Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sharpening My Interests

As I move forward with my seminary education, I have noticed that my research methods are becoming a bit more efficient, and I have grown more comfortable with writing much and writing often. This is a good thing! One problem that I have had my entire life and across multiple areas of interest, however, is that of narrowing my attention to a specific field or specialty. I am convinced that this will continue to be one of my greatest challenges as I begin to write my thesis and afterward pursue PhD studies. However, I am making small steps in what I believe is the right direction.
Recently, I’ve had a series of encounters with the Greek text of Mark 4:1-9, the so-called Parable of the Sower. About two weeks ago, I was asked to translate this passage as an assignment for my Intermediate Greek course. A few days later, I received an email update from an online journal I signed up for months earlier. The update mentioned that a new article by Steven E. Runge had been posted to the site regarding “relative saliency and information structure” in the Greek text of Mark’s Parable of the Sower. Later that same week, before I began my translation work, I checked out Ched Myers’s book, Binding the Strong Man, and it immediately fell open (due to a break in the spine) to a discussion on Mark 4:1-9 in the context of first century Palestinian agrarian peasantry. This strange string of coincidences has piqued my interest in the ubiquitous text that almost every Christian has heard since childhood. But looking at Mark’s interpretation of the parable left me with lots of questions. For one thing, Mark’s interpretation doesn’t make much since. The sower remains unidentified, though what he is sowing appears alternatively to be “the word” (which needs defining within the Markan context) and, later in the parable, people. The people in the explanation, however, are equated with both the seed and the land the seed is broadcast upon. Clearly, the words that Mark places in Jesus’s mouth as an explanation of the parable in vv.13-20 do not share the nuanced Greek of the original parable. Who is the sower? White, middle-class Americans have typically interpreted this character as Jesus. But Myers points out that this is problematic—Jesus himself was speaking to farmers. Those with ears to hear the parable would have thought, He's talking about me. Furthermore, the spiritualization of the parable is troublesome, too. Instead, perhaps Jesus is suggesting that there is a certain inevitability to the Reign of God—that despite some falling upon the rocks, despite some falling into shallow soil, etc., when the seeds are broadcast and the earth is tilled (plowing occurred after sowing in first century Palestine), the Reign of God will burst forth into existence, providing 30...60...100 times more than enough to feed the starving farmers. The Parable of the Sower is really The Parable of the Bountiful Harvest.
Additionally, I have also been giving a lot of my attention lately to political and social deconstruction of the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5. This has been inspired by my long-term interest in how to interpret through a modern (or postmodern) lens those Gospel passages that describe Jesus’s acts of exorcism. The demon(s) that plague the Gerasene Demoniac are the only named demonic entity (aside from Beelzebul) in all four Gospels. My assumption is that this story has much more to do with Jesus metaphorically “casting out” the Romans (i.e. “Legion”) from their imposed authority over the Judeans than it does with any supernatural ability to spook the devil out of people. Yet if this episode can be explained as a political metaphor, how then should the other “lesser” exorcisms of Christ be interpreted? This is a puzzling question to me. I have been reading a recent thesis that attempts to reconcile a political/social reading of the text with a psychoanalytical reading, but the author’s weak execution and conclusions have left me less than impressed. I have also been reading Ched Myers’s thoughts on the same story; Myers relies very much on Joachim Jeramias’s social interpretive strategies, but still stops short of making any definitive claims about the text. I am also interested in comparing Mark’s use of the Gerasene Demoniac story with other Hellenistic tales of demonic possession (if such accounts exist). From what I have gathered thus far (which is admittedly limited), no such comprehensive comparative studies exist.
These two texts (and the Gospel of Mark in general) have helped me to narrow my field of interest, which I think is a step in the right direction toward choosing a viable thesis topic. The texts may change with time—nothing is set in stone yet—but I am enthusiastic about finally acquiring the ability to sharpen my educational focus—an ability that I have struggled to attain my whole life.

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