Holy week officially starts tomorrow. Today is a day for me to prepare for the journey. I want to gather together the things I’ll be taking along with me on the trip. Since this is a mental journey what I am packing is my spiritual and literary tool kits – those things that I use to extract meaning and to discern the truth for me: prayer, meditation, my training in literary criticism and from my Methodist roots the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
At best, reading and understanding the Bible and teachings of Jesus is difficult. In our world there are a number of people and groups attempting to use the Bible to promote or even enforce their view of the way things should work. The Bible is a complex document, often incomplete, inaccurate and sometimes even contradicts itself. There that should firmly label me as “evil,” or “heretic” in at least half the Christian churches on the planet. Just reading the words in the Gospel of Mark won’t tell the whole story or reveal the truth for my life. It takes a bit more work and a few tools to get there. There are a number of problems with reading the Gospel of Mark that one must account for while trying to find meaning (and God’s true intent as is my self-appointed task in this case – wow I love being pompous). They go something like this:
- We read the Bible in translation – not the original words. The Bible was written thousands of years ago in languages we no longer speak in a culture we’ve not experienced. The Gospel of Mark has special problems here. It was written in ancient Greek about peoples who spoke Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin. How much meaning has been lost in translation?
- The Gospel of Mark was written 30-40 years after Jesus died by people who likely did not witnesses the events.
- The writer of Mark interrupted the events of holy week from his perspective and was no doubt influenced by the events since the death of Jesus. The politically and religious realities of that point in time affected the writing.
Well that list could go on for a long time. In reading the text I need to account for these and other problems while trying to figure out what it means for me now – what message is being past to me through the ages?
Here are the tools I will use:
Prayer and mediation – having a conversation with God. Simply put, prayer is talking to God and mediation is listening to God. Prayer doesn’t have to be an elaborate thing with white robes and candles. Just clear your mind and talk. Voice your concerns, questions and doubts in your mind. In a conversation you need to listen – stop talking. For me meditation is just that, being quiet and being open to hearing that inner voice I know as God’s voice. God also speaks to me in other ways – though books and other people, so sometimes meditation includes reading a book, or listening to a trusted friend. I use this tool by reading the scripture, the book “The Last” and attending whatever daily event my church is having and then talk to God about it. Sounds simple enough.
John Wesley’s work highlights four tools he advocated for discerning the will of God and for learning. This Wikipedia article gives a good summary: Wesleyan Quadrilateral
I’ll be using all four parts of the quadrilateral but most of my focus with the practice reading of scripture and using reason which will be informed my experiences of the traditional holy week services at my church. As a Methodist these tools come quickly to my hand when I consider any spiritual matter.
The final tool I’ll be using is my education in literary criticism. Not the same as a movie critic but rather the field of study that tries to uncover the meaning of a text (or story) by providing different ways to analyze text or to provide a set of lenses though which we can view a text and figure out what it means. There are two methods to apply; reader response theory and intertextual reading. Each lens let’s me see a different aspect of meaning. There are a number of other lenses but these two are the ones I’ve chosen for this exercise.
Here are a couple of Wikipedia links that give a general, incomplete and not the best description of the lenses (but since you won’t likely read more they’re fine for now). Reader-response criticism intertextuality
Now for my quick view on each (quick? you should be so lucky):
Reader response theory suggests that the reader’s knowledge, experiences and personal beliefs affect the meaning of a text. It goes further to say that the meaning of a text is created in the mind of the reader and not by the action of a writer. An author can try to influence meaning based on shared knowledge or experience but in the end the reader’s own thoughts, feelings, past experiences and education affect what a text means.
For example think of the word ‘tree.’ What do you see? I saw a towering redwood tree, 300 feet high and 30 feet around. Did we see the same thing? Likely not. So for you to have the same picture of that redwood tree I need to provide more details and that assumes that at some point you actually seen a redwood tree. Now let’s add another factor. Let’s say I write: Arbol de secoya. What did I just say? According to my translation web site that is Spanish for redwood tree.
Now apply that to the book of Mark and ask what meaning have I lost or what have I misinterpreted because I don’t read ancient Greek and the writer didn’t report the actual Hebrew, Aramaic or Latin used by the people in the story? To understand the intent of the writer I need to know more about the writer and what the writer’s words meant to the writer. If you really want some fun we could engage in some historical reader response and try to figure what meaning a reader in Mark’s time might have received from the text. Brain fried yet? Keep reading, I’ll get it fried.
The last tool is just so cool and perhaps my favorite lens, intertextual reading. It’s based on the notion that no text is written in isolation from all other texts. In fact the writer of one text is influenced by another text which was influenced by another and so on. To fully understand the current text we need to understand the texts that influenced the writer or are referred to in the current reading. In Mark we find a number of references to stories in the Old Testament and a number of references to cultural knowledge (another version of a text) that it is assumed that the reader knows. Therefore, to fully understand the story in Mark we need to understand the other stories Mark refers to, understand what texts the writer might have read and what the culture of the time was.
In fact I’ve made the intertextual reading of Mark that much more complicated by reading Borg and Crossans’s book that interprets Mark. Borg and Crossan were no doubt influenced and draw information and meaning from sources other than the Bible. Of course the task now seems like an endless recursive search that will only end when I know everything about all texts, so I have to create artificial limits which in this case will be “The Last Week,” the Gospel of Mark, the Old Testament stories Mark refers to and anything I learn from my experiences this week along with all of my past experiences. Limiting? Sounds very big and given that I’m only taking a week I’ll have to cut a number of corners to get to any kind of meaning for me.
If you’re still reading this I can’t promise that the meaning I find will mean anything to you. I can only hope that the process might help or inspire you to study more on your own.