The Absence of Evidence in the Gospel According to Mark: A Call to Faith to a Christian, An Open Field of Potential for an Atheist

A wise and educated friend of mine who is pursuing a divinity degree offered me a challenging Christian interpretation of the strange, minor-key original ending of the Gospel According to Mark–an empty tomb, but no resurrected Jesus–that was the subject of my previous entry.  In his view, the absence of the risen Jesus is actually an invitation to faith:

“We could have a great discussion on Mark. I took a course on it this past term that blew my mind. Mark’s entire Gospel is built around the idea of resurrection. Resurrection is the glue that ties Mark’s gospel together. To go into details would be far too long for a guy who still has to finish a final=) It asks of the reader, and has ever since the first community listened to it being read all those years ago in Palestine, what will you do with this Jesus? Will you follow him along the way, and will you meet him where he is waiting for you? Look at the end of Mark 16: There is an empty tomb coupled with a promise that Jesus has risen, and a matter of fact statement that he has gone on ‘ahead of you’ on the way to Galilee, where he waits. The women at the end of gospel flee in fear, which is a very human reaction, and thus the story ends with the reader/listener forced to make a choice: Will you follow the risen Jesus or not?”

To a person of faith, absence of evidence is an opportunity to test his faith. That is a logical conclusion in the sense that it has internal validity. To an atheist an absence of evidence for anything is an opportunity for anyone to have faith in the unsaid anything; it is merely a question of which words will inspire the subject to become what sort of believer. That suspicion also is logical. In the former case the believer claims to have understood the purpose of the Gospel on its own terms; in the latter case the atheist (or at least the ironist) merely acknowledges that believer and nonbeliever both find that the Gospel According to Mark is able to corroborate and enrich their understanding of Christianity.

As a non-believer and an ironist, I don’t think the Gospel of Mark is written the way it is because the mode of mystery is an open invitation of faith; I think an intellectual Christian interprets the Gospel According to Mark as an open invitation to faith because, compared to the other canon Gospels, it is so mysterious. Simply put, Mark’s comparatively moody, unpredictable Jesus and startling, minor-key climax and ending are hard to square with the mountains of assurances and proofs offered in Matthew or the transcendental, unaffected Jesus of John. A less-intellectual believer doesn’t have to concern him- or herself with Mark’s dark, almost-naturalistic quality; what the Bible says is simply true. An intellectual who is honing his faith has to find an explanation: The Bible is complicatedly true, hence the early, unadorned Gospel According to Mark is an invitation to faith.

I’d make 1 further observation as an ironist (and thus, a thoroughgoing atheist).  The Jesus of Mark is himself a miracle, in the sense that Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan would put it: He is an imperfect person, his actions alternately a cause of disappointment for the curious crowds who follow him or a source of anguish for his apparently-worried family.  He has an ego that can be stung–and as a result of this makes one of the Liberal Ironist’s favorite observations: “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor” (Mark 6:1-6).  These are truly the words of Jesus as I imagine him, a country exorcist with a chip on his shoulder but who cares passionately about social justice, who sees the invisible, and yet can’t stand sanctimony.  There is arrogance, hucksterism, even a remarkable element of alienation about him, but his rare combination of these elements produced words that have deepened all of our intellectual and emotional lives.  He is the Jesus who was crucified, died, and was buried but who did not rise from the dead; his body remains undiscovered just as it was in the earliest manuscripts of Mark.  An intellectual Christian may see in the absence of the body a challenge to faith; the Liberal Ironist sees the omnipresent but variable space of uncertainty within which all creative work happens.  Jesus’ profile doesn’t sound like that of a man who will tell all people that they have a capacity to be exalted in their actions, but then he even led by example, thus going 2 miles with us on a difficult road when asked to travel only 1.

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One thought on “The Absence of Evidence in the Gospel According to Mark: A Call to Faith to a Christian, An Open Field of Potential for an Atheist

  1. Pingback: The Liberal Ironist Wishes You a Happy Easter 2011… | The Liberal Ironist

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