It is with pure delight that I thank Westminster John Knox Publishing for sending me the following selection for review. This is the opening book in a new series entitled: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.
The first book in the series is Mark, by William C. Placher. It was published along with Luke, which I have also received and will be reviewing shortly.
WJK also publishes the Interpretation series, of which I have long been a fan, but after reading Mark, I suspect this new series may far outstrip that wonderful series.
The idea behind the Belief series is to bring together the latest exegetical work, along with literary, historical, archaeological, and other pertinent advances as they impact how we interpret the bible from a theological point of view.
In Mark, they have certainly attained their goal. Professor Placher, unfortunately now deceased, has written a simply beautiful commentary. Not content to just tell us what the text means, or most likely means, Placher explores how Mark’s “good news” is still most relevant to the world we live in today.
For example, in the opening pages, he writes:
Americans today, therefore, read the Gospel of Mark–this story of a Middle Eastern man tortured to death by the most powerful empire of his time–when we are the most powerful nation of our time, and our forces are torturing people, sometimes to death. What does this imply about our values and the sort of people we have become?
Peppered throughout the chapters are “Further Reflections” on key phrases or words such as Kingdom of God, Miracles, and Ransom. Each of these probes into the historical record and juxtaposing that against our modern notions, finding common ground and points of comparison.
Quotes are boxed throughout the text as well, and are wide-ranging in their authorship, including Luther, Barth, Basil, Tertullian, Philo, Cicero and many others. These highlight themes introduced and explored by Professor Placher.
What is most compelling is the breath of sources. You will meet the likes of Karl Barth, and Luther of course, but also the likes of Calvin, John Dominic Crossan, and Gustavo Gutiérrez. Majority opinions are explained, but plenty of minority opinions are given with their rationales. Of course, Placher gives his choice and the reasons for it in the end.
We are a world more and more polarized along religious lines. Placher offers us, for example, a theological explanation of chapter 12:28-34. Here Jesus is questioned by a scribe as to which commandment is first. Jesus famously says “love God and love your neighbor.” This is all well and good, but in answering, Jesus shows us that even though many of his arguments are with scribes, not all scribes are bad, some come with honest questions. Barth points out that this the Hebrew Scriptures often engage “outsiders” to do the will of God, and thus Jesus shows us that good can often come from those who are not like us. How useful it is to remember that today.
The point always is, that when we read scripture, and Mark in particular, there is much that speaks to our condition today, both individually and as communities and nations. Every minister, priest, and preacher, every teacher seeks to make the scripture relevant to their listeners. This is no more than Mark did himself, in trying to tailor the stories he told to the issues present in his community.
How could Jesus help them? How can Jesus help us? As students of scripture, we have much to gain here in understanding, but if we are also preachers and teachers, we have even more, for here we can find new insights, new interpretations, new connections where we never realized them before. For every minister who has sat late into Saturday evening, still trying to find something “new” to say on tomorrow’s gospel, she or he will likely find help here.
We squabble, some of us in our respective traditions with rules about who can join us, and who cannot join us. We have our own brand of “unclean”. Yet, Jesus did not teach us that. He taught us the opposite. He regularly ate with sinners and those ritually unclean, and he never made it a condition for sitting at table with him that repentance was a pre-requisite. What does that say to us today?
Page by page, Placher explores, teases out, and conjoins text from not only Mark, but from other texts as well both in and out of the bible. The picture sharpens and Mark’s words take on added significance. We see in a new way, hopefully a better one.
I simply enjoyed this commentary more than I can say. I found it easy of explanation, yet profound in its theological depth. Placher has drawn from a broad spectrum of experts, and has intertwined them to make coherent and useful conclusions. He gives us a foundation from which to explore.
As I said, teachers and preachers will find this commentary invaluable as they search for new ways to marry scripture to today’s world. Individuals will see application in their own lives and spiritual journeys.
If the rest of this series can be predicted upon the basis of this opening publication, then we are in for a rich treat indeed. You may indeed want to consider the entire series, as it comes out. I have barely begun Luke, and I can already see that it carries on the fine standards established in the first offering. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up. You won’t be sorry.