What am I expecting from this book? My thesis project, and no doubt my later phd work, if there is any, will be on the Gospel of Mark. I want to know more about Mark’s reception in the early Church, which while it doesn’t play into my thesis project, serves to provide me with a theological buffet to guard against the dryness of biblical scholasticism. So, in getting familiar with the early Mark through thesis work, I am expecting this book to show me how Mark was received, as a a Gospel writer and Preacher in his home territory, and indeed, how that memory was enlivened. As Oden says in his preface, Mark’s story still holds prophetic hopes for our generation, African and Western.
There are thirteen chapters to this book, divided into five parts, along with maps, tables and figures. Oden as always been impressive, especially with his work in on the Ancient Christian Commentary series, but in this book, well this book is a fantastic view into the ‘hidden’ Christianity, or perhaps the hidden ‘Christianities’. Notably, the Markan-Christian tradition, the African-Christian tradition, and the tradition-Christian unseen (by the West). We easily forget that Paul alone was not the only figure head in the early church, and while we somewhat ‘know’ that Peter played a massive role, we often forget the one who served to bridge the two, Mark. In another quest of paleo-orthodoxy, as he did with his previous work, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Thomas Oden is once again calling the Church to look back towards her roots, which took shape on African soil, with Africans taking the lead. Now, as Christianity is booming in Africa, and declining in the West, we need to once again rediscover the Christianity which took shape along the Mediterranean coast of Africa and in doing so, Oden points us first to Mark thought his reception and immortality in Africa. Further, in Oden’s view, the next phase of intellectualism will come, once again, from Africa. This is why the book is important, and why it is geared to those who will one day remember their contributions to Christianity. (This may explain why the book seems to be written in simplistic English (grammar), which may afford an easy translation later on.)
Chapter One introduces us to A Boy Named John Mark. Most bible readers should be familiar with Mark, outside the Gospel attributed to him, especially in reading Acts. As the New Testament Canon was developed, we find that both Peter and Paul have a special place for him, with Peter calling him a son and Paul, on his death bed, asking for Mark, the one whom he had so vehemently disagreed with at the outset of the Gentile mission. We are introduced, however, to a different Mark by Oden, almost a prequel, if you will, to borrow modern vernacular. He does so using the “African memory” which amounts to tradition and legend, but we must remember in our search for mnemonic foundations, that such stories begin somewhere. This “immense energy” of belief (p23) is important to those who respect how Tradition and Myth has built up Christianity and the lives of the Saints. This is Oden’s goal, to re-release that built up energy, of cultural imagination, to restore the fertile seedbed, as he has said in the above noted previous work.
The following chapter opens Part I with looking for a meaning of Oden’s term, African memory. From the start, allow me to say that recent work in cultural memory is something which must be highlighted, but is often ignored in view of finding something ‘provable’ and even in fear of allowing that corporate memory may be cultural, which goes against several post-modern ideas of social construction. In other words, allowing that a cultural memory may in fact transcend social deconstruction may prove disenchanting with post-modernism and certain theologies. Oden seems not to care, noting that “Africans, taken as a whole, have historically viewed events and persons” in a collective way. He gives five points, then, as to the shaping of the “rubric” of African memory. This memory developed, not in the space of time of Mark’s life, but throughout the millenia, which includes and is in fact based upon the canonical picture, but beyond that, the liturgy and history of the African churches. Further, Oden adds a primitive text regarding Mark’s martyrdom as well as writings by the early Church fathers who were themselves based in Alexandria. Of course, these early Church fathers, born in the north of African, aren’t well received by Africa into the African memory, Oden suggests, but he lays the groundwork on why they should be (30-31). All of this, for Oden, builds the African memory of Mark. All of this plays well into the current, and needed, backlash against Western skepticism and post-modern thought that everything boils down, and the more so in Christian history it seems, to power and politics. Oden, while showcasing African memory, attempts to revive our ability to believe… to trust… the mythos of the Saints before us instead of viewing them as modern, Western, politicians. Certainly, this is not the way which Africans view Church History, and indeed, neither have most Christians. It is difficult, then, to place oneself into the audience of Oden, if one has become so cynical over power plays and the such.
Oden, after laying the ground work of what the African memory is moves to the examination of the where the African memory, or perhaps, what it inhabits. As Oden often does, he chides the West for ignoring the traditional life of Mark, and what he might add both to the Gospel story and to the Church in Alexandria. It is a shame that we have, in the Protestant West, moved away from honoring the traditions which grew up around the Saints, but this is something which Oden seeks to remedy. He’s right about grasping the “primal story” (53), and to be honest, often times when we are searching for the historical this or that, such as Jesus, we forget the genesis of the story. The African memory keeps not just the genesis, but has interwoven, perhaps as a way to keep that memory alive, liturgy, legends, and canonical history in presenting Mark as the Apostle to “everywhere”, to Africa. I’m unsure as how to grasp the sought after orality in our culture, but it is lacking, and in lacking, we turn for our images to cold, calculated sources, invented, which seem to take on a more real life than the long held myths of others. Maybe he’s on to something and maybe that’s why Christianity is dying in the West, because we have forgotten the power of the narrative. Mark’s narrative is real because it has shaped African Christianity, even without scientific proof. The memory of Mark inhabits African Christianity today precisely because it has been accepted as truth since the very beginning, moving through the currents of Tradition. The author ends this chapter by discussing the truth handed down, to canonical status, and the truth preserved in liturgy.
The final chapter in Part I discusses the literary sources, which is always an interesting path, given the canon of the Coptic church, and the basis of their liturgy. It is a rather dense, scholarly chapter, but the occasion of it seems to be to safe guard against the idea that the ancient Tradition of Mark is little more than folk tales passed from generation to generation. He sends the ancient biographer of Mark, Sawirus, and points us to Shenouda III, the current patriarch of the Coptic Church. I find it odd, however, his assertion in the closing pages of the chapter that many scholars see Mark and something less than an eyewitness. I’m not sure of that, given scholars such as Maurice Casey.