The Rapture, the End Times, have been notoriously misused and misunderstood for the last 100 years , and I could write a well researched little think piece drawing from the dozens of scholarly articles and books about how the “End Times” function in Mark’s worldview as a first century Christian.
But all the ways in which I could grapple with this text dodge away from the fundamental doubts that reading it raises – if I cannot build a solid foundation of belief, that is unscalable and beyond criticism, on passages from the Bible, what can I build it on?
If Scripture is confusing, and some parts of it historically untrustworthy – what am I supposed to build my house on?
On the week after the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I’m OK with continuing to celebrate all the fantastic things that Martin Luther did for the Church, and his reforming spirit that freed a lot of people from oppressive church practices. But Luther left some troubling legacies, too. Perhaps the most troubling legacy is a Protestant church that is increasingly built on the Bible, and not on Christ. The accusation that Luther gave us a “paper pope” as a substitute for a human pope is more on point than Protestants, but especially fundamentalists and evangelicals, give credit for. The idea that the Pope could be untrustworthy was as disorienting for folks in the 16th century as the idea that the Bible could be untrustworthy is for us today.
But all good reform is the decentering of the religious idols that take us away from the full worship, experience, and intimacy with God that Jesus Christ’s incarnation invites us into. Evangelicals are too easily pleased with decentering other people’s idols, and too uncomfortable with decentering their own. And when John tells us that in the beginning was the Word, he is not talking about the book of Judges or Micah or James or Romans or even the Gospels but Jesus Christ.
Yes, we experience Jesus Christ when we read the Scriptures.
But we also experience Jesus Christ in prayer and contemplation.
In the face of our neighbors.
In the wisdom of the traditions of those who came before us.
In God’s revelation of nature.
Perhaps even through the Pope, y’all.
There are a lot of excellent scholars doing really superb work on how to read the Bible in a non-fundamentalist/non-literal way, and how to understand Jesus in this context (I highly recommend The Meaning of Jesus, a conversation between Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright, the most helpful and easily accessible book I’ve read about the problem of Jesus and the Gospels). There are hundreds of books and articles about how to read a passage like Mark 13. There are so many wise pastors and writers and poets helping to learn how to understand the Gospels.
But if we go into this project panicked, with a need to protect the Bible from question or dispute as if it is the Bible that we worship and not a risen Savior who is the touchable face of the ineffable Divine – if we approach the Bible as if it is holy in the way that God is holy – if the Bible isn’t just a way that we understand the Divine but sneakily acquires its own type of Divinity that demands worship without question and acceptance without dispute – if we try to build our house on the rock of Scripture instead of on the Rock of Christ –
Well, my dears, we have slid into a religiously acceptable idolatry. And if there is one thing that we learn from the Gospels, it’s that religiously acceptable idolatry is the most pernicious, the most dangerous, and the least easy to spot.
I haven’t really touched Mark 13, have I?
Well, I can’t say that I’m not relieved.
Maybe there are some parts of the Bible that we need to come back to later, in different places and with different tools. Maybe there are some parts of the Bible that will never be very clear to us. And that’s a hard and disorienting thought.
But the solid rock that we build our house on is not Scripture. Our Rock, the Word of God, is Christ. A tricky text or a difficult reading or an impossible tradition or a bad pastor or a complicated relationship to the Church itself can’t shake that. They certainly make Jesus trickier to see some days. They can make our faith a more painful and blistered kind of faith. They all might conspire to make our daily life more complicated than we could have imagined when we sang “Jesus Loves Me” and memorized John 3:16 a hundred years ago.
But all that difficulty is also sacred. Deconstruction tears down everything that isn’t Christ. Deconstruction pulls us away from everything unstable that we long to build our houses on. Deconstruction rips out weeds that are choking healthy plants, melts our cardboard cutouts, and burns through brush so that there is good space and rich earth for new growth.
And making space for new growth is sacred work.
Enjoyed this post? Check out the rest of my series on Mark!
My original post about why I’m studying Mark,
Mark 2: Avocado Toast,
Mark 3: So You’ve Left Fundamentalism…,
Mark 4: Our Patch of Earth,
Mark 5: What is Your Name?,
Mark 6: WWJD! What Could Go Wrong?,
Mark 7: Talking Back to God,
Mark 8: The Banality of Goodness,
Mark 9: Before You Pluck Out That Eye…
Mark 10: The Rich Young Ruler and the Impossible Choice
Mark 11: Bad News Gospel
Mark 12: The Church Isn’t Yours (So Let It Go Before God Takes It Back