Some books of theology manage to fit 'hermeneutics', 'exegesis', 'praxis' and 'soteriology' all into one sentence. Very impressive. Others make suitable texts for 'Children's Church'. But this is the Goldilocks of theological works, pitched at just the right level of brow for the vast majority of the reading public.
As multi-layered as an onion, Professor N T Wright`s new book on Mark draws you in at once with its matter-of-fact, chatty, deceptively simple prose. Each `chapter' covers one day between Ash Wednesday and Easter Saturday. Using the prescribed lectionary for the day, Professor Wright focuses on a few verses and offers us his translation, and his exegesis. If, like me, you prefer a more traditional version of the bible, I suggest you begin by reading the passage in that version before plunging into the Wright text. Like all the best teachers, he makes some of the expected points about each passage, so that you are to some extent lulled into thinking you are keeping up well (if not actually ahead of him), but he then slips in an explanation, a twist or a new perspective, which sends you back to the beginning of the chapter to start again. I do not mean to suggest that the text is difficult, far from it, but there is a good deal more meat on the bones that you might anticipate at first glance.
Consciously or unconsciously, Professor Wright echoes the style of Mark's gospel itself. Alec McCowan memorably did a one-man show in which he simply spoke Mark's gospel, having first learnt it by heart. Here he describes how he became gripped by the text. Although he did `not regard himself as a religious man',
"Certainly, when I was working on St Mark and performing St Mark, there were signs. On several occasions, when I least expected it and when I most needed it, there would be a sign. I became aware that the sun, the moon, or even the glow from a burning candle, assumed a new significance. Whenever I needed it, I was blessed; and blessed specifically with light and warmth".
Reading Morna Hooker's book on Mark (as our house group did for the last Year B Lent), I was thrilled to learn that some scholars think that Mark finished his gospel at 16.8, as it were mid-stream. To me, that fits beautifully with the idea that Mark was writing all the time with dramatic effect in mind. Ending by begging the question of what happens next, he leads us straight on to Acts. Now, this was probably not deliberate (and Professor Wright, though he agrees that Mark's words probably end at 16.8, does not think that this was his intended conclusion.) Nevertheless:
"It reads like a shocking new beginning - which of course is what Mark intends. The story is not over. In fact, it's just starting: the new story...the new way of living, a new way of being human, has been launched upon the world, a way that people thought impossible then and think impossible still today, but a way that has caught up millions and transformed their lives beyond recognition". (p.174)
If you are looking for a wise godfather to hold you by the hand as you find or continue your journey of transformation, I can recommend no one more sincerely than Professor N T Wright, or Tom, as he may let you call him.
Lent for Everyone: Mark: Year B by Tom Wright, published January 2012 by SPCK Publishing, 144 pages, £6.99 ISBN 9780281062225. The quotation is from Double Bill by Alec McCowan, first published by Elm Tree Books in 1980.
The Big Read, Big Bible Project, is now in its third year, having begun with Luke and then moved on to Matthew. The idea is for as many people as possible to share the same text, which they can either then meditate on alone or, preferably, discuss in an online or offline house group. Lay Anglicana will be hosting an online house group to discuss the texts in our discussion forum, beginning on Ash Wednesday. Do please join us!