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It’s About “You”
We can get caught up in the details of our life dramas, since that’s what we live intimately day in and day out. Amanda Brobst-Renaud refers to a recent article by Simon Dein on the relationship between current crises and apocalyptic thinking in our own contexts. That article is available online and worth a firsthand read.
“Pandemics,” Dein writes, “indicate the fragility of life and the world, chaos, engender paralysing anxiety that the world is dissolving, a sense of detachment and raise significant issues of meaning resulting in existential crises.” He suggests that such a crisis puts into doubt our accepted systems of symbolism, significance, and sense. As a result, we cast about for other explanatory systems to manage the mess.
“Our current plausibility structures upon which the existence of society is dependent are (sic) threatened,” Dein writes, “and we are urgently in need of alternative sociocultural contexts to provide structures of meaning.” I would suggest that this need explains at least to some degree, for example, the phobias regarding masks and vaccines and the continued attraction of informal apocalyptic schemas such as the QAnon conspiracy cluster. More on that, perhaps, later.
Dein notes that apocalyptic literature, therefore, is not only “religious” in background and context. In fact, I would argue, that we live in an era of hybrid religio-secular apocalypses resulting in such things as the “Christian Nationalism” at the root of the January 6th insurrection. From that perspective, the Covid crisis is uncovering a decay in the “Real America” of Christian Nationalist mythology. Since this is an existential crisis, it’s no wonder that as many as a third of the proponents of this mythology believe that public violence will be the result and solution.
The Covid crisis also provides the opportunity for more “left-leaning” apocalyptic scenarios. I find these more based in evidence and less in ideology, but such views are not without their own mythologies. That being said, Dein puts it this way. “The Covid crisis is revealing health care inequalities, class divisions, unequal distribution of power, and the fact that the most important workers in American society are among the least paid. Health inequalities have been brought into sharp focus and the crisis has exposed the structural disadvantage and discrimination faced by parts of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.”
I just want to point out the “apocalyptic” verbs in Dein’s comments: revealing, brought into sharp focus, exposed. These verbs describe the impact of apocalyptic scripting and literature on the audience and readers.
All that being said, Dein reminds us that the fundamental perspective of apocalyptic literature in the end is that of hope. Things are not as they ought to be. The current situation is dissolving under the weight of its own dysfunction. Something new is being born among us. The question is not whether we face an apocalyptic crisis. Humans always face such crises, to one degree or another. The question is, rather, whether we have placed our hope in One who brings the beginning to birth.
How would the Markan performer present this part of the script? There may be clues to such performances in the text. And those clues may help us to experience the text a bit more like the first audiences did. I would encourage you to read Mark 13 aloud several times and try to experience what it would be like to speak these words aloud to a living audience. I find that this affects my responses as an interpreter.
The text begins in a “third-person” mode. We are spectators as the anonymous disciple raises his question about the temple. But that indirect mode of address quickly turns to a “second-person” perspective. “Are you seeing these large buildings?”
The shift goes from “him” to “you” very quickly. There is a brief respite from that in-your-face conversation back to the third person for a moment in verse 3. I can imagine the performer turning more directly to the audience and looking people in the eye. Even though the audience would not be looking at the Temple in person, many in the crowd would be able to recover images of that Temple in their imaginations.
Remember that the text is spoken after the Temple has been reduced to ruins. Inviting the listeners to bring the Temple to mind would likely lead them to feelings of fear, anger, grief, and shock. At least some may have worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple before its destruction. Some may have witnessed that destruction as they escaped from Jerusalem one step ahead of the Roman occupiers. I am moved by this imaginative effort at some empathy which deepens the pathos of the text.
If that was the experience of those early audiences, it’s no wonder that there is a small break, perhaps, between verses two and three. The listeners have been smacked in the mouth, rhetorically, with memories of tragedy and trauma. They probably needed a moment to recover before the onslaught continued. I imagine the whole crowd taking a deep breath after verse 2 and the performer allowing for and even imitating that pause.
The four disciples speak the anxieties of the audience in their questions. The listeners are drawn back in because they too would like to know the underlying code if that’s possible. The performer turns from the third-person narration back to the second-person (plural) confrontation.
This is the power, as is so often the case in the Markan composition, of the quoted dialogue. “See that you are not deceived,” Jesus says. I cannot imagine playing this line in any way other than looking at the listeners right through the “fourth wall” of the performance. This direct address doesn’t let up until the end of chapter thirteen.
Joanna Dewey argues that “in the very oral performance of these speeches, Jesus is made present to audiences. The hearers of the Gospel experience being directly addressed by Jesus” (page 117).
I would argue, in fact, that the Little Apocalypse is framed by direct addresses to the audience. There is the initial order to look at the great building and to look to oneself. And there is the final admonition to one and all to keep watch. Dewey says this final admonition “is easily understood in the context of oral performance, for performers often make asides to their audiences in character” (page 118).
The focus of literary criticism and interpretation of scriptural accounts is typically on the meaning of what has been written. We preachers try to figure out “the point” and then translate that to our current settings. The focus of performance criticism, however, is to help us experience the impact of what is being spoken. Meaning and impact are certainly related. But the Markan composer is not merely in the business of information transfer. The composer is in the business of provoking responses.
Dewey argues, in line with most Markan scholars now, “that the Gospel of Mark was composed around 70 CE, in response in part to the First Roman-Jewish War and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. I agree that it is ‘hot memory,’” she continues, “serving that present situation, not an attempt to preserve some earlier pristine past” (page 111).
This makes the Little Apocalypse a critical section for understanding the Markan composition. I have often been reminded by commentators that the narrative of the composition could flow uninterrupted from the Poor Widow’s Offering to the beginning of chapter 14 without the inclusion of chapter 13. In fact, that may have been the shape of the script until the events of 66 to 70 CE in Judea.
With Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins and prisoners being executed in Rome, it became not only necessary but critical to include some interpretation of those events in the Markan composition. This doesn’t require the proposal that the Markan composer either made up the Little Apocalypse or hijacked it from some other source. Jesus’ words, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, made sense in the days of his earthly ministry. But they took on real urgency once there was no longer “one stone left upon another.”
With this narrative framework in mind, the address to the audience takes on a bit more clarity. “I would argue,” Dewey writes “that Mark is simply separating the expectation of the return of the Son of Humanity from the events of the Roman-Jewish War” (page 115). Part of the impact of the direct address is to shift the attention of the audience from those “prophets” who saw the destruction of the Temple as the “end” and to the narrative that sees it as the “beginning.”
Times of disorientation, dislocation, and disintegration lend themselves especially to the machinations and manipulations of false messiahs. While government authorities will persecute the Jesus followers and family members will betray them, it is only the false messiahs who will mislead and deceive them.
Dewey, following Werner Kelber, argues that these false messiahs are, in fact, leaders of the Markan community. These are not, Dewey argues, to be seen as equivalent to The Twelve or their successors. Instead, they are leaders who arise, I take it, in the midst of the crisis and seek to lead the community in the direction of end times speculation rather than in the direction of patient endurance.
In my parish ministry, I learned that whenever a crisis of meaning or identity faced the dominant culture in the United States, one or more parishioners would approach me and ask, “Pastor, do you think we’re in the End Times?” In my pastoral youth, I discounted such questions with overly long disquisitions on the nature of apocalyptic and our hope in the gospel. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I was neither pastoral nor helpful.
After a while, I began to answer the question with a qualified “yes.” While I take seriously the reminder that eschatological calendars and timetables are both a waste of time and bordering on heresy, I also know that we often find ourselves at “the end of the world as we know it.” The Millennium Bug, the Iraq War (either version), Hurricane Katrina (or others), the 2008 financial crisis, the election of Barak Obama, Antiracism protests, Covidtide, and a dozen other events have produced the question in congregations I served – and for very good reasons.
After more of a while, I began to answer the question with “I hope so.” This is the Good News of Christian apocalyptic discourses. It is not that we are about to experience the Rapture or Armageddon, to ride with the Four Horsemen or to flee to the mountains beyond Judea. Instead, I hope we are always witnessing a fresh outbreak of the Kin(g)dom of God drawing near. I hope that we are always, as Jesus followers at least, changing our minds and putting our trust in the Good News.
Let the reader understand…
References and Resources
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.
Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.