Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mark 4: Jesus's Secret Teaching

For many modern believers, the Christian creed is both simple and universal. In fact, its availability and accessibility are often cited as its greatest strengths. All you need to do is believe in Jesus--in his resurrection and his forgiveness--to join in. And what could be easier than basic belief? (For many liberal theologians, it is much more complicated, but bear with me.)

However, Groucho Marx once remarked that he never wanted to be part of a club that would admit him as a member, and I wonder if similar things couldn't be said about such an omnivorous Christianity. I mean, which bar would you rather visit on a Saturday night--the one whose sleazy bouncers pass out cheap glossy postcards that scream "no cover; girls drink free"? Or the invite-only, super-swank Manhattan speakeasy with no sign and an ominous black front door?

Well, at least one of the gospels delivers a message that is very much like the second--all members-only intrigue and high-society class. That book is Mark, and in Mark, Jesus's message is dark, difficult, secret, and--unlike the modern Christian one--available only to an elite few.

Most Biblical scholars believe that Mark is the oldest gospel. According to our best estimates, it was written somewhere between 65 and 70 C.E., just a few decades after the death of Jesus. Because of its age, many argue that it presents us with the truest portrait of the Christian savior. But if Mark's is an accurate rendering, we may not like this dude very much.

Because Mark's Jesus is surly, temperamental, and given to fits of rage. Further, he often indicates that his teaching is most certainly not for everyone. Nowhere is he clearer on this point than in chapter four. In this passage, Jesus has just finished speaking a parable--a folksy illustration supposedly meant to elucidate the thornier parts of his message.

After the speech, his disciples--apparently finding the story a little opaque--pull him aside to question him about its function. Jesus's reply, however, is unexpectedly mean-spirited: "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables, in order that they may indeed look, but no perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand" (4:12).

Here, in a very raw Biblical moment, Jesus says that he has two teachings: one fake one for the masses and one real, "secret" one for the inner circle. Further, he suggests that his parables are specifically designed to distract the crowd from the truth, to preserve the inside for the insiders. Said differently, if you're hearing a parable, you won't be partying with the billionaire mayors and the German supermodels tonight--you'll be jostled on the sweaty dance floor by frat boys wearing tee-shirts that say, "If you like my guns, wait till you see my rocket."

But if this isn't all galling enough, we also discover that the crowd's confusion is very costly, for Christ goes on to nefariously argue that those distracted by the parables "may not turn again and be forgiven" (4:12) Thus, those who aren't in on the secret aren't only uncool; they're unredeemed.

Now, the Mark author--or some later editor--eventually backtracks later on in the chapter; just a few verses later, Jesus says, nor is anything secret, except to come to light" (4:22). But it's very difficult to reconcile this feint at full disclosure with the frightening elitism of the previous verse.

And I can't help but wonder if this isn't just lip service, and if the big black door hasn't already been shut.

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