Author Archives: Mike Higton

Beginning in the middle 4

Mark’s fresh start is immediately placed in an existing context, and I find echoes of this in a hermeneutical dilemma I face as I make a fresh start on his text.

I come to the text with a lot of expectations and prior understandings: I have read it before, many times; I’ve heard sermons on it; I’ve read devotional literature which works with it; the first half of it was the set text when I was learning Greek as an undergraduate; I’ve examined portions of it with the help of commentaries; I’ve read about how some of it is used in the various quests for the historical Jesus….

Part of what motivates my return to Mark is a feeling that the Gospel itself has got hidden behind all that I know about it. I approach it with a desire to get behind the veil of inherited opinion and my own too-easy conclusions, and encounter the text itself again. I want to make a fresh start with the text, or let it make a fresh start with me.

Unfortunately, if I remove my brain in order to read without pollution by all that I have read, thought and learnt, I will inevitably read brainlessly. The clutter of opinions and presuppositions I possess are precisely what enable me to read with any kind of discrimination or sensitivity. In other words, a fresh start would be a betrayal, hermeneutically as well as devotionally.

I can only start again in the middle, as the person I have become. But I can (I think) strive to pay attention to the ways in which the text does not match my expectations, the ways in which it resists the analytical tools I bring to it. It may not be possible to come up with an uncontaminated reading-from-nowehere, but I trust it is possible to register the ways in which the text “unsettles my judgment” – and goes on unsettling it.

So, my plan has been to begin by reading the Gospel through carefully without fresh recourse to secondary literature (apart from the odd dip into a lexicon or grammar). This is not because I hope thereby to manage an uncluttered reading of the text, but because I want to concentrate on discovering how the text unsettles my existing convictions about Jesus, about Christology, about the ways the Gospels work. Clearing the decks of fresh secondary literature is simply a device to help me concentrate in relatively controlled conditions on the part of the reading process that currently interests me. Only after that (or at least once it is well underway) do I plan to return to the secondary literature and let it make things even messier.

Beginning in the middle 3

What am I doing?

So far, I’m playing riffs on a chord that I think I hear at the start of Mark’s Gospel; that’s all.

This isn’t, as such, exegesis. But – and this is a claim that is important to me – jamming around like this feeds back into exegesis. Rachel’s comment on the last post (Hello, Rachel!) already suggests one way in which this might happen…

Beginning in the middle 2

I said in the last post:

one of my reasons for starting this project was to make some kind of devotional fresh start, to get ‘back to basics’ (if British readers can ignore the nasty resonances of that phrase) – even though any complete ‘fresh start’ is always an illusion.

Let me explain that a bit further.

  1. Every so often as I was growing up I went through religious ‘crisis experiences’, in each of which I was convinced that I had been drawn to a wholly new start: to throw out my lukewarm and half-hearted ways, and embark upon a new life of commitment and authenticity. The religious atmosphere in which I was growing up gave me convenient names for these, at least to begin with. I called the first ‘conversion’ and the second ‘baptism in the Spirit’. Things got a bit more confusing when the third arrived and felt more dramatic than the second, but I didn’t let this worry me too much. What did eventually worry me was the onset of crisis-fatigue. It becomes harder and harder to believe that a new revolution was going to ‘stick’ when you have already been through several, and know that the new regime fairly swiftly comes to resemble the old – and, worse, that the effects of the revolution are only preserved by rather desperate attempts to go on generating a hothouse atmosphere in services or prayergroups, in which the intense feelings of the crisis can be rekindled without too much worry about the content…
  2. Another thing about these crises: I tended to assume that they had to involve a stripping away of all the compromised accretions of my life, and returning to a single-hearted purity. I was always stepping back from complexity into simplicity. All the negotiations, deliberations and calculations of ordinary life would be shown up to be just so many ways of avoiding the clarity and absoluteness of the Gospel’s demands on my life; and I would discover that what I had been lacking was not understanding or subtlety or wisdom but the will to put the simple Gospel into practice…

Fast forward several years, to an academic theologian who has left the religious atmosphere of his youth for chillier climes, but who nevertheless finds himself tempted from time to time with an old vision. When the complexities and doubts of his theological investigations seem to be overwhelming him, so that he no longer knows quite where he stands, and (on bad days) no longer knows quite what he believes, he is tempted to think that what he needs is a revolution – and a revolution that will consist in an act of will, seizing hold of simplicity. The temptation comes in two forms. On the one hand, on the gloomiest days, he is tempted to seize hold of the simplicity of atheism. A voice in his head suggests that it is only vacillation, only compromise and weakness of will that keeps him from cutting through the knots in which he has tied himself and admitting to himself and to the world that he no longer believes. Strip all this away! the voice says; Start again! On brighter days, a similar temptation calls in a different direction: to cut away all this complexity and subtlety in favour of simple faith.

The trouble is, I find I don’t believe in such revolutions. It is partly revolution-fatigue: the knowledge that I have been here before, and the belief that it will only make a temporary difference. It is mostly, however, the belief that the stripping away of complexity, deliberation, calculation and negotiation would be a betrayal. I no longer think things are that simple. Some of the complexity might be weak compromise and self-delusion, but some of it at least emerges from living in a complex world, with a faith whose history, structure, and contemporary reality are themselves ineradicably complex. An heroic act of will, cutting through the dross and returning to simplicity, would be a denial of much of what I think I know: a comforting illusion, a falsehood.

When the last serious bout of such longing for revolution was upon me, a couple of years ago, a new thought struck me. I realised that what I needed was not a revolutionary act of will, but instead the building of a new, ongoing, practice of contemplation. A new attention to the sources of my faith, right in the midst of the persisting complexity and negotiation. Not starting again, but the building in to a life already running of a more constant, more attentive reference to the heart of faith. How about, I thought, a return to the Gospel of Mark: not as a turning away from what I currently am (an academic theologian with all sorts of questions and opinions and involvements and worries), but precisely as what I currently am: an attempt to bring all of what I am to all of this text, and see what (over time, with effort) emerges.

Beginning in the middle 1

ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ. καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah…

Mark’s Gospel begins with a fresh start: ἀρχὴ , the beginning. And in the very next sentence, takes it away: καθὼς γέγραπται , as it has been written: this is the fresh beginning of a new text which had already been written, long ago. Mark’s Gospel starts in the midst of things; it begins in the middle.

My thoughts run in several different directions at this point, and today is a busy day when I shouldn’t really be spending my time posting here, so I’ll simply plant some signposts at this point. I’ll try to find time later in the week to fill in the detail.

  1. I recognise that my own reading of Mark is a ‘beginning in the middle’ – in two respects. On the one hand, I have of course read it before. And I have read various bits of secondary literature. Yet I am trying to make ‘a fresh start’. On the other hand, one of my reasons for starting this project was to make some kind of devotional fresh start, to get ‘back to basics’ (if British readers can ignore the nasty resonances of that phrase) – even though any complete ‘fresh start’ is always an illusion. (No revolution finally succeeds in declaring a year zero.)
  2. This ‘beginning…at it is written’ also opens up one of the themes that most interests me as I re-start reading the Gospel: the relationship between it and the Old Testament / Hebrew Scriptures. What kind of new beginning does Marks Gospel represent with respect to what has been written? To hang this question on a convenient hook: is the ἀρχὴ at the beginning of this Gospel a replacemenet for the one at the beginning of Genesis?
  3. Lastly: some say that this strangely abrupt beginning is evidence of the ‘mutilation’ of the start of Mark’s Gospel. I don’t have the expertise to make a firm judgment about this, but I am interested in asking whether it matters. What if this beginning is not the beginning the text originally had? What if it is a makeshift rebeginning?

As I say, I intend to come back to these points soon. And I hope that, once I’ve got through them all (and anything else that crops up), you’ll begin to see the kind of approaches I am planning on taking … as well as just how slow I’m likely to be.

Who am I? Part II

I’d been hoping to get going on Mark 1:1 this weekend, but I have left my black notebook at work. Without my black notebook, I am nothing… So instead, some more throat-clearing: a few words on my theological stance.

As I said in Who am I? Part I, I am a Christian and an academic theologian. But what kind of labels can be stuck to me without contravening the Trade Descriptions Act? At this point, I’m meant to say that I hate labels, and that they’re so misleading as to be worthless, and so divisive as to be immoral. But I can’t. I love labels. (You know those internet surveys you can do which will ask boxfuls of questions about your political stance or your computing habits or your sex life or your musical taste, and then spit out an answer telling you just what kind of person you are? I love them. I wonder whether all INTJs are like this?) Of course, this doesn’t mean that labels, taken at all seriously, aren’t so misleading as to be worthless, and so divisive as to be immoral…

So:

  • I’m an Anglican theologian;
  • who thinks of himself as credally orthodox, and who habitually says that the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation are at the heart of his theology;
  • who can probably be identified from a mile off by cognoscenti as a student of David Ford;
  • who reads quite a bit of Karl Barth but isn’t Reformed enough to be a Barthian;
  • who finds himself agreeing more often than not with Rowan Williams;
  • who in theological terms is fairly (Anglo)Catholic, but not really in ‘churchmanship’ terms;
  • who could probably be called ‘postliberal’ a la Hans Frei, except that I don’t think I was ever a liberal;
  • who was brought up an evangelical, but by the most easily availble definitions probably doesn’t count as one any more;
  • who was also brought up a charismatic, but almost certainly doesn’t count as one any more;
  • who doesn’t have much time for doctrines of biblical inerrancy or infallibility, but who certainly does have time for doctrines of biblical authority, and the idea that the Bible is norma normans non normata (Google it, you’ll get some idea);
  • who – professional guild markers coming up – subscribes to Modern Theology and The International Journal of Systematic Theology.

If I have to pick one label, I like the phrase coined by Hans Frei to describe one of his teachers: ‘Generous orthodoxy’.

What’s in a name?

Kaì euthùs (καὶ εὐθὺς) can be translated as ‘and immediately…’, ‘and just then…’, ‘and straight away…’, and its rather breathless repetition punctuates Mark’s Gospel as his narrative tumbles from one incident to another. This seemed appropriate for a blog, somehow: ‘and now here’s another thing…’: a rapid update; a tumble of new thoughts and incidents. This blog will be no calm and ordered commentary, no overview: I will be chasing after Mark as he points to first this and then, immediately, that. Racing to catch up, and to make some kind of sense of the course he’s running.

The image in the background behind the title [of an earlier version of this blog] is of a page from the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, covering the first chapter of Mark. If you look carefully, you can see the ‘kaì euthùs’ from Mark 1:12 at the beginning of a line about half way up the visible portion of the second column. The earlier ‘kaì euthùs’ from 1:10 is lost in the blur above – but you can see a faint image of it (with its three final letters crammed in to fit the column) between each post in the blog.

Who am I?

My name is Mike Higton, and I’m –

See also “Who am I? Part II”

Welcome to KAI EUTHUS

There is only so much time I can spend tinkering with the graphics, fiddling with the display of Greek text, and generally prevaricating. It’s time to get this blog rolling – and, specifically, time to say something about what I think I’m doing here.

Whatever else it ends up containing, I envisage this blog arranged around a constant backbone: an eccentric, rambling, ruminative commentary upon the Gospel of Mark.

Let me explain.

I’m a Christian theologian – I lecture in theology at the University of Exeter in the Southwest of England. I specialise in modern theology, and in the interpretation and history of Christian doctrine; I am not any kind of New Testament specialist. However, a couple of years ago two things came together to push me towards beginning a careful reading of the Gospel of Mark.

On the one hand, I realised that, although I spent a lot of time talking about the centrality of the Gospel witness to Jesus of Nazareth for my theology and for my faith, I did not actually spend much of my intellectual energy on paying serious attention to that Gospel witness. I don’t want to breathe any extra life into that still-quacking canard that doctrinal or systematic theologians don’t read the Bible. That is not true of most of the ones I know – and I know quite a few by now. It was, however, the unfortunate case that I had personally been engaged in various projects which had placed discussion of biblical hermeneutics centre-stage, but had not allowed detailed discussion of actual biblical texts into the limelight. I was working on a book on Hans Frei, and could identify all too easily with these lines in the Preface to his Eclipse of Biblical Narrative:

This essay falls into the almost legendary category of analysis of analyses of the Bible in which not a single text is examined, not a single exegesis undertaken. Faced with certain puzzles that demanded historical, philosophical, and theological explanations, I tried to provide them as best I could; but there is no denying the odd result of a book about the Bible in which the Bible itself is never looked at.

On the other hand, I realised that a dividing wall in my mind had, over time, softly and silently vanished away, and that there was in principle no longer any gap for me between devotional and academic exploration of biblical texts. I found that, without having deliberately set off towards it, I had reached a point where it seemed obvious that a careful reading of a biblical text which was as academically rigorous as I could make it could and should also be deeply ‘self-involving’, personally and communally challenging – and that these two aspects were not in conflict, were not even independent, but could and should feed each other. In other words, I was no longer in a position of thinking that I needed to forge connections between the results of acedmic biblical study and a devotional and ecclesial use of the Bible: I no longer saw a gap that might need connections to be built across it.

That’s a rather abstract claim as it stands, but it will do for now as a signpost. I’ll try and explore some more of what it points to as I go along. That exploration will probably need to involve some explanation of the ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ movement which has ended up providing soil in which these ideas can grow – but I’ll leave that to one side for now.

I said that these things came together ‘a couple of years ago’. I have, since then, kept up slow and fitful jottings in a notebook, which have taken me from Mark 1:1 to 2:12. I’ve also written a couple of more formal pieces – you can find a draft of one of them here. I thought it was about time, however, to expose what I’d been doing to discussion and criticism, and to give myself some impetus to make my work on it less slow and fitful. This blog is the result – and we’ll see how well it does.

Getting this blog off the ground has been made possible by three different people. Zack Hubert provides the xml Greek feed which allows me to include the text of Mark in my posts, and was happy to let my friend Chris Goringe write a wonderful plugin to allow WordPress to display it all. And I have used Patricia Muller’s award-winning ‘Connections’ theme as the basis for the site’s styling – though I have made quite a few cosmetic changes along the way.