Wednesday, March 24, 2010

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.

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