Wednesday, January 4, 2017

THE GOSPEL OF MARK - A LITURGICAL READING by Charles A. Bobertz

Here is the review of Bobertz's most recent book that I am reviewing - hopefully - for a seminary journal:



The Gospel of Mark: A Liturgical Reading. By Charles A. Bobertz. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016. 288 pages. Softcover. $27.99.

Charles Bobertz, professor of theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, offers a provocative commentary on the Gospel of Mark utilizing narrative criticism with an additional twist.  As the title indicates, his interpretation is a “liturgical reading.”  Bobertz notes: “The narrative of Mark reads differently if one presumes that the ritual practices of the early Christians (what I will refer to as Christian liturgy) inform the creation of the story, that is, why Mark was written in the first place, and why it was disseminated to its earliest readers” (xvi).  By his own admission much of his interpretive approach relies on “a good bit of hypothetical reconstruction,” and throughout the book he qualifies many of his conclusions as probable and imaginative, but not absolutely conclusive.  He openly admits that his interpretive approach “is not the usual way Mark has been understood within the tradition or by the vast majority of modern scholars” (xix). Nevertheless, he insists that this approach is the only reasonable one to use in interpreting Mark.
In keeping with his narrative critical approach Bobertz looks at Mark through the
hypothetical eyes of the “liturgical reader” or “ancient reader” as opposed to the “modern reader” or “casual reader.”  This reader is part of Mark’s hypothetical “house church” which is supposed to exist in the time after the destruction of Jerusalem, which  may be located in Galilee. In contrast to some biblical scholars who also take a liturgical approach to the interpretation of the scriptures (Shepherd, Hahn), Bobertz does not look for details of a specific liturgy, which too often requires the interpreter to read back into the book a form that dates after it.  Instead he sees the liturgical reader as one who views the narrative of Mark through the sacramental rituals of Baptism and the Eucharist, which he also admits that he “reads back” into the narrative of Mark (4).  What makes Bobertz’s approach unique in this sense is his effort to have most details of Mark’s gospel interpreted as symbolic reflections of Baptism or “ritual meals” (Eucharist).  For example, while the story of Jesus’ calming the storm in Mark 4 might be seen as a demonstration of Jesus’ divine power over the forces of nature and a message to the disciples not to fear (as interpreted by the modern reader), Bobertz unpacks all of the details and words in such a way that the “liturgical reader will ‘see’ baptism, resurrection, and the dominance of chaos that follows” (47).  He deliberately “locates the creation and reception of the narrative within the experience of a reality largely created by early Christian ritual practice” (xvii).  Even the character of Jesus Himself, traditionally seen in a historic context in terms of specific acts, is reinterpreted here (through the eyes of the liturgical reader) as the “ritually enacted body of Christ,” or the members of Mark’s house church, gathered in worship around the table of the sacrament (xxv).  He later contrasts the “historical Jesus” (also noted as the “individual Jesus”) with what he calls the “narrative Jesus” (148), deviating from much modern scholarship, even other critical scholarship. 
To understand Bobertz’s approach one has to also recognize that he views the Gospel of Mark as largely symbolic, even “deeply symbolic.” Although he would not necessarily deny the historicity of the events in the narrative as they are reported, he does not feel that they were reported to convey “literal historical truth” (xxv). The primary purpose of this symbolism is to “answer a question at the heart of early Christian self-definition: What gives legitimacy, in the face of Jewish reluctance and opposition, to the presence of Gentiles in the Lord’s Supper of the house church?” (xxii) Bobertz develops the issue of Gentile inclusion at the Supper, it appears, mainly from the work of Stendahl in what would later be known as the New Perspective (xviii). Paul’s epistles, especially Romans and Galatians, are important sources for Bobertz in understanding why the mission to the Gentiles and their inclusion in the Christian church constitutes a central challenge for those in the house churches of Mark’s time.  Bobertz interprets  the entire text of Mark’s gospel with a fairly consistent matrix that involves repeated themes of inclusion of Gentiles and women at the Supper, usually in the context of the “house church” of Mark’s own time, a community formed and informed by the rituals of baptism and Supper, baptism as resurrection, and primeval chaos giving way to creation. Bobertz also sees Mark’s house church community as a persecuted community, and thus themes of suffering and martyrdom become additional interpretive keys within the narrative. 
Given Bobertz’s liturgical Catholic background it is not difficult to understand how he would be inclined to view Mark through the lens of sacramental ritual acts and the community in which these rituals are enacted.  For others committed to the historic liturgical character of the church his focus on the centrality of the sacramental life of the church will be intriguing, even encouraging, and his insights into the fuller meaning of the sacraments will also be informing. However, for the more conservative interpreter who approaches Mark as an historical record of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Borbertz’s symbolic narrative-critical approach will seem to separate the gospel text from its true historical moorings. The stories serve primarily to illustrate contemporary issues (mainly contemporary to Mark’s time), not to explain eternal truths. Such an interpreter will also be frustrated by a distancing from the gospel as primarily the story of Jesus who lived in time and whose death and resurrection, as historical events, are critical to the present and future life of the individual believer, as well as the church.  For Bobertz Jesus’ death seems not to be ultimately valued for the salvific benefit for the individual believer, but rather as a means of establishing the community (192).  Admittedly, the believer is not to be seen as merely an individual apart from the body of believers, and Bobertz does navigate away from this modern malady.  But in doing so he seems to leave behind the very story that brings this community into existence even though he acknowledges it and explains the exegetical details.  One feels that the characters in the gospel only represent something else; that they are props for a larger, more contemporary story of Mark’s own time.  As he summarizes it at one point: “the very heart of the narrative plot of Mark” is “Jesus rises from (baptismal) death to receive the Spirit of new creation and thereby to establish the house churches  of Jews and Gentiles, men and women. And so he then must die in order to be the very death which ritually enacted in baptism, establishes participation in the ritual meal, the new creation of the church itself.’” (187)
Bobertz, by his own admission, clearly breaks with most modern scholarship on Mark. He also admits that the average “casual reader” may easily become confused by certain stories.  The message of Mark is essentially hidden to such a reader and only seen clearly by those who would be inclined to view the narrative in the way Bobertz has imagined it. Some initial reviewers felt that his book represented a useful attempt to restore this gospel to its original context and demonstrate how its author used the language and practices of baptism and Eucharist  to more fully explain its message.  However, unless one accepts the premises of narrative criticism it will be difficult to accept uncritically the views of this author.  If one wishes to see how narrative criticism is applied to a gospel account, especially with the added criteria of an imagined house church community in the late first century as the target audience, Bobertz’s work will prove an interesting read.  Yet, for those who wish to approach the original text and learn more about it, and for those interested in learning more about the immediate historical setting of the events in the gospel, this book will unfortunately prove disappointing.  

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

New Year's Goals

I looked back at last year's goals and was pleasantly surprised to see that many were actually met or at least attempted.
1.  I did finish and defend my thesis. The thesis was defended on April 29.  I went on to graduate and receive my Master of Sacred Theology degree on May 26.  The degree was award cum laude, "with honor," reflecting a grade point average of an A. I mused in this goal that my initial plan with the degree was to teach, but realized that securing a position was unlikely.  However, at the end of last year I was offered a position as an adjunct professor teaching homiletics to a cohort of eight men in the SMP (Specific Ministry Program) during the summer through my alma mater Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  Although I've filled out the usual employment paperwork, there is much, yet, that I do not know.  Stay tuned!  Learning to teach online when I have never taken any coursework online will be one of my great challenges for the new year. 
2. Read more.  I did accomplish some reading and continue to work on other books.  I can always read more and will try to do so in this coming year.  My goal this year is mainly to read works connected with the class I am going to teach.  To that end, one of the books I am working on is Walther's The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel.  I also plan to work though the various essays in Liturgical Preaching (Concordia Publishing House, 2001).
3. Be more disciplined in my devotional life.  Still working on this one.
4. Grow in my firefighter skills.  Still working on this one as well.
5. Learn or relearn a foreign language. I am extending this one to 2017.  My initial effort has already begun with Spanish.  However, in looking at the many resources in my library, I have decided to work at German (which I have studied in the past) and Latin as well.  Maybe a bit ambitious, but the books I am using are not heavily academic and my goals are fairly modest at this point.
6. Work on the crossbow.  I did sight in my new crossbow this fall and actually took it hunting.  Although I didn't see much, I did make an attempt.  I had planned to go back out after rifle season, especially after the holidays, but that has not yet happened.  My license allows me to hunt through January 8, which gives me five more days.  We'll see if I can still get out and try one more time.
7. Spend time with those we love.  I enjoyed many days this year with my children, both at their homes and at ours, as well as a rented home this summer.  We will continue this in 2017.
8. Write and publish.  I did not publish anything this year, but have pretty much finished a book review I hope to submit to the Concordia Theological Quarterly.  My originally intention was to do this last year, but I'm still procrastinating finishing the review.  Some months ago I requested to review a to-be published book from Baker Academic by Charles A. Bobertz entitled The Gospel of Mark: A Liturgical Reading.
9. Maintain my diet.  Still working on this.  I've been fairly faithful here, although I've experienced some unexpected weight gain since winter set in.

Most of the above goals from 2016 still hold for this year.  I would add only a couple more to the above.
10.  Be more faithful in exercising.  On the first day of the year I got out and went snowshoeing.  I would also like to go out and go cross country skiing this year as well.  Besides this I try to walk regularly at the church for 30 minutes.
11. Listen to more classical music.  I have neglected this and do attempt, at times, to listen to some via the public radio station while driving.