We continue our every-Sunday-celebration of the 30th anniversary of Binding The Strong Man, Ched Myers’ political reading of Mark’s Gospel. This portion is excerpted from the book’s “Aftermath” entitled On Continuing the Narrative of Biblical Radicalism.
The empty tomb at the end of Mark’s Gospel symbolizes that his story, like its subject Jesus, has not ended but lives on. Just as Mark reached back across the centuries to bring the “old story” of Hebrew prophetic radicalism to life again in a new story about Jesus of Nazareth, so does he reach forward across the ages to us, challenging us to continue the story by “returning to Galilee” (Mark 16:7). But how is it that an invitation to “reread” this story is politically subversive? Does not the circle of narrative actually lead the reader away from practice, shutting out the real world and seducing us with one that exists only in our imagination? This is certainly what those who dismiss the fictions of apocalyptic narrative as the wish-dreams of the alienated would have us believe.
The question of whether the act of reading can animate the reader is nowhere better addressed than in contemporary German novelist Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (1983). High fiction in the tradition of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, Ende’s story within a story centers around Bastian, a boy alienated from his own world who tries to escape by immersing himself into the narrative world of a book about “Fantastica.” He identifies closely with the book’s protagonists, but becomes terrified when it begins to seem that the characters are soliciting his help in resolving their crisis. As the drama in “Fantastica” reaches its denouement, Bastian realizes that the story he is reading is doomed unless he responds to its cries for his active involvement. As he hesitates, frozen by fear, the story begins to turn back upon itself, unresolved, except that now Bastian is named in the text. So he finally “jumps into” the narrative, giving it a new beginning. After many adventures in which he learns more deeply about his true self, Bastian returns to his own real world, a transformed person.
In similar fashion, Mark’s narrative of discipleship, which so tragically collapses because of “blindness,” can continue only if we realize, like Bastian, that we are in fact characters in the very story we thought we were reading. Mark, like Ende’s novel, puts the “future” of the narrative in the hands of the reader. And he can do so precisely because he believes that the story and its subject are not “dead past” but “living present.” But how do we “jump into” the Gospel and make it our own? Mark’s readerly crisis cannot be resolved through a mere leap of imagination, but only by “taking up the cross” and following. The new story is one in which we are no longer only readers but also actants.
Our “script” thus becomes that of biblical radicalism. But did Mark mean this script to be a practical guide to real, revolutionary transformation of the world? And even if it was a concrete socio-political strategy in the context of first-century Palestine, can it be so in ours? Are not Mark’s criticisms too categorical, his apocalyptic dualism too Manichean, for our age of sophisticated ambiguities? Are not his constructive solutions overdemanding, indeed hopelessly idealistic? Above all, how is it that the “way of the cross” represents a realistic, positive practices in light of the complexities and the overwhelming violence of modern politics? Is it not simply an exercise in negation or, worse, an abandonment of the difficult and “dirty” tasks of long-term revolutionary struggle? These questions are real, and many will surely find it easier to dismiss Mark’s script of biblical radicalism in precisely the terms I have argued against: as the expression of alienated sectarianism or utopian dreaming.
Ours is not a hospitable world for visionaries–and not without good reason, for charlatans abound. Gospel radicalism is still dismissed in the metropolises of the West by the dominant ideologies of Christian realism. Yet many are reconsidering, for “realism” has demonstrably failed us. In its name the four apocalyptic horsemen of empire, militarism, economic exploitation and environmental revolt (Rev 6:2-8) ride freely over the earth. Is it not true, as social critic C.W. Mills once put it in his “Pagan Sermon to a Christian Clergy,” that “in our world ‘necessity’ and ‘realism’ have become ways to hide lack of moral imagination?” Perhaps, then, Mark offers a way whose kairos has truly come.