Monday, August 22, 2011

Let the Reader Understand

“Let the reader understand.” But what if we don’t?

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 13:14-27), we read the apocalyptic section of Mark. Jesus predicts the setting up of the “desolating sacrilege” and the following days when the whole universe seems to crumble away. At the beginning of the reading, Mark interjects that little editorial comment—“Let the reader understand”—but, of course, we don’t understand.

It’s a wonderful testament to how difficult it is for 21st-century Christians to read the bible. So much of it was written into a context that we don’t know. The real trouble lies in passages not like this one. In this weird prediction, we are very clear that we don’t understand what’s going on. I wonder about all those passages in which we think we know what we’re reading but actually don’t. Let the reader understand! Understand what?

There’s a cartoon that sums this principle up nicely. One man, dressed in what appears to be ancient garb, is sitting at a rock diligently writing something. Another man walks up and asks, “Why are you so worried about getting all your sources correct? It’s not like anyone is going to be taking it literally.” (Insert laughter here. At least from those who have actually seen the cartoon.) How was the bible written? What did the authors have in mind? How much of what Jesus taught is actually taught by those who have reinterpreted his words to mean something almost completely different? Biblical scholarship is a struggle.

This passage from Mark is one of those that lets us know right off that we don’t know what’s going on. That wasn’t the author’s intention—he had no idea his text would still be the subject of scrutiny two-thousand years later. What was he talking about? Perhaps the erection of a statute of Nero in the Jerusalem Temple—something that happened in the mid-to-late first century. Or maybe it was something else completely. What is clear to us is that Mark had something specific in mind—let the reader understand. The trouble is that we just don’t.

But as long as we can start from that place—an admission that there is a gap of knowledge between what Mark thought we would know and what we actually know—then there’s hope for our study of scripture. We don’t have the answer. We don’t know what’s going on behind the text itself. We can guess. We can imagine. And all of that is good and right to do. The only mistake would be to assume we know everything about the text and try to find one concrete way of explaining this apocalyptic passage.

That should be true of the rest of scripture as well. There is always a gap in our knowledge. Unfortunately, those gaps aren’t always as easy to see as they are in this passage. How much more lively is the bible when we don’t know all the answers? I read a passage in another book last night that conveyed a subtle image that I still don’t get. And now I’m reading and reading in an attempt to figure it out. So, too, can the bible draw us in as we seek to understand it in our own, always-changing context.

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