The Gospel of Mark Out Loud
A journey on foot cannot be repeated, just as a story cannot be recited, only retold. - Robert Bringhurst
I’ve been telling the whole Gospel of Mark in performance from memory for 11 years now. I’ve told the story in church sanctuaries and basements; in college dorm lounges and performance spaces; in a Pentecostal church in Pennsylvania and a gazebo overlooking a beautiful New Hampshire lake (a thunderstorm rolled in during the Passion Narrative). I’ve told it before conservative and liberal congregations, in urban and rural settings, in at least two dozen states.
Many hearers have offered testimonials of profound astonishment. Others have exited without saying a word. Some have walked out in the middle of the performance. A couple of clergy colleagues suggested it was too long and I should cut out some parts.
Audiences have reacted with standing ovations or with stunned silence. One of the most electric performances of them all was in front of the smallest crowd – a group of seven students and their religion dean at a liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. The small interfaith chapel was pulsating with Spirit and we sat in a circle on the floor for an hour afterward, deep in conversation.
I committed the Gospel of Mark to memory during a three-month sabbatical in 2003. The project was a natural extension of years of doing scripture texts from memory in worship, my abiding interest in biblical storytelling and oral traditions, seeing Mark performed live once, and an outstanding “Performance of Biblical Texts” course I took at YDS co-taught by Richard Ward and Peter Hawkins). My working translations were the NRSV, the Scholars Version, and Richmond Lattimore. I blended those versions into one that I call my own. I dedicated myself to telling the story anywhere I could get a hearing and an honorarium. I set up a website. I sent out emails to friends and colleagues. Inquiries and requests came in. Soon I added some music and drumming to the story, also a little audience participation. Over the years I have received more than enough encouragement to keep it going.
A Living Story
I am not a New Testament scholar. I keep a small library of books about Mark, about storytelling, the performance of texts – Lord, Havelock, Kelber, Horsley, Foley, Gerhardsson, Rhoades, Kermode, Wire, Ong, Bringhurst, and others. I deeply admire their work. Except for Rhoades, none of them, to my knowledge, has ever told the Gospel from memory. There aren’t many of us active tellers of the Gospel of Mark. But we have something that ought to be of interest to the academic study of oral tradition as it relates to Mark – the living story itself, in performance and in our memories.
A living story has sound, and it has listeners. The number of listeners can significantly affect the telling. The story embodies very different energies in the presence of 300 listeners, as opposed to 30. Their alertness and receptivity matter. So does the space in which the story is told. Forces outside the storyteller’s control sometimes converge upon the performance space – a clap of thunder during the crucifixion scene (this has happened to me more than once), calls of “Amen!” from listeners, as well as laughter, weeping, children fussing, a cell phone ringing, a furnace kicking on. All of these become part of that particular performance of the Gospel of Mark, and will be remembered and incorporated in the recounting of the story by audience members. All of these factors make nonsense of any insistent notion about a rigid, unchanging, official interpretation of the Gospel of Mark.
Sound overpowers and often obliterates the punctuation devices of English translation on the page. “Watch out for the scholars,[COMMA] who like to walk around in long robes, and be treated with respect in the marketplaces …” (Mark 12:38). The reader quite naturally pauses at the comma after “scholars” (scribes), which strongly implies “watch out for all the scholars.” But there is no comma there in the Greek manuscripts. Spoken as written, it says, “Watch out for the scholars who like to walk around in long robes.” No pause after scholars: Watch out for those scholars who do that, not all of them. Try it. The elimination of a single comma changes the sentence dramatically.
Gestures, a turn of the head, a wave of the arm, facial expressions, bodily movements, movement around the performance space – I use all of these storytelling devices. Where the story says Jesus shouted or yelled, I shout or yell. Someone objected to that once. He said afterward that he couldn’t imagine Jesus yelling like that. I asked him how I should portray Jesus yelling without actually yelling. He couldn’t say for sure, but it just didn’t sit right with him. It seemed “out of character” (his words) that Jesus would be yelling at anyone. But he does, and the demons yell at him, and they cry out loudly when they leave. Later, Jesus cries out loudly from the cross with his last departing breath. The Gospel of Mark out loud is unsettling, provocative, strange.
Speaking the story of Mark demands that myriad other decisions be made concerning vocalization and interpretation: volume, inflection, pitch, emphasis, crescendo, decrescendo, attitude. Is an episode meant to be sarcastic, serious, or confrontational?
Daring to Laugh
What about humor? In Mark, a man brings his demon-possessed son to be healed. The disciples cannot do it. Jesus scolds them severely and asks that the boy be brought to him. The demon throws the child to the ground and he goes into a seizure (9:14-29), rolling about and foaming at the mouth.
Jesus says to the father: “How long has this been happening?” and they proceed to have a brief conversation while the boy continues to writhe on the ground in front of them. This strikes me as quite funny. The child is in the throes of a full seizure and Jesus wants to discuss it, wants to know how long it’s been happening, and then challenges the father about his trust level: “What do you mean, if I’m able?” Audiences almost always laugh here. Audiences also laugh in several episodes where Jesus scolds his disciples for their unwavering lack of comprehension: “Are you as dimwitted as they are?” “What goes into a person from outside goes in not through the heart, but through the stomach, and goes out in the outhouse (that way all foods are purified).” Laughter. “How many loaves have you got?” (especially the second time around with the 4,000 and the seven loaves). Duh! Laughter.
Chapter 13 puzzled me for years until I was finally able to hear it differently. In its written form, it comes off as a dire warning from Jesus about the coming destruction of temple/city/country/world. He speaks of the impending danger to his disciples and followers and to the general populace. It can be read or spoken in ominous threatening tones. It can be heard as a foreshadowing – or a report – of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This way of reading is certainly justified. But as a storyteller, I have to make decisions about how it should be spoken aloud, and it wasn’t working as a sharply spoken warning. Now I hear it as a lament, and I’ve chosen to speak this section in hushed tones of sadness, perhaps regret, even as a hallucinatory rant of disorientation or sorrow. I have the audience stand up for this, and I circulate throughout the performance space speaking these lines directly into people’s faces at close range. Their faces register visible anguish, deep concern, worry, sadness, discomfort at my close proximity. Many people seem genuinely shocked by these words spoken aloud.
Silence and Exhilaration
I feel a wave of terror every time I stand up to begin the Gospel of Mark: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Messiah!” How will I ever get through this? Will I find my way this time? What if I get lost? What are they thinking out there? What am I thinking? Is it memory that carries me? I tell people that I try to inhabit the story, and that it inhabits me. Is that what memory is? I can feel the presence of the story around me and within me. It seems to inhabit all the space between me and the listeners. Then my initial terror dissipates as the story begins to take shape and voice. And in the midst of the story’s own terror – those jarring final scenes – I experience a strange exhilaration.
A living story includes silences – those spaces between spoken words, between thoughts, between episodes, human pauses not indicated in the ancient Greek manuscripts, A brief pause can set the stage for a sudden epiphany. Pauses between episodes, or after someone speaks, sharply focus what is being said or just been said. The story lives and breathes in these spaces and silences, gathering force for the return of the sound.
The most powerful and most poignant silence in the Gospel of Mark comes at the end, at verse 8 of Chapter 16. I maintain that if you have not heard the whole Gospel of Mark told aloud straight through, and have not experienced directly the sudden plunge into the abyss of silence at the end, you have not heard the Gospel of Mark. In that shocking silence the story makes itself manifest and burns itself into the minds and hearts of its listeners. And while there is no way to prove what the “original” ending of Mark might have been, there is little doubt that ending at 16:8 is by far the best story ending. It is, in fact, one of the best storytelling endings I’ve ever encountered. I say, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. And they said nothing to anyone. They were afraid! … because … ”
Pause, walk out of the room, count slowly to ten, walk back in. With very few exceptions, the silence at the end of the story has become the silence of the listeners’ immediate experience. To move from sound to no sound – suddenly, wrenchingly – is to be transported into a story space beyond rational understanding. It is palpable yet indescribable. It is a realm outside the familiar senses, a place of enlightenment, a clearing of light in a forest of primordial darkness, a foreign land. We have travelled far from “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Messiah … ” – or perhaps only now just arrived into its presence.
The Rev. Bert Marshall M.Div. ‘97 is a singer, songwriter, recording artist, and storyteller. He is a member of the Nebraska Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he is currently serving as interim minister at Centre Congregational Church UCC in Brattleboro, VT. For more information, see www.gospelofmarkalive.com.