James Luther Adams noted that “the quality of Jesus’ words was matched only by the quality of his life. Indeed, if he had not possessed his power with words, we would not now know about the power of his life.” The Gospels of the New Testament are the primary source of what we know of Jesus’ life and words.
My personal commentary on the Gospel of Mark, The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark, was written with the forty days of Lent in mind (Ash Wednesday falls on February 26, 2020). But a “slow read” is recommended at any season. The following essay lifts up a central theme of the book, “parabolic vision.” GKB
After Jesus tells the parable called “The Sower,” the disciples ask him what it means. He replies: “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? And how will ye know all parables?” (See Mark 4: 11-13.)
The Yogi Book, a national best-seller by Yogi Berra, is subtitled, “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!” We must assume, of course, that this is not necessarily something he said. The recently formed Yogi Berra Seminar has noted this admission that some of his famous sayings are apocryphal. Accordingly, they have established criteria for deciding which are authentic and which are dubious, at best. Berra claims, for instance, to have said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be,” a patently theological statement that he explains with the question, “If the world were perfect, how would you know?” In other words, a perfect world is unknowable and therefore impossible. On its authenticity scale the Seminar rated this saying “too intellectual” and therefore highly doubtful. Another instance is his claim to have said, when he was asked for the time of day, “You mean now?” Isn’t this saying is redolent with eschatological consciousness, rather like Jesus’ reported words, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (that is, draws near, Gr. eggizo), and therefore, as the Jesus Seminar maintains, to be judged apocryphal, like all such interpretations influenced by Albert Schweitzer?
My school of Yogi Berra interpretation is different. It finds the recognition that he “really didn’t say everything [he] said” wonderful, for it means that the kind of cracked vision he brought to us was generative of an ongoing tradition of Yogi-isms. I can say the same of Jesus: The fact that his gospel as told in the Gospel of Mark is seminal, not only of the other Gospels (canonical and otherwise) but also of religious and moral thought (Christian and otherwise) in the vast stream of human history, is the primary fact. Jesus, too, “really didn’t say everything he said.” For that matter, he didn’t really do everything he did. That’s the beauty of sacred tradition.
Knowing this, what can we say? Not all elements of the tradition that has been formed by the stories and commentaries of Jesus’ life will be equally meaningful; some will be meaningless, and some positively distasteful. So as readers of this tradition, we will necessarily make critical judgments about what is valuable within it. We will make a selection, as I do in my reading of Mark’s Gospel—recently published as The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark. Yes, but! I must also remind myself to take care not to reject as meaningless, spurious, or unhistorical, elements of the story that don’t neatly fit into a modern, rational, science-minded way of understanding things—in sum, that lie outside my comfort zone.
The book proceeds with other assumptions: We don’t need a modern but rather a postmodern understanding of religious faith—faith not as beliefs but as “believing in,” religion as a “passionate commitment to a system of reference” (Wittgenstien). Nor as a rational but an existential, that is, a personal and decisional, turn of thought. Nor as a scientific but a mytho-poetic imagination; as Francis Spufford puts it, “Science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor, and . . . powerful though it is, it doesn’t function as a guide to those very large aspects of experience that can’t be perceived except through metaphor.” Finally, we don’t need to stay inside but to step outside our comfort zones. Do you mean, “He spoke in parables so that the ‘outsiders’ would remain outside the fold? Now that’s outside my comfort zone!” Indeed, it is..
In his essay, “Naming God,” Paul Ricouer writes: “Naming God, before being an act of which I am capable, is what the texts of my predilection do when they escape from their authors and their first audience, when they deploy their world, when they poetically manifest and thereby reveal a world we might inhabit.” The Seminal Gospel is not another quest for the historical Jesus. Rather, it takes Mark as “the text of my predilection,” to see whether or how it reveals “a world we might inhabit.” To this end it seeks to read the gospel brought by Jesus with, as it were, two eyes. One eye is the eye of fidelity to the text; the other is the eye of present-day self-understanding. I am not so much seeking what lies behind Mark’s text as what flows from it in the sacred tradition he initiates, a tradition we inherit and would ourselves contribute to.
Much as Thoreau retreated to Walden to find out whether life, traced to its bare essentials, were “mean” or “sublime,” I read Mark to find out whether the gospel, traced to its seminal text, its essentials, revealed “a world I might inhabit.” I found that I was led to wrestle with many difficult passages, until they yielded insight—blessed me as Jacob was blessed, crossing the river Jabbok. I found, then, that Mark’s Gospel “invites me to name God in my contemporary life-experience.” To cite my introduction to the book:
“A pathway into the origins of the gospel is also a pathway forward from the present, toward the future we choose. This book seeks to uncover that pathway.
“All that we know of Jesus and his original message is derived from a few ancient texts, among which the Gospel According to Mark is particularly fascinating and often perplexing. Mark came first among the four Gospels of the New Testament, and as such planted the seeds from which subsequent traditions, especially those in narrative form, have grown.
“The Seminal Gospel is an exploration of Mark and an extended personal reflection on what his telling of the story of Jesus can mean to us today. Its two focal points are intricately related. One is Mark’s text, taken, so far as we are able, on its own terms. This especially means resisting the temptation to overlay our preconceived ideas about Jesus and his message on the text. The other focal point is simply what we . . . bring to our reading. How distant our world is from the first century world of Jesus and the others vividly portrayed by Mark! And yet the humanity and passionate concerns of these people are immediately felt. In their story I recognize my own story. My hope is that readers who follow my explorations and reflections may more fully discover their own stories.
“These two focal points are in tension with each other; but taken together they can generate significant insight. Like the two points which define the arcing line of an ellipse, they hold the promise of joining fuller understanding of sacred tradition to fuller understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings. This kind of outward exploration and inward reflection will require of us a certain effort, perhaps forty days’ worth—here offered in forty chapters for convenient, if not easy, daily consumption.”
For instance, do we find ourselves in these poignant words from the Gospel? “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief!” “Could you not watch with me one hour?” Or these directive words? “Who gave thee authority to do these things?” And: “He goeth before you into Galilee”—which is to say, into our homeland.
“Reading with two eyes” is a procedure that Krister Stendahl, professor of New Testament and later Dean of Harvard Divinity School, commended. I do not recall him saying how to go about it; it is not a procedural formula that can be mechanically applied. But it means at least that these two things are (a) not to be confused with each other and (b) not to be separated from each other. They are (c) to be held in a kind of double vision, in tension and yet without ever letting the connection break. I have called it “parabolic vision,” seen in the way prophetic visionaries “cast up symbols to dispel the mystery” of existence: “Sacred symbols illuminate the way before us, inviting us to step into the light.”
I am suggesting an interpretive procedure: First, try to enter Mark’s first century world, a time of vast upheaval with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the emigration of Jews into the diaspora. Second, notice what strikes you as clear and true, and what strikes you as odd or off-putting, even offensive. Finally, set these observations up against your understanding of self and world, for such juxtapositions often mark moments of insight, or of changed heart and mind. Mark’s word is metanoia, usually translated as repentance or conversion, or in my own lexicon, new-mindedness.
Have we moved outside our comfort zone? Do we speak of conversion? Jim Adams enjoyed telling the story of the Unitarian matron who said with due indignation, “Why should I be born again? I was born in Boston!”
This mode of interpretation is not superimposed on Mark’s text; rather, it is invited by the text itself—not because Mark consciously put it there but because this pregnant moment in the history of the world called it forth, and he was there as a midwife to this rebirth, this “good news.” The fact that his Gospel was written approximately 40 years after the death of Jesus is often cited to discredit his account; but consider that Mark’s 40 years’ separation from his subject is in principle no different from our own 2000 years. One must suppose that he too was sometimes inspired and sometimes baffled by the stories he heard, and wove into his narrative—which is itself a creative work of interpretation. He too sought insight and found his own fascinating brand of new-mindedness. Examples are in order:
The disciples are notoriously uncomprehending, as they stumble through “life with Jesus.” Even when he takes them aside to “demystify” the mystery of the kingdom of God, they don’t get it. They miss every cue he gives them. And Mark himself, or perhaps his chief informant, often thought to be Peter, is one of these uncomprehending dunces: Only upon looking back with a reborn faith, only “post-Resurrection,” do they understand that this man had brought the presence of the kingdom of God to them—within their grasp, “at hand.”
This “kingdom” was, then, both gift and task, as Jim Adams would say. It remains so for us today. Mark’s Gospel is an act of reconstructive memory, a gift that we must actively engage, must make our task. He and we alike are fated (as Kiekegaard said) to live our lives forward in time, but to comprehend them, if at all, only backward. Just so, faith is an awakening, and comes not as a result of understanding; rather, faith enables understanding. Faith even goes so far as to say: I believe in order that I may understand.
This runs directly contrary to what the Enlightenment taught us, namely, to look at the evidence and on this basis decide what you believe. The Enlightenment has done its work: the task of liberation from arbitrary authority, and in consequence, the gift of freedom from fear. Its courageous motto, Kant said, was Sapere aude! Dare to think! But the gospel as told by Mark and other witnesses requires something different, a hermeneutic of memory, to the end of recovering sacred tradition and holy ground, or as Paul Ricouer named it, “a world we might inhabit.”
Consider the healing and exorcism stories in Mark: they are many and highly prominent in the account. Mark’s Jesus is first and foremost a charismatic healer, for we see the common people flocking to him at every turn, importuning him for help. But how he heals is surprising; it’s hard to generalize, because the stories of these wonders are so varied, suggesting that they have come down to Mark from various oral or perhaps written accounts. But Mark’s Jesus never says: I have made you well, or I have cast out your demon. He says, Your faith has healed you, your faith has cast out your demon. He is not a magician. He says: The kingdom of God is at hand, that is, is nearby, is available to those who in faith give themselves wholly to it, who appropriate its power to themselves.
Consider the Resurrection—an event never described in Mark, but left implicit in his story of the empty tomb. Is it not described for fear of profaning a great mystery? Or because it can be appropriated only by the experience of entering into the faith of a beloved community? Jesus’ resurrection is a symbolic expression of the disciples’ transformation: now all that went before is comprehensible—a seed planted by the historical memory that there was a before and an after in this gospel, and thus a decisive moment of transformation. Ever since, the gospel has been about transformation, forming a deep—if also a deeply flawed—sacred tradition. Still, it is cherished, or why would we attach ourselves passionately to it?
Ludwig Wittgenstein supports this viewpoint in his reflections on faith—surprising perhaps even to himself: “Queer as it sounds: The historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this: not, however, because it concerns ‘universal truths of reason’! Rather because historical proof . . . is irrelevant to belief. This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believingly (i. e. lovingly). That is the certainty characterizing this particular acceptance-as-true, not something else. . . . [I]f I am really to be saved, what I need is certainty – not wisdom, dreams or speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not by my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection.” We may imagine, I think, that it was not entirely otherwise for Mark and his contemporaries.
The first words we hear from Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, proclaim his central purpose and message: The kingdom of God is near, is at hand, is within your grasp; re-pent, re-think, be reborn, and believe in this good news, this gospel (Mark 1: 15). The Jesus Seminar declares this statement entirely inauthentic; they read it as apocalyptic and entirely out of keeping with their view of Jesus as a wandering preacher of spiritual wisdom. Professor Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, accepts it as an authentic summary of an apocalyptic (and finally deluded) preacher. Reza Aslan, author of the new best-seller, Zealot, reads it as a political manifesto. These are serious scholars who want to go behind Mark and the other early sources, in search of “the real” Jesus of history. But it is Mark himself who (with others) founds the sacred tradition of the gospel of Jesus and challenges us to believe with heart and mind—which is to say, to make an existential commitment.
Do religious liberals possess a sacred tradition, or only a perpetual state of identity confusion? James Luther Adams commented that there never has been a great religion without its scripture, its sacred texts. A sacred text roots us in what Adams called “a definite plot of soil,” but it also gains fresh meaning by interpretation with contemporary “eyes.” A sacred tradition that is not also a “living,” evolving tradition would ossify and be cast out as salt that has lost its savor, No doubt, this is what has happened for many.
But equally, a living tradition would have to be embraced as a sacred tradition, a tradition we believe in—the root meaning of “be-lief” is “hold dear”—or we would have no reason for keeping it alive. Once I asked a group of religious educators, Did they not think we should teach our children about the “cherished traditions” of our liberal faith? A man responded, “Well, yes. But do they have to be cherished?” To which I replied, “Why else would you want to teach them?”
Mark’s Jesus abundantly displays two personal qualities: an utter freedom of action, and healing compassion for those who suffer. These are fruits of his faith. The gospel teaches that this kind of faith—an active faithfulness—is available to us here and now; it is a gift, a kind of grace, and its tasks are to act freely and compassionately. A third personal quality of Mark’s Jesus is seldom commented upon: he is an organizer, one who empowers others with his own vocation; in fact, we might call him the most successful organizer in human history! The tradition has given him more exalted titles, like “Prophet, Priest, and King,” signifying the ministries of teaching, healing, and leading, respectively. He calls upon all of us to make his vocation our own, in what James Luther Adams called “the prophethood of all believers” and “the priesthood of all believers”—“the one for the ministry of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing.” These tasks of ministry are sustained and extended by working for the dedicated community; may I venture naming it the “organizer-hood of all believers”?
I always remember the man who said he’d joined our church because “he didn’t believe in organized religion.” I’m afraid he knew us well. When we ask, “Where does our idea of ministry—lay as well as professional ministry, institutional as well as personal—come from?” the answer is not far to seek: our calling, our vocation, our ministry is to do pretty much what we see Jesus doing in the Gospels: preaching, pastoral caring, and organizing–with and for a straggly band of men, women, and of course children.
Mark’s Gospel is seminal because it plants the seeds from which a vast sacred tradition has grown. This tradition includes religious liberals, whether they know it or not. May I indulge in some out-sized simplifications? Jesus by his notorious “speaking with authority” exemplifies the essence of historical Unitarianism, which Channing, like Luther and Paul before him, called “spiritual freedom.” And his charismatic compassion exemplifies the essence of historical Universalism, which is what Quillen Shinn called “the almighty force of love.” The Seminal Gospel names these two qualities “creative freedom, the divine image in which we are made and re-made,” and “the transforming power of love, agape” (p. 204). They are not free-floating virtues, but depend on what Jim Adams called “the power of organization and he organization of power,” the third form of ministry richly exemplified by Jesus, in Mark’s pregnant text.
Recall Mark’s baffling reference to “the mystery of the kingdom of God,” cited at the outset. Commentators ranging from pious Protestants to the skeptical Jesus Seminar have said: Jesus can have said no such thing! Accordingly, the passage is explained away or thrown away as foreign to the whole thrust of the gospel. Robert Frost is more clear-sighted. In “Directive” he evokes the experience of hiking up Panther Mountain, in New Hampshire, to a well-known place—a long-abandoned farm with a cold, mountain spring. When the thirsty hiker reaches his “destination,” fulfilling his “destiny,” the poem alludes to this text, Mark 4: 11-13, and concludes:
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
Mark similarly invites what I call “parabolic vision,” a way of seeing that is like the trajectory of flares shot up into the darkness and coming down to earth again, but always in a new place. The central realities of faith are mysteries, hidden in darkness; they cannot be seen clearly or defined precisely because they cannot be observed from without, but only from within. They can only be understood by participating in them, by symbolic actions, like drinking cold water from a broken goblet, or the Grail—like climbing a mountain, or “going up to Jerusalem.”
Footnotes:Orders@Xlibris.com), or from the author (firstname.lastname@example.org).
 Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), p. 222.
 Quoted in The Seminal Gospel, op. cit., p. 18; cited from Ricouer’s essay, “Naming God,” in Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry, a collection edited by Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 168. In this essay Ricouer elucidates the liveliness of a good text: “A text is first a link in a communicative chain. To begin, one of life’s experiences is brought to language. It becomes discourse. Then this discourse is differentiated into speech and writing. . . . A text, in this regard, is like a musical score that requires execution.” (p. 165)
 George Kimmich Beach, Questions for the Religious Journey (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002), p. 166.
 Wittgenstein, op. cit., pp. 32c-33e.
 See The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Macmillan, 1993) , pp. 4, 40-41.
 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why
We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: Harper One, 2009), pp. 156ff.
 “The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple. . . . If the Kingdom of God is not an ethereal fantasy, how else could it be established upon a land occupied by a massive imperial presence except through the use of force?” Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 120.
 James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers , edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), p. 101. Regarding Adams’s comments on “the organization of power,” see p. 52.
 “Directive,” a frequently anthologized poem, is found in Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958), pp. 520-521.