Meeting God In Mark, Rowan Williams’ volume based on talks given at Canterbury during 2010, has a carefully chosen title. For Williams, the reader does not (just) discover, or learn about, or find God in Mark’s Gospel, but encounters God. The stories he tells about famous Christians who first came to faith by reading the book – Jürgen Moltmann and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom – both focus on the powerful, and even implicitly disturbing, sense of God’s presence which the experience involved. This is paralleled in the discussion of genre, in which he compares sections of Mark to the stories he heard in an Egyptian monastery about well-known and beloved monks. The point was less whether there was evidence that Fr Philemon’s prayers had once stopped a train, but that someone had been in the presence of a person of whom they could believe that. The scientific “fact” is not the point, though Williams does not dismiss the reality of the events on that basis.
There’s an obvious similarity here with The Lion’s World, his set of talks on C.S. Lewis: both centre around texts which Williams insists enact or dramatize spiritual states rather than transmitting or encoding theological insights. The starkness and directness of Mark’s narrative should not be mistaken for simplicity or easiness, according to his reading. It is part of the work’s direct demand for a response from the reader, less rhetorically and theologically involved than John’s Gospel, but similarly refusing to the reader take meaning from the work without committing themselves on its truth.
This emphasis on revelation as relationship rather than paraphrase finds a focus in his account of both Jesus’ healing ministry and the Messianic Secret. For Williams, the injunctions to those whom he healed to keep it secret are not a rhetorical fudge by the later Church to avoid admitting that Jesus never proclaimed himself, but an index of the difficulty and importance of his proclamation. To relate stories about Jesus as a set of “remarkable magical happenings”, or – even worse – as ways to prove a point, would corrupt and distort the truth (23). Just as Jesus cannot and will not do a miracle to prove a point, allowing the message about him to become a punchline, a claim to power, would destroy that revelation. Trust is both a necessary condition for the healing to take place, and the relationship which is established in that healing. (Even if that trust takes the anguished form of the boy’s father in Chapter 9: “I trust you! Just help me cope when trust falls short”).
Thus Jesus’ inability to work miracles in his home town is bound up with the inhabitants attitude of “casual familiarity and a bit of snobbery or contempt” to a man they remember as an artisan’s son: they cannot trust him, and in this situation a miracle would twist its own meaning by becoming a spiritual put-down or come-back (36). The difficulties, misunderstandings, and silence in Mark are not “for the sake of making things difficult in an arbitrary or unkind way”, but because “if it’s the true God who is speaking and being spoken about, this God is not a hugely inflated version of how we would run the universe if we had the chance” (50). The stories reiterate how God must elude human attempts to make this story a power-grab.
Moving to the Passion narrative, Williams notes the much clearer and sharper focus the narrative snaps into at this point. Times and places become both more distinct, but also more evenly spaced in place and time, and he endorses Etienne Trocmé’s reading of the Passion narrative as related to an early Christian liturgy, with stops at various points in Jerusalem for reading, prayer and reflection. Again, the starkness and lack of smooth perspective are noted, with the comment that this is what victim narratives often sound like, when people find themselves at the mercy of arbitrary power. And again, there is no “proof” moment when authorities are forced to admit they were wrong, just the offer of a relationship, “the re-creating of a relationship of trust and love on the far side of the most extreme human realities” (66).
Reading is both a necessity and a difficulty in this account of the Gospel: “unless we grasp that dimension of Mark that leads into silence and bewilderment, there’s something we shall miss about the whole revolution in values and visions that he articulates for us” (72). Certainly this volume encouraged me to return to Mark’s Gospel, which is fairly good evidence that it is fulfilling its purpose for at least one person. Jacket quotations from Morna Hooker, Timothy Radcliffe and Jürgen Moltmann suggest I’m in good company. (The latter gives the kind of comment which publishers must dream about.) It’s a short, provocative and ruthlessly clear book, paradoxically concerned with unsayability and the risks and difficulties of articulation.