Thursday, March 25, 2010

Binding the Strong Man, 1B

Ched Myers
Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus

Part One: Text and Context
Chapter One: A Reading Site and Strategy for Mark
Section B: Why Mark?

The section title suggests that Myers will now tell us why he is addressing Mark, rather than Luke, Ruth, 1 Kings, Exodus, or Revelation, say. But in fact, this section does not answer that question, and instead answers a separate question.

The separate question is to compare the political reading which Myers wishes to give with other techniques of reading. The titled question, "Why Mark?" is addressed only by-the-way. The main question is thus actually, "What is wrong with non-political readings of Mark?"

The answer is thus to be found in an engagement of the "battle for the Bible", and specifically, the problem with strategies which regard the local, the political, the social, as irrelevancies which the interpreter's job is to look past, to find the "timeless and universal theological principle" underlying the text. Such a method is deeply embedded with the interpreter's own situation, and here we see the benefit of Myers' up-front declaration of his own hermeneutical starting places in the previous section.

Myers rejects first the theological method which suppresses the contextual and socio-historical character of the text in favor of the interior and universal. Second, he rejects the historical relic method, which attempts to situate the text so firmly in the past that it pretends an objective and timeless examination of its past character. Myers insists that the root of the argument between these two, and between him and them, is to be found in economic differences, and not in existing denominational or theological allegiances.

Myers then addresses insiders, to argue for the value of Markan study. Mark is, as he puts it, a "political manifesto", and "we" (fellow radical disciples) are in need of such texts. So if we are to find an answer to "Why Mark?" it is for two reasons: Mark is a traditional starting place for new strategies of reading, and Mark's message particularly suits the movement Myers wishes to advance.

There is then a high-level form of eisegesis going on here. Myers is aware of the risk that his strategy will control the text rather than unpack it, and argues convincingly that supposedly "neutral" readings inherently fail even more strongly by leaving unaddressed the very factors which tend to control the text. But Myers does not discuss the way in which the choice of text plays a role. Mark functions as a manifesto for his movement (or, if Myers is right, it does), but what of Matthew?

Myers will beautifully write that there is a traditioning of the story built in to Mark: "Jesus gets the gospel from God; Mark gets the gospel from Jesus; readers get the gospel from Mark." But it is not Mark in isolation which is canon, but Mark in community with the other texts in question. Luke and Matthew, in different ways, try to "correct" Mark, and we must hear both their "correction" and the original Mark. It is surely good to hear the original Mark, but ultimately, our ears as Christians do not "get the gospel from Mark" as if we did not also get it from Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and the rest.

And so the choice of Mark amounts to the following two arguments:
  • Mark's politics are similar to "our" politics so we can find a useful ally,
  • Mark is a fun text to work with.
Myers may successfully avoid the charge that he makes Mark into his own puppet, but by choosing the voice which is, he thinks, most similar to his own, he does perhaps make the ''scriptures'' his own puppet, by listening exclusively to the voice which sounds most like his own.

Index of Comments on Ched Myers

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Index of Comments on Ched Myers

Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus

Part One: Text and Context
1. A Reading Site and Strategy for Mark
A. Why a Political Reading?
B. Why Mark?
C. Political Discourse and the "War of Myths"
D. Gospel as Ideological Narrative
E. A Socio-Literary Reading Strategy
2. The Socio-Historical Site of Mark's Story of Jesus

Part Two: Reading the First Half of Mark

Part Three: Reading the Second Half of Mark

Part Four: Mark and Radical Discipleship

Index of Indexes

Binding the Strong Man, 1A

Ched Myers
Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus

Part One: Text and Context
Chapter One: A Reading Site and Strategy for Mark
Section A: Why a Political Reading?

Myers begins his commentary with a hermeneutical prelude. He says this is necessary for "any serious study of a biblical text." It is, however, quite uncommon, however necessary he believes it to be. As a result, he cannot appeal to a common-sense assumption that we must start with hermeneutics.

To seriously address the question of hermeneutics is to place one's presuppositions on the table, as it were: to make them clear. There is always a gap between reader and writer, and a responsible commentator will therefore attempt to be transparent in the assumptions and starting places taken. Typical once was to assume a neutral and unbiased starting place, "that someone interprets without bias." Myers will therefore interpret from an announced starting place.

He starts with two central facts: he comes from North America, from a place of relative privilege, which he describes as an imperial context. Thus, while Mark writes from a peripheral place, Myers is writing from the center. Judging that Mark will call us to discipleship, Myers is therefore interested in hearing his voice as the voice of one on the periphery, addressed to one in the center.

Myers is also allied with "radical discipleship" as a historic question, and the "so-called Christian left". He sees that this radical discipleship calls to two central practical activites. First, repentance, which requires a deliberate "turning away from empire". It is a transfer of allegiance away from the imperial surroundings of contemporary North American life. And then, resistance, which is about active steps to "impede imperial progress".

There is an ironic aspect to Myers decision to be up-front about his starting places, and in my own reading and commenting on Myers' reading and commenting on Mark. Just as Myers feels it necessary to announce his starting places, so should I, right? Just as Mark cannot simply have an "obvious" meaning, "requiring no interpretation", the same is true for Myers.

A discovery that we should think about hermeneutics before interpreting Mark thus produces the discovery that we should think about hermeneutics before interpreting Myers. And, one of the key insights in hermeneutics as a whole is the role of suspicion. The words on the page say "this is what I'm up to", but we are entitled, from our own starting place, to judge what Myers is up to, and his statements "this is what I'm up to", are only grist for the mill.

So there is a parallel here. As Myers reads Mark, so I read Myers. My starting place seems similar to Myers, but there are crucial differences. I live in a different place than he does; we are not simply both in "North America", but rather, he wrote in the mid-eighties, while Ronald Reagan was president, and before the cataclysms of the fall of communist states in 1989. The character of American imperial strategies has radically changed, and with it, the nature of radical discipleship.

I start with a clearer attachment to anarchism, which has in more recent years enjoyed some splendid writing by Christian anarchists. Jacques Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity appeared in English in 1988, and Vernard Eller's Christian Anarchy only in 1999. Likewise, while Myers came out of the peace churches (Mennonite, specifically), I was a Presbyterian as a child and adolescent, and became an Anglican as an adult. Myers' understanding of radical discipleship is thus going to be very different from mine, as we drink from very different wells.

Myers wants to provide a political reading for Mark, because he believes that it is particularly necessary to provide political readings in general, as a radical disciple in an imperial center. What kind of a reading do I give of Myers? What questions do I bring to Myers' text? One, of course, is to discover more about Mark's text. Another is to tease out the distinctions underlying Christian anarchism, Christian nonviolence, radical discipleship. The distinctions between anarchists, Marxists, and social democrats are very interesting to me, and Myers writes from a time when only Marxist and social democratic voices were heard from the left.

I am very interested in identifying anarchist readings of Scripture in general, and Myers' reading of Mark is helpful. There is the danger, of course, that Myers' affection for Mark will lead him to discountenance the other Gospels. It is perhaps a slogan that Mark is not canonical scripture, except insofar as Mark is one among four (or more!). If we read Mark in such a way as to declare the other New Testament authors erroneous then we are reading Mark uncanonically, and in a way which is thus at odds with the authority Mark has for the church. My interest in the whole canon and the whole tradition means that I am in dialogue with more New Testament texts than Myers may be, and I will be interested to see whether what he says will stand up when one holds all the Scriptures in view.

Index of Comments on Ched Myers