Monday, May 22, 2006

What Do We Learn From Scripture? I hope that this post doesn’t take the smallest bit of attention away from the interesting discussion on liturgy (or liturgy and bishops) below. My only suggestion for now is that those interested in the application of Liturgiam Authenticam read Peter Jeffery’s Translating Tradition: A Chant Historian Reads Liturgiam Authenticam, which I assume has mostly been drawn from an already published four-part series of articles. I learned a great deal from Professor Jeffery’s considerable erudition when I read these articles in Worship. I do want to ask a different sort of question here, though. What are we supposed to learn from Holy Scripture? First, I don’t think that anyone would want to discourage memorization. I am sure that many of us have found ourselves, perhaps in a hospital waiting room, recalling the words of certain psalms when we would have been otherwise unable to pray. Keeping the words of passages of the Gospels very close to our hearts might be necessary for the shock of recognition that hopefully comes when we find ourselves acting like Caiaphas, or the Levite who passed by on the other side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho when coming upon the man fallen victim to robbers. And there are lists in Scripture – we can think, for instance, of St Paul’s catalogue of the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the spirit” – that might prove essential for us when we try to honestly examine our own lives. I could go on in this vein. But, although we should find ourselves learning content from Scripture, is the meaning of Scripture adequately described as a certain set number of prayers, examples, doctrinal statements, and lists of sins and virtues that we can study and finally commit to memory? The answer, I think, is no. I suspect that the question of learning and Scripture probably can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be answered in the abstract. So, I would like to draw your attention to an article by the Anglican theologian Mike Higton in the current issue of the very interesting Journal of Scriptural Reasoning entitled “Read Mark and Learn.” (Forgive the title.) Dr Higton begins by reminding us that “learning” in St Mark’s Gospel is discipleship; the “learner” is the disciple (mathetes). We meet four of these learner-disciples by the Sea of Galilee and we soon grasp that learning begins with seeing. Not with seeing anything in particular, but with being seen – “[Jesus] saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea … he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John” (Mk 1:16, 18). We might here think of the experience of the inverse perspective of icons. And when Rowan Williams, about whom Higton has written a book, was asked about the presence of the Spirit in his own prayer life, the Archbishop of Canterbury also appealed to this sense of “being seen”: It's very hard to answer that. I think you can only say there can be an awareness of a presence. Maybe you can't say any more than that - that you are held or attended to. The way I most often express it is that there comes a level of prayer where it is no longer a question of Are you seeing something? But, Are you aware of being seen? - if you like, sitting in the light and of just being and becoming aware of who you really are. Learning, then, begins with “being seen” by Jesus - the sense “that you are held or attended to.” And learning is a matter of then “becoming aware of who you really are” through the gaze of God. Simon and Andrew are already fishermen (halieis) and Jesus fulfills that vocation by telling them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mk 1:17). They will become "fishermen of people" (halieis anthropon). But becoming who we are meant to be also requires dramatic change - giving things up. James and John must leave their father Zebedee in the boat. Most of all, it means participating in the mission of Jesus Christ, who is already fishing for people, whether by leaving behind physical nets or at least by continuing to read this Gospel with an open heart. When Jesus teaches, he teaches in a synagogue. And the people are astounded “for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes” (Mk 1:21). This “authority” (exousia) proves threatening for an “unclean spirit,” but what is it? We do not have very much to go on if we should want to reconstruct the message that Jesus delivered here. But we can grasp that to understand it, we will have to find ourselves in the synagogue and be aware of the clear distinction between clean and unclean to understand that Jesus’ presence destroys this boundary. To learn from Jesus, we will also have to be able to utter that frightening question, “What is this? A new teaching with authority?” (Mk 1:27). Well, what is it? As Christians, we will know that the question is only answered by who Jesus is. For a number of chapters, the Gospel of Mark famously withholds a clear answer to the question of Jesus’ identity (the so-called “messianic secret”), even as we are left asking again and again. For instance, what does the voice from the heavens at Jesus’ baptism really mean? And so on. In the very middle of the Gospel, we finally do get an answer: Peter says, “You are the Messiah” (Mk 8:29). At last, solid ground. But, as Dr Higton says, “What Peter already knows, what he has already learnt, the following he has supposedly achieved, is engulfed by a greater ignorance” (my emphasis). Doesn't Jesus almost immediately have to rebuke Peter for setting his mind on “not divine things, but on human things”? When Jesus is arrested, Peter denies knowing Jesus. “And he broke down and wept” (Mk 14:72). Dr Higton suggests that Peter breaks down because that haunting line, “I do not know this man you are talking about,” is tragically true. Something in Peter has always kept to "human things," resisting Jesus’ teaching that the Son of Man must suffer, experience rejection, and die. In the darkness of the night before Good Friday, Peter “finds that his expectations and understanding – expectations of a messiah who will overthrow his enemies and reign victoriously – still prevent him from seeing the reality of Jesus’ task and fate.” But now he knows, amidst tears, that his illusory visions are just that. Learning the identity of Jesus – “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One” (Mk 14:62), as Jesus makes clear only when he is a prisoner and the title is inescapably joined with crucifixion – comes from following the Son of Man to the place where our own expectations and illusions break down. As Jesus had told us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). Dr Higton tells us, “What is learnt is not some result of the following – not something gained by following, but the following itself.” We do have to know certain things – the apostles had to know how to fish for the phrase “fishermen of people” to make any sense at all, Jesus’ followers would have to be present at the synagogue on the Sabbath and know the existing difference between clean and unclean, and Peter had to know enough to declare outside Bethsaida that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. But all of this is still meaningless without the following. We do have to know things, but we also have to be willing to be “interrupted and interrogated and convoluted” by discipleship. To become “fishermen of people” we must experience the gaze of the Lord and find ourselves inexplicably leaving Zebedee behind in the boat with the hired men. We must let ourselves be astounded, not an easy thing, and ask about a “new teaching with authority,” even when that phrase, “God of surprises,” threatens to become nothing more than a cliché. We must let ourselves break down and weep with Peter as we realize that we too often, despite what we might profess, still entertain “expectations of a messiah who will overthrow his enemies and reign victoriously.” All of this must also be part of listening to - and learning from - the Gospel of Mark. Thanks to Dr Higton, of course. And what, dear reader, do you think?

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