‘This mortal man is now where God is’

Compared to the other Gospels, St. Mark’s is unfairly neglected, which is why I am reading Rowan Williams’ commentary, Meeting God in Mark, during the Lent season. Williams alerts me to Mark’s design: he keeps the “Messianic Secret” until the very end when Jesus stands trial before the High Priest and divulges his true identity. “The whole Gospel is moving inexorably to this point” of divine self-declaration, to this “world-changing insight” about where God is to be found in the world. Williams writes:

Mark has none of the sustained drama of John, none of the subtly developed irony that is maintained throughout the whole story; he wants us to see here only the isolation and the sense of arbitrary power closing in. But it is in the middle of all this that Jesus makes his one utterly unambiguous claim. When the High Priest asks (14.61), ‘Are you the Anointed One, the Son of the Blessed?’ Jesus replies, ‘I am.’ The placing of this claim, this breaking of the silence, is all-important. It is when Jesus is stripped of all hope, of all power, when he stands alone in the middle of this meaningless nightmare, with no hope of life, it is then and only then that he declares who he is. And he does so in words that evoke the Divine Name itself. God calls himself I AM when he speaks to Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures (Exodus 3.13). Again, there are parallels and contrasts with the way St. John tells his story: John has Jesus say, ‘I am,’ at various crucial stages of the narrative (as in 18.5, when the soldiers come to arrest him), and Mark is no less careful in placing the words. But where John scatters the ‘I am’ sayings throughout his Gospel, Mark – as always, much more stark and economical – narrows it down to the one moment when you can be under no illusion about what Jesus faces. Then and only then does God declare himself.

* * *

Mark has set aside the idea that we should listen to Jesus because he does wonderful things, even that we should listen to Jesus because he says wonderful things. If we are to listen to what Jesus is saying in his very existence, his mortal flesh, his death, it is something that can happen only when every possibility of hope, of love, of absolution, has apparently been swept away and all the is left is this bare claim. This mortal person (says Jesus) stands here in the place of God; and the place of God is the place of a rejected and condemned human being. Before Jesus is arrested and condemned, you might still nurture the illusion as you read that it will somehow turn out well. Perhaps there is a future in which Jesus will find support, belief, perhaps after all we shall be able to find words for him in our usual language and vocabulary. But Mark makes quite sure that we cannot sustain any such illusion by this point. This is the ‘gospel’ moment, the moment of regime change, the event that is to be announced. This is where the world, with all the language we use in and about it, is turned on its head. But – and this is where the news is unimaginably good as well as unimaginably dark and shocking – the new world which is brought into being in this way, the new world which the euangelion announces, must be one in which God cannot be dethroned by any degree of pain, disaster or failure. If the helpless, isolated Jesus says, ‘This mortal man is now where God is,’ then God’s presence and resource, his love and mercy, cannot be extinguished by loneliness or injustice, by the terrible, apparently meaningless, suffering in which human beings live. God has chosen to be, and to be manifest, at that lowest, weakest point of human experience. And so the poor and the helpless, the condemned and the isolated, reading this story told from the victim’s point of view, can know that God is with them, and that the God who is with them cannot be defeated or deposed from his Godhead. 


Mark is a long koan

are-we-there-yet-david-sipres.jpgRowan Williams offers a brilliant summary of St. Mark’s Jesus in his book, Meeting God in Mark:

It is absolutely vital to Mark’s story that what Jesus says is hard to digest and to understand even by those closest to him. Even those who have most reason for understanding what he’s saying are going to get it wrong: and that, of course, is a reassurance to the reader. Mark is saying, ‘If you’re finding this difficult or shocking, don’t be surprised; those who were closest to Jesus found it difficult and shocking too. If you feel stupid or at a loss when confronted with the words and work of Jesus, don’t be surprised. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last.’ So the dimness of the apostles is not a point of polemic, an axe being ground: it’s basic to the scheme. Jesus in Mark’s Gospel appears as someone wrestling with the difficulty of communicating to the disciples things that there are no proper words for – communicating that they have to think again about how God works, and to prepare themselves for greater and greater shocks in understanding this. 

I’m tempted to think that perhaps one reason why Mark’s Gospel has in it very little teaching of the sort we find in Matthew or Luke is that Mark not only wants to draw our attention away from miracles, he even wants to draw our attention away from conventional teaching. He wants to tell a story and present situations that bring us up short. He doesn’t want us to go away discussing the interesting ideas that Jesus has or the poignant stories he tells. He wants you to focus on the person of Jesus and on the relation you might have with him, knowing that only so does the radical change come about. You could almost say that Mark prefers to show us a Jesus who is struggling for words, rather than a Jesus who is a fluent teacher and brilliant storyteller, as in the other Gospels. More than once in the Gospel, we hear Jesus saying something like, ‘How do I make this clear to you? What can I say to you? Don’t you understand yet?’ This is a Jesus who is searching for ways to communicate truths for which there are no clear and simple words.

So it makes some sense that this is a Gospel of secrets, silences and even misunderstandings, a Gospel which on every page carries a very strongly worded health warning to the reader: don’t think you’ve got it yet! That is what Mark wants his readers to understand. It’s just a little bit like the way Buddhists talk about the use of the koan in meditation: you are given a saying or a little story which you’re supposed to meditate on until you realize you can’t understand it in your ordinary categories, at which point enlightenment breaks in. Mark is a long koan. It’s meant to bring us to the edge, to tell us that our understanding will not manage this in clear tidy ways. It’s a truth that can’t easily be spoken – or rather, as soon as it’s spoken it provokes more questioning. We can absorb such a truth only by letting go of what we thought about God and ourselves.

On abstruse and accessible poems

david-pascal-sign-on-country-road-reads-fresh-poetry-new-yorker-cartoon_i-g-65-6591-zkv2100z.jpgA friend and I have a spirited disagreement about what kind of poetry is better. He favors abstruse verse, whereas I favor accessible verse. By using the word “favor,” I recognize that each of us makes exceptions. Ted Kooser is one of America’s most notable contemporary poets, who served as the United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004 – 2006 and won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of poems, Delights & Shadows. In The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practice Advice for Beginning Poets, Kooser expresses my sentiments well:

Part of the reason for our country’s lack of interest in poetry is that most of us learned in school that finding the meaning of a poem is way too much work, like cracking a walnut and digging out the meat. Most readers have plenty to do that’s far more interesting than puzzling over poems. I’ll venture that 99 percent of the people who read the New Yorker prefer the cartoons to the poems. 

A lot of this resistance to poetry is to be blamed on poets. Some go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging. That may be because difficult poems are what they think they’re expected to write to advance their careers. They know it’s the professional interpreters of poetry – book reviewers and literary critics – who most often establish a poet’s reputation, and that those interpreters are attracted to poems that offer opportunities to show off their skills at interpretation. A poet who writes poetry that doesn’t require explanation, who writes clear and accessible poems, is of little use to critics building their own careers as interpreters. But a clear and accessible poem can be of use to an everyday reader.

It is possible to nourish a small and appreciative audience for poetry if poets would only think less about the reception of critics and more about the needs of readers. The Poetry Home Repair Manual advocates for poems that can be read and understood without professional interpretation. My teacher and mentor, Karl Shapiro, once pointed out that the poetry of the twentieth century was the first poetry that had to be taught. He might have said that had to be explained. I believe with all my heart that it’s a virtue to show our appreciation for readers by writing with kindness, generosity, and humility toward them. 

As a proud Nebraskan, Kooser writes accessible verse about life in the Great Plains. Here are two lovely examples.

Abandoned Farmhouse

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

So This Is Nebraska

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.

On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.

So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.

Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.

You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,

clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like

waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.

The Jesus of St. Mark


Donatello, “Saint Mark” (1411-13). Florence, Italy. 

For the Lent season of 2018, I have decided to reflect on the Gospel of Mark, which I am apt to neglect because of the literary and theological appeal of the other Gospels. To deepen my understanding and appreciation for Mark, I will read Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and the Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University. Since Williams is my favorite contemporary Christian writer, the choice was obvious. Katherine B. Moorehead, the Dean of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jacksonville, Florida, got my attention with her endorsement: “This is the best commentary I have read on the Gospel of Mark, a must-read not just for scholars but for all who want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. This fresh, new perspective on an ancient text gives us insight into the depth and wisdom of Mark as an ancient biography. Mark is not to be sidelined as the shortest of the gospels but should be relished as a deep, rich and enduring mystical resource.”

Here is the concluding paragraph of the opening, chapter, “The beginning of the Gospel”:

Mark brings off a great narrative triumph by pushing Jesus on the stage without a word of introduction. He doesn’t tell you who this is beyond his name and his place of origin – no family background, no Christmas story. The curtain goes up with a clatter, and there on stage is the central figure; no prelude, no apologies, no explanations, there is the anointed one. And that is how the text will go on; which is why the Jesus of St. Mark is not – as some unimaginative readers of an earlier generation sometimes thought – an innocent and straightforward human prophet devoid of all the theological trappings that gather around him in the other Gospels. On the contrary: this Jesus is arguably stranger, more ‘transcendent,’ more simply worrying than the Jesus of any of the other Gospels. 

Terrence Malick’s project: the rehabilitation of the senses

I embrace a “Malickean sensibility,” named after the American auteur, Terrence Malick. “Days of Heaven” (1978), “The Thin Red Line” (1998), and “The Tree of Life” (2011) are masterpieces. Since “The Tree of Life,” fans like myself are deeply ambivalent about Malick’s new path. “To the Wonder” (2013), “Knight of Cups” (2016), and “Song to Song” (2017) are are all unmoored from the conventions of storytelling: image and sound occlude plot, theme, and characterization. Hear the critics:

A ponderous affair, never taking 30 seconds to make a point when four minutes is available.

There’s a line between artful and arty, and Malick has crossed it.

I’m all for directors making audiences think, but ultimately those thoughts need to lead us somewhere.

I used to think it was a good thing that Malick made movies like no one else’s. Maybe he should try being a bit more derivative next time.

I don’t want him to succumb to pretty nothingness.

Rotten Tomatoes aptly summarizes the critical consensus on the latest trajectory in Malick’s career:

To the Wonder demonstrates Terrence Malick’s gift for beautiful images, but its narrative is overly somber and emotionally unsatisfying.

Knight of Cups finds Terrence Malick delving deeper into the painterly visual milieu he’s explored in recent efforts, but even hardcore fans may struggle with the diminishing narrative returns.

As visually sumptuous as it is narratively spartan, Terrence Malick’s Song to Song echoes elements of the writer-director’s recent work — for better and for worse.

Even a genius can be too experimental for his own good, following his muse to places where none can follow. Despite my exuberance for Malick’s filmmaking, he is not beyond reproach. It is a cope-out to invoke this line of defense: “you’re either on his wavelength or you’re not.” And if you’re not on his wavelength, the subtext implies that you must be an aesthetic philistine. As Malick works on his new film, “Radegund,” which marks a return to structured and narrative filmmaking, he confesses that his experiment has run its course, perhaps even failed: “Lately  I keep insisting, only very lately  have I been working without a script and I’ve lately repented the idea. The last picture we shot, and we’re now cutting, went back to a script that was very well ordered.”

Of course, Malick’s defenders ought to be heard. When asked if he has lost his patience with the mythical filmmaker, Richard Brody of The New Yorker said:

“The Tree of Life” launched a rapturous outburst of invention in form and style that has few parallels in the history of cinema. Malick’s joy of filming — amplified by the freedom that his later manner grants his actors, cinematographer, and editors — is like that of a jazz-band leader who fuses composition and immediate creation, and for all the cosmic seriousness and earthly longing of his recent movies, that joy is the dominant emotion. I confess: sometimes I’m impatient with some of my favorite people, fellow-critics, for resisting or rejecting work that displays, at the very least, those traits which ought to be the prime virtues embraced by critics: originality and audacity.

Just as a good book teaches you how to read itself, a good film teaches you how to watch itself. I am not aware of a more aesthetically and theologically astute film critic than Brett McCracken, a senior editor at The Gospel Coalition. Malick’s films have trained his perceptual apparatus. While acknowledging that his recent efforts “have been increasingly experimental and challenging to even the most open-minded audiences,” he mounts the most persuasive case that I have read for Malick’s project. If the modern world is disenchanted, as some philosophers and poets argue, then an existentially urgent question arises: How, then, shall we become enchanted again? Enter Malick. He is striving to rehabilitate the senses through a sacramental vision of life that induces a doxological response, akin to how Gerard Manley Hopkins concludes his poem “Pied Beauty”: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: / Praise him.”

McCracken writes:

With Knight and Song, Malick’s style has become a sort of cinematic Impressionism. When viewed up close or with traditional modes of processing filmic meaning, they appear as random colors, gestures, sounds, and underdeveloped ideas. But with enough distance to get past the imperfections and confusing choices in various corners of the canvas, an overall impression is conveyed. For Malick, “plot” and “characters” don’t work like they do in other films. Instead, they’re on the same level as an image of a caterpillar, a burst of a Mahler symphony, or dialogue inspired by Dostoevsky: all brushstrokes and pointalistic dots that work together to poetically express something both recognizable and ineffable.

That Malick regularly gives more screen time to cows than his troupe of A-list actors can be frustrating to them, but it is an essential aspect of the director’s philosophy of seeing. His gaze is resolutely averse to an idolatrous mode of seeing. He wants us to experience the beauty of images and sounds not as ends-to-themselves idols, but icons pointing beyond themselves. His movies are a catechesis for rehabilitating senses that have been dulled by consumerism. He pushes us to go beneath the surface, to not be so easily pleased, to have patience and awareness—and, above all, gratitude.

Do we recognize the good that we’ve been given? Do we love “every leaf, every ray of light?” (The Tree of Life, quoting Dostoevsky). Malick rightly perceives that we don’t, that the modern world has blurred our vision and boxed us in within the immanent frame of disenchantment.

“The world builds a fence around you. How do you get through?” one character ponders in Song. But she goes on: “There is something else, something that wants us to find it.”

Brett McCracken on Terrence Malick: 

Richard Brody on Terrence Malick

Come Ye Sinners

Today in church we sang a beautiful hymn, “Come Ye Sinners,” by Joseph Hart, an 18th century Calvinist minister in London. The hymn takes its inspiration from Matthew 11:28-30. Here is a live recording of the hymn by Norton Hall Band.

Below is my favorite verse and the refrain:

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.

Why Austen’s prose is like poetry

As a longtime reader of Jane Austen’s fiction, I appreciate this perceptive observation in John Wiltshire’s book, The Hidden Jane Austen:

Austen employs a vocabulary more restricted than many other novelists’, and when she uses metaphoric language it is usually to register its banality. Instead she gets her results, and controls her meanings, largely through the precise exercise of syntax: grammatical construction, punctuation, emphasis and rhythm. Her writing therefore rewards the kind of close consideration that poetry requires: a considering attentiveness, both focused on the immediate words and able, if one is a re-reader, to recall or bring into play memories of other passages or episodes in the novel as one responds to the current page. And as in poetry, the pauses, spaces and silences in the writing contribute essentially to its meaning, and to some extent, as in poetry, make it unparaphrasable. 


Jane Austen could use the standard or formal phrasing and punctuation that she inherited from mostly masculine writers in the eighteenth century to telling and elegant effect, as every reader knows. But when her characters speak she very frequently employs a distinct register of syntactic markers as signals for the informality of conversational utterance . . . Among such mimetic markers were dashes of varying lengths, exclamation marks, incomplete sentences, italics and repetition. One sure sign that the narrator is moving away from the narrator or author and into a character’s inner speech is the presence of dashes in company with repeated words and phrases. ‘He must — yes, he certainly must, as a friend — an anxious friend — give Emma some hint, ask her some question.’ In representing even Mr Knightley’s struggle with his conscience Austen is the beneficiary of the sentimental tradition. Here, as elsewhere in her writing, dashes are among ‘these discursive cracks where emotion lies,’ as Ariane Hudelet puts it. 


Jane Austen . . . displayed the involuntary self-betrayals and traced the intricate, devious and even unconscious ways her characters protect themselves from knowing themselves and their motives. Largely dispensing with the poetic language of feeling, Austen can nevertheless lodge emotion in other discursive gaps besides dashes — in the silences or pauses that the prose dramatizes, in what the narrator understates, and in what she simply elides by shifting the reader’s focus.