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Mark's Jesus goes beyond the Church


Mark's Jesus goes beyond the ChurchIn The Existential Jesus, La Trobe University sociologist John Carroll's central proposition is that Jesus is the Philosopher of Being. This interesting, but sometimes perplexing, reading of Mark's Gospel is the subject of this interview with John Carroll.

Nayum Ayliffe: What brought you to Mark's Gospel?

John Carroll: Basically what brought me to Mark was the Reading Group that I convened for a decade at La Trobe University. It wasn't a churchy group at all. We read Mark in the early days and we were all overwhelmed by it, and everything else we read after it was disappointing.

I've come to the view that Archetypal stories are the basis of every culture. The Gallipoli story is just basically a re-telling of Homer from 2500 years ago. In the West obviously the big story is Jesus. Mark is an extraordinary narrative, quite unlike any other in the new or old testament. John is great as a story, but it does not have the intensity or the potency of Mark.

NA: One of the perspectives I gained from the book was that you were rescuing Jesus from the church? Is that a fair analysis?

JC: Put crudely, Yes. Especially with Mark, I think the churches have distorted the text. I use the word for sin, the Greek word Hamartia really means missing your way, a bit like a spear throw that's gone wrong. Or it can also mean character flaw. It's not a moral, ethical term. Sin is really not the meaning.

It's very clear that Mark's Jesus is not really interested in sin, or really whether people are good people or bad people. He's much more interested in What's the nature of the 'I', or the being of the individual, 'Who are we' in the deep existential sense.

NA: Nick Cave wrote "The Christ that the Church offers us, the bloodless, placid 'Saviour' - the man smiling benignly at a group of children or serenely hanging from the cross - denies Christ His potent, creative sorrow or His boiling anger that confronts us so forcibly in Mark."

JC: He's also very alone. He's really the stranger. Of any major figure in a Western text, there is noone more alone than Mark's Jesus. His followers are all hopeless. He ditches his family, "I haven't got a mother and I haven't got brothers."

Mark's Jesus goes beyond the ChurchAt the crucifixion, there are thousands of people screaming to crucify him and no one he is close to is around. It's a very lonely end. And then there's just an empty tomb. You need reminding that there's no resurrection in Mark.

NA: You say that Jesus is not interested in morals in the same way as John the Baptist.

JC: This Jesus, I don't think, is interested in morality. John the Baptist is a conventional Old Testament, Jewish preacher, who comes in from the wilderness and tells the people, "You're sinning and unless you reform your ways you're going to be damned."

From very early on, Jesus makes it clear that "that's the Jewish church." It's logic is 'ten commandments, ethics, etc.' He also makes it clear that all Peter and his followers are up to, is that sort of ethical religion too. But that's not in fact what he's interested in. That's not where truth lies.

NA: In your book, you say that Jesus replaces God. But isn't God still present in Jesus?

JC: God steadily disappears in Mark's text, and I think John picks this up. (In) the great opening in John 1 about light and darkness, it's quite explicit that Jesus created all things. It's not like the Hebrew Bible, which has God in the beginning creating all things. Jesus is Eternal Being and out of his eternal being comes all that is.

Later on in John, he says, "before Abraham was, I am." Abraham was a normal man who was born and died, and is dead. The Eternal Being towards which (Jesus) is gesturing is something that all individuals potentially have. So he, as the philosopher of Being, which is my argument, becomes the creative representative. You sort of don't need a God.

NA: You mention that the disciples don't get it. But would you agree that essentially we all don't get it?

JC: No I don't agree. The story ends with a young man in white inside an empty tomb speaking out. I think he's got to be speaking to the reader, and he basically says, 'Don't be alarmed.' Everyone else is terrified. There are characters through the story, starting with Legion, who happen across Jesus, who are transformed, who get it. There's the woman at Bethany, (and the) mad boy who sees the transfiguration. It's not the case that noone gets it.

The American critic Harold Bloom said, "It's only the demonic in us, that actually recognizes this Jesus. They are actually called demons or daemons in the text. One of the teachings of Mark is that if you get into the story, and you let the story possess you, then the teaching will start to work, or something will start to work.

NA: If Jesus is 'the other', is there beauty in the mystery of the inconceivable elements in what Jesus was. If we get it, then is this mystery diminished?

JC: If we get it, we only get it obscurely. I don't think Jesus is 'the other,' because in Mark, unlike John, for a lot of the text you identify with Jesus, you walk in his shoes. (Although) there is something peculiar and special about him.

But Mark sets up this sense, (and) I've tried to tease this out, that we are all composites of different personas, some are concrete personas, some are spectoral or otherworldly. And the story only works if there is some sort of conjunction between the reader and the Jesus figure in the story, so actually I don't think he's an 'other' in that sense.



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Existing comments

"I use the word for sin, the Greek word Hamartia really means missing your way, a bit like a spear throw that's gone wrong. "
I was taught exactly that at school (MLC Melbourne) 62 years ago by Dr A Harold Wood. For me there is much in this article that fits closely with Wood's teaching.
Thank you.

Elizabeth Sinclair | 27 March 2007  

I have read the first half of Carrol's book.In this interview he re-states much of the book so far. I find his text incredibly refreshing and his thinking to be 'outside the square'. Carrol's stress on the importance of stories is not exaggerated. Even the latest science is a story, no doubt to be revised drastically (recall Galileo). I truly believe that given Huxley's (et al) search for the perennial, Carrol is in good company. If Jesus was 'speaking to us' then it was to all of us - not just members of the church. I find Carrol's thinking about the limited nature of the church's teaching to be along the lines that this teaching is neccesary but far from sufficient. In postmodernism textual detective work has taken on new dimensions. Carrol is definitely anti-Leavis in his approach. More strength to his pen.

John Muk Muk Burke | 27 April 2007  

I think 'there is something peculiar and special' about John Carroll. I love him. I believe he is enormously gifted and possesses a towering intellect.

I am disappointed and pained that he is not more well known in the world.

He is no less a philosopher than Plato.

I wish everyone in the world could read his works - and be transformed by them. I hope there are many more masterful pieces of work in store!

S. Dorsett, Melbourne, Australia | 06 June 2007  

I am about halfway through the book and am enjoying the startling insights specially as today's gospel was the sower story. Could someone tell me how to pronounce pneuma? It keeps holding me up...

anne_parnis@picknowl.com.au | 30 January 2008  

Hi Anne - I believe it's pronounced 'new-mah'.

Graham | 30 January 2008  

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