“Loosing the Lion”: Why the “underdog” Gospel is a model for preachers and a rollicking good ride

“Mark’s is a Gospel of secrecy, of mystery,” says Dr. Leroy Huizenga, author of a new commentary on the Gospel of Mark, “and so one has to read Mark’s Gospel with the same approach Mark’s Gospel itself teaches, namely, with the eyes of faith that persist in seeking Jesus.”

The winged lion of Mark the Evangelist in the Doge's Palace, Venice. (Wikipedia)

Dr. Leroy Huizenga (www.leroyhuizenga.com) is a New Testament scholar, professor, and author who currently holds the Administrative Chair of Human and Divine Sciences at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. After earning a doctorate in New Testament at Duke University, Huizenga taught for five years at Wheaton College. He was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. He has written widely for a variety of publications, including First Things and Catholic World Report. The author and co-editor of books on the Gospel of Matthew and reading the Bible intertexually, Huizenga’s new book Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark (Emmaus Academic) is a commentary on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B.

Dr. Huizenga recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about his new book and discussed why the Gospel of Mark is an “underdog,” what is unique about the Gospel, what homilists can learn from studying the Gospel, and what readers in general can learn about this “fascinating story of mystery through which we encounter the crucified and risen Jesus himself.”

CWR: You begin by describing the Gospel of Mark as “the underdog” among the Four Gospels throughout much of Church history. What do you mean by that?

Dr. Huizenga: Mark’s Gospel has been overshadowed by the other three. It’s much shorter than the others, and lacks a lot of the teaching, parables, and speeches found in the others. It’s not user-friendly that way; it’s much easier to preach and teach from Matthew, Luke, or John. They make the significance of Jesus’ words and deeds more or less obvious. And so St. Augustine famously regarded Mark as a short summary of Matthew’s Gospel, strongly implying that if you had Matthew, you didn’t need Mark. And if you look at a modern edition of St. Thomas’ collection of the Fathers’ interpretations of the Gospels, the Catena Aurea, the volume on Mark’s Gospel is slim. In our own day, the famous Lutheran scholar Rudolf Bultmann said that “Mark was not sufficiently master of his material to be able to venture upon a systematic construction himself,” by which he meant that whoever wrote Mark’s Gospel didn’t know what he was doing and just slapped things together without rhyme or reason.

CWR: What has transpired in recent decades to change perceptions and understandings of the Gospel?

Dr. Huizenga: In the early and mid-twentieth century, there was a real flourishing in the discipline of literary studies. And so as part of that some smart people thought they might do the unthinkable, that is, read the Gospels as literature, as stories, as narratives. We have to understand that the category of story or narrative got eclipsed in biblical studies in the Enlightenment, because the category of history came to dominate. Scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the Bible as an incoherent collection of textual artifacts, like shards from pots, which they could use to reconstruct the supposedly true history of ancient Israel or, for our purposes, the “real” Jesus of history behind, and obscured by, the Church’s dogmas and the Gospels themselves.

That approach still dominates in a lot of historical Jesus research, which is why so many books about Jesus on the shelves are so radical. Their authors assume the Gospels are an incoherent collection of traditions, sort and sift them according to deductive criteria, and then pick about ten percent of that to create their picture of Jesus.

But literary studies reclaimed for the wider world what the Church as such never forgot, that the Gospels are coherent stories of Jesus. To do a job, you need to use the right tool, and if you use the wrong tool the job won’t get done. A screwdriver can’t drive a nail, nor can a hammer turn a screw. So some professors of literature tried applying the tools of literary criticism with the Bible and with the Gospels in particular, and found that the tools worked. Literary critical tools fit the Gospels, revealing dynamics historical-critical approaches like source, form, and redaction criticism simply couldn’t see. 

For Mark’s Gospel, the seminal work was a little book by David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story. It’s now in its third edition; the original was (if I recall rightly) published in 1980. Rhoads is a professor of New Testament, and Michie was a professor of literature. They demonstrated that Mark could be read fruitfully using literary tools, by paying attention to basic story stuff: plot, characters, conflict, audience, and so on. About the same time the British literary critic Sir Frank Kermode wrote up his Norton lectures on Mark’s Gospel, delivered at Harvard, into a little book called The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative.

Since then, Mark’s Gospel has become a favorite for literary investigation, and, to an extent, restored Mark to its rightful place among the Gospels. For literary approaches help us understand why Mark’s Gospel is so weird at first glance. Mark never makes anything obvious; in accord with Kermode’s title, Mark’s is a Gospel of secrecy, of mystery, and so one has to read Mark’s Gospel with the same approach Mark’s Gospel itself teaches, namely, with the eyes of faith that persist in seeking Jesus. Without persistence, without faith, it’s hard to get at what Mark is doing in his story of Jesus.

CWR: Why did you choose to write a commentary on Mark? And how would you describe the approach used?

Dr. Huizenga: Part of it is personality. I’ve always rallied to the underdog, to the minority position; like Mark Twain once said, if you ever find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s best to reevaluate your position. A bigger part of it is that my mentors from college through graduate school were fascinated with Mark’s Gospel. The biggest influence upon me was the late Don Juel of Princeton Seminary, who himself wrote what I think is the most important work on Mark for practicing Christians, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted. A theologically orthodox Lutheran, Juel used theological concepts and literary tools to reveal more of Mark’s mysteries than anyone in a way fruitful for Christian life, an existential way in which the demands of the cross are inescapable for those who would be Christ’s disciples.

My own approach follows Juel’s, and his influence is obvious. I approach Mark as a story, showing how Mark expects the reader to perceive the subtle literary things he’s doing—flashbacks, foreshadowing, irony, intercalation (the interweaving of multiple stories together), and so on. And so in my book I’m able to show all kinds of crazy things Mark is doing through the subtle connections he makes to the Old Testament as well as to other parts of the Gospel.

For instance, in the scene of the baptism, Mark says the heavens were “torn open” when the Holy Spirit comes into (not on!) Jesus. The word is schizein in Greek, where we get “schizophrenic” or “schism” from. The same word, schizein, is found towards the end of the Gospel in the tearing of the curtain: the temple curtain is torn just like the heavens were torn.

What’s the point? Directionality. Just like the Spirit broke out of heaven through the tear in the cosmic fabric, so too does God the Father bust out of the Holy of Holies through the tear in the veil’s fabric. And the Son will soon bust out of the tomb. And so Mark is suggesting that all three persons of the Trinity are on the loose in the cosmos.

CWR: What are some aspects of preaching and homiletics that are, overall, lacking today? What does Mark bring to the table, so to speak, to help homilists?

Dr. Huizenga: In my diocese, and my experiences elsewhere where we lived or when I travel, I’ve encountered a lot of good preaching. But I find even good Catholic preachers don’t often dive deeply into the biblical texts themselves. (And so as to your prior question, that’s a big part of the reason I wrote the book—I wanted to help clergy preach better and preach Mark in particular, precisely because Mark’s so mysterious it makes preaching hard if you think preaching is about presenting obvious points.) And I think a big part of why many preachers don’t dive deeply into the texts in their homilies is that they got trained in historical methods in reading the Bible, which ever more Protestant and Catholic scholars from all sorts of perspectives are finding useless for the life of the Church. We need to read the Gospels as Scripture, the living word of God for the Church today, not as ancient textual artifacts of long-dead communities.

Mark’s Gospel is itself proclamation, and models for preachers how to proclaim. That’s part of why I subtitled the book “Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark.” Mark proclaims by telling a story, and preachers would do well to employ the category of story in their homiletics. That doesn’t mean telling cute little anecdotes. It means structuring one’s homily in a narrative way that tells the story of whatever Mark’s got on offer for the day that fits in the wider narrative of salvation history, which culminates in every Mass. Preach like Mark when preaching Mark’s Gospel. I’ve got some resources listed in the back of the book readers might find helpful.

Above all, reading Mark as a narrative and preaching in a narrative way works, because human beings are narrative by nature and nurture. Our minds operate in story, and we’re raised on stories, from fables to fairy tales. Much preaching is Cartesian; it trades in propositional points, and that’s why a lot of it doesn’t stick. We remember stories easier than logical syllogisms. Everyone appreciate stories; it takes deep training to think in and appreciate syllogisms. Stories can make points—Jesus himself often provides the point of his parables—but points without stories don’t stick.

CWR: How have scholars renewed their understanding of the genre of the Gospels in recent decades? What are some examples of this from the Gospel of Mark?

Dr. Huizenga: Historical criticism either saw Mark as having no genre or belonging to a brand new genre he pretty much would have invented. But it’s hard to write something that doesn’t belong to a pre-existing genre so that it’d have no genre (everything has to or it’s incomprehensible) or be totally new—go home tonight and come up with a new genre! Good luck. The idea that Mark invented a new genre was actually theologically driven; it was thought a unique Savior—Jesus—would require a unique, and thus new, genre.

Thanks to the work of Richard Burridge—an Anglical clergyman who won the Ratzinger Prize for his work in this area—most scholars of whatever stripe think the Gospels belong to the genre of bios, ancient biography. And so we need to read them in accord with their genre of ancient biography. Ancient biography (unlike modern biography, which is different from ancient biography) orders its material in a narrative way usually according to topic, not according to modern concerns for precise chronology. That’s the legacy of Newtonian physics and nineteenth-century historiography, with which Mark and the other Gospel writers were utterly unfamiliar, living centuries before Newton and Leopold von Ranke.

What that means is that the Gospel writers had a lot of freedom to arrange and to shape their material. It helps explain so-called contradictions in the Gospels. The nineteenth-century mind finds the Gospels full of contradictions because it’s not reading them according to their genre. What’s actually going on is that each Gospel writer has his own purposes, and, while everything in the Gospels happened one way or another, each writer composes his Gospel and tells his stories of Jesus therein in accord with those purposes under the aegis of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Ancient biography permits that, and so what we might see as contradictions simply aren’t.

So Mark can exclude most of the teaching Matthew records and emphasize Jesus’ deeds because he wants to present Jesus, God on earth, waging a hardcore holy war against sin, death, hell, and the Devil. It wouldn’t do for Mark to slam the brakes on the action by including Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Mark’s Gospel presents Jesus as a man of action.

CWR: Can you give some specific examples?

Dr. Huizenga: Matthew uses “Son of God” as a title of Jesus all over the place, but in Mark’s Gospel the only human that calls Jesus “Son of God” is the centurion at the crucifixion. It looks like Mark doesn’t really think of Jesus as Son of God and thus contradicts Matthew. But why does he really do this? Because Mark doesn’t want his readers understanding Jesus as Son of God apart from his crucifixion. Put differently, Mark teaches through his story that you can’t have Jesus as a mere superstar, a wonder-worker, a cheerleader, a mascot. You can only have him as the crucified Son of God. (That’s a timely word for American Christians, who want Jesus on our terms precisely as a superstar who simply affirms us.) And so he withholds “Son of God” until a particular moment in the story, the precise point of Jesus’ death on the cross.

Or the baptism: In Matthew’s and Luke’s versions, the heavenly voice of the Father says, “This is my beloved Son.” But in Mark it’s in the second person: “You are my beloved Son.” Strictly speaking, that’s a contradiction. Why does Mark have it in the second person? Because he’s emphasizes secrecy and mystery throughout his Gospel. In Matthew and Luke, the baptism is a public declaration of Jesus’ divine sonship. But in Mark, only Jesus hears, no one else. It’s part of Mark’s idea that secrets and mysteries aren’t for everyone, but for insiders, those who have faith, and who persist in seeking Jesus. Jesus is in on the secret, as it were, of his own divine sonship; insiders will also be given this mystery.

Seeing the Gospels as ancient biography explains why Matthew, Luke, and Mark can do such things.

CWR: What are a couple of the distinctive features or themes found in Mark?

Dr. Huizenga: So many! One series of related themes concerns secrecy and faith. Mark’s Jesus is private; he conceals truth, revealing it only to insiders—”With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything” (Mark 4:33-34). Why? Because for Mark faith is persistence in seeking Jesus, and those who stay close to him, by his side, make themselves insiders who then get the secrets, the mysteries, the divine revelation.

Another is discipleship: just as the cross is necessary for Jesus, and he can’t be understood rightly as Son of God apart from the cross, so too is the cross unavoidable for disciples: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). It’s very Catholic, actually: we cooperate in our salvation by sharing in Jesus’ passion.

As far as features, irony is a major Markan device. For instance, throughout the Gospel Jesus tells people to be silent and not tell anyone about their healing, but then at the end of the Gospel the young man (it’s not an angel in Mark) who announces the resurrection of Jesus tells the women to go and tell his disciples Jesus is risen and he’ll meet them in Galilee. And then Mark tells us, “And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). For once in the Gospel, someone’s told to speak, and now, ironically, they stay silent.

Another is intercalation: Mark will often weave two stories together to drive a subtle point home. My favorite is the hemorrhaging woman and sick-then-dead girl in Mark 5. Jairus begs Jesus to heal his little daughter, who’s at the point of death. Jesus goes, but he’s interrupted by the hemorrhaging woman. She’s an example of faith, pressing into Jesus through the crowds, which are crushing Jesus. She touches his garment and boom! she’s healed. She falls at his feet and he tells her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34). But her interruption means the little girl has died. So for the reader, the question Mark’s framing is whether Jesus can even raise the dead. And so Jesus arrives and announces the dead girl is only sleeping. He’s mocked, and so he goes inside, kicking almost everyone out save three disciples and the girl’s parents. He says talitha cumi and raises her from the dead. Both females are similar: the woman suffered twelve years, the girl is twelve years old. Both are in desperate situations. Both have ritual impurity: menstrual impurity in the one case, corpse impurity in the other. And Jesus heals them both. Tying the stories together fascinates the reader, making for maximum impact. That’s the power of story.

CWR: As a Scripture scholar and professor, what fascinates you the most about the Gospel of Mark? As a Catholic and a believer, what challenges you the most in the Gospel?

Dr. Huizenga: Everything above. Mark’s Gospel is a rollicking good ride, a fascinating story of mystery through which we encounter the crucified and risen Jesus himself. That’s also the challenge, though: This Jesus demands I suffer crucifixion with him, and that’s scary, whether we’re talking spiritual mortification or if it comes to it red martyrdom. But the Cross is a message we Western Christians, all too fat and happy, desperately need to hear.

About Carl E. Olson 1071 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

8 Comments

  1. Mark causes you to think. It elicits faith. Huizenga identifies the vital ‘literary’ purpose of the Gospel that seems foreign. It is more for proclamation than reading. My brother in law’s never finished doctorate on the ancient English Gospels was that they were redacted for proclamation. Most homilies are wearisome attempts to convince the congregation what most already ‘suspect’, that God loves them. With an added “cute little anecdote”. We can weave a good story but proclamation is essential. To proclaim requires pedagogy. A message, a “challenge, this Jesus demands I suffer crucifixion with him, and that’s scary”. Parishioners often complain they rarely hear about the Cross, the efficacy of suffering translated as compassionate love of others. The focus becomes not simply that God loves us. Rather how do we reveal we love God.

  2. Nice insights, Dr. Huizenga!
    Some current authors suggest that Mark’s “mystery” also keeps the secrets of Christ from the public eyes of Roman authorities, who would find Catholicism treasonous.
    Your emphasis on precise words (and consistent, accurate translations) is a welcome warning against translators who translate the same Greek word in two or more ways. Why does “hand over” in some places become “betray”?
    Kudos!

  3. Hey, not bad. Upon reading this, I got excited: “In the scene of the baptism, Mark says the heavens were ‘torn open’ … schizein in Greek … the same word … found towards the end of the Gospel in the tearing of the curtain: the temple curtain is torn just like the heavens were torn.” But what a letdown when you take away all that excitement with this conclusion: “Mark … [is only] suggesting that all three persons of the Trinity are on the loose in the cosmos.” Where have I heard that one before? So much for “Mark’s Gospel [being] a rollicking good ride”. My ride was rather anticlimactic, if you ask me.

  4. Bummer. My edition of the Bible (Ignatius: The Holy Bible, RSV, Catholic edition, Ignatius Press) simply states “immediately he saw the heavens opened . . .” ( Mark 1:10)
    .
    What edition has “torn opened”? Or must one read it in the Greek?

  5. Great study. Do you think Mark is the boy who ran away naked leaving his linen garment in the hands of the soldiers in the Garden? After all, his Gospel alone has this story. My scripture teacher also noted that Mark uses the word euthus very often, that is “immediately.” He thus gives us a very lively picture of enthusiasm.

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