Meeting Marcus Again

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 29, Issue 1
January – February 2016
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Perhaps it was inevitable that he would return. It had been just about a year ago that I had learned of his terminal diagnosis. Then came the harder news over the phone not long after. So, as I rode the south MARTA line recently from Peach Tree Center to the airport, I recalled that happy interlude some years before as we journeyed on this train together for the last time. Lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (Little Gidding) stirred my mind:

I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many; in the brown baked features
The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.

I am not sure what question of mine triggered it, but Marcus began to speak of how it all began for him. Readers of Marcus’ books (especially Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time) know that he was not an uninvolved scholar. Indeed, as Marcus spoke to me, that gentle, resolute man brought his intellectual quest to an existential level. By the time of his college years, it had become quite clear to him that the church, the tradition, the Jesus he was familiar with, all this was no longer credible. There was, however, an innate stubbornness within him. He refused to take the simplistic way out. Rote religion was no longer an option. But neither was an unthinking repudiation of the tradition. Marcus detected that both Jesus and the tradition were much too complicated to be summarily dismissed.

Marcus’ personal dilemma led him down the byways of biblical scholarship and through the thickets of philosophy. A National Endowment for the Humanities seminar with Houston Smith provided Marcus with a different reading of our human makeup. Smith saw humans as a complex of body, mind, and spirit. Unlike many thinkers who would reduce the human to a chemical analysis, an evolutionary endpoint, or a mind in a machine, Smith drew upon the ancient wisdom of viewing the human as a complicated, unified locus for transcendence. Marcus coupled this insight to what he was learning from the latest biblical scholarship, not only to distinguish later New Testament layers from the earliest Jesus material but also to give a fresh sense of who this Jesus was within his time and place. Marcus was not content to treat Jesus as a museum piece, as an interesting but dated object to be filed and forgotten on a shelf. Instead, he uncovered a Jesus who could not be reduced as irrelevant. In effect, Marcus had begun to discover a “credible” Jesus.

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At the same time this “credible” Jesus was no mere pipedream of a young scholar in tweed. I remembered how, as we debated and discussed during the years of the Jesus Seminar, it became quite clear that Marcus had not discovered the mirror image of himself. The Jesus Marcus had begun to tease out from the data was a difficult figure. His prophetic and visionary presence, evidenced in his words and deeds, flew in the face of the dominating political regime. This Jesus had dimensions that erased the cardboard caricatures of the Christian tradition. And, because of what he was finding, Marcus could honestly reimagine his religious heritage. He did not have to become a spin-doctor when he considered the question of Jesus.

And still the questions for Marcus remained quite personal. Indeed, he often wondered aloud about his success as a best-selling author. He was a bit embarrassed by it all. But the reason for his success was precisely that his honest recounting of his search mirrored the concerns and journeys of countless others. In his own trek, Marcus had provided an occasion and the words for others to break away from a moribund past, to face their traditions honestly and with renewed imagination. In fact, in his later writings, Marcus was still blazing trails for countless others to rethink what a Christian community can and should be.

Indeed, as Marcus’ writing career morphed into endless speaking engagements, another talent of his became quite clear. Not only could Marcus calmly and meticulously detect what was in a text but he could do it in conversation with others who did not share his viewpoint. It is difficult to present a detailed argument; it is far more difficult to listen to another’s complex presentation and, even more so, to respond crisply and without rancor. Marcus did all this on numerous occasions. He provided an invaluable model of what an engaged scholar can be. He did not treat scholarly debate as a game of “gotcha,” as we see so often today. Rather, he embodied the possibility of genuine discourse, of being able to disagree without pique, of listening with imagination and wit. Again, Eliot echoes what Marcus offered:

Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight …
(Four Quartets, Little Gidding)

As I remembered Marcus, I thought of a custom that I learned from my colleagues at Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. About a month after a scholar dies, colleagues gather and give addresses. They try to remember their deceased colleague by continuing the conversation he had furthered in his life and in scholarship. I can think of no finer remembrance for a dedicated scholar, for such a gathering testifies that this scholar’s life and work are not ended in death. Rather, they testify to the vitality of what he lived to think about.

So, as I rode back from the meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, I wondered if this meeting was a fitting tribute to Marcus. I know he would be pleased with the critical conversation of Westar’s working seminars. But I also know that Marcus’ effort did not stop at the door of the seminar room. He had helped to feed and deepen the public conversation. In fact, Marcus has left his colleagues and the public much work to do.

But Marcus does not leave us mute. His life and work have given us a clue to how to carry on. Let us begin, as he did, with our questions and dead ends, with our obsessions and dreams, with our fears and hopes. Let us listen, as he did, to the deepest drives within and the critical voices of our world. Let us refuse, as he did, to give up on the complexity of our traditions and our life together on this planet. Let us resolve to be as resolute and gentle as he was.

And when we do, we shall meet him again for the first time.

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.