March 5, 2004

A Lion With Wings

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This week, I finished reading Stephen Smith’s A Lion with Wings: A Narrative-Critical Approach to Mark’s Gospel. Smith provides a helpful summary of some of the recent literary studies of Mark’s Gospel. At times, Smith draws attention to details in the Gospel which may easily be overlooked. Still, having read David Rhodes and Donald Michie’s Mark as Story, I had already covered much of the turf Smith covers and so, though I took some notes, I didn’t learn a lot that was new.

Both books, in fact, were somewhat disappointing, largely because I’ve grown used to the rich literary studies of James Jordan and Peter Leithart. Both Smith and Rhoads & Michie spent a lot of time talking about characterization, point of view (ho hum), and setting. Smith had some discussion of irony. But I had hoped that these books might provide an examination of other literary features in Mark’s Gospel. Where were the discussions of chiasm or other structural features?

Furthermore, the books were disappointing because they focused so strictly on the Gospel of Mark. Neither book was interested in the actual history, which led to some blunders. Rhoads & Michie, for instance, lump all the various opponents of Jesus together, in spite of the radical differences between the Pharisees and the chief priests. Smith speaks about the Pharisees as if they were the leaders of Israel. Both books, therefore, could use a good dose of N. T. Wright.

The strict focus on Mark also meant that Mark was read out of the context of the whole canon. In particular, Mark was read without much reference at all to the Old Testament background. While both books do recognize that Mark sometimes alludes to the Old Testament, they don’t do much with that framework. I would have preferred to see more discussion of the symbolism in Mark’s Gospel, for instance.

All of which is to say that, though I did learn some things from these books and will be referring to them as I work on Mark’s Gospel in my sermon preparation, they were not as profitable as I had hoped.

I would also add that, in spite of his great title (drawn from a poem by D. H. Lawrence), Smith doesn’t really talk about Mark as “a lion with wings.” Of course, that discussion is probably beyond Smith’s particular focus, but it is interesting that the Christian tradition identified Mark’s Gospel with the lion face of the cherubim. Identifying Matthew as the man, Luke as the ox, and John as the eagle, however, seems wrong to me. Matthew is the ox (priest), Mark the lion (king), Luke the eagle (prophet), and John the man (image of God). Nevertheless, the tradition did get Mark right, and the cover of Smith’s book has a really cute picture of Mark, the winged lion, writing his Gospel, with a rather sheepish look on his face. The picture is from Hereford Cathedral in the 12th century.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:42 pm | Discuss (0)

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