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Transformation by Destruction in Mark's Gospel

By Roland Riem.


Mark’s is a gospel of urgent intensity. Its most jagged motif stands in stark con-trast to many contemporary models of psychological transformation, even those defining growth as an abandonment of the known and controlling self (ego). In his Gospel, transformation ultimately comes about by the total personal des-truction of Jesus. The thrust of the whole plot testifies to this dark dynamic: it starts with authoritative proclamation and the ready response of the multitude but ends with forsakenness and the overwhelming fear of a few stragglers. The strangeness is baffling, as Mark continually stresses. Not only do the disciples not understand; they get better and better at misunderstanding.1 Those who oppose Jesus cannot and will not perceive the truth of the kingdom which he threatens to establish without them. Almost from the outset of his mission - and against all historical probability - they seek to destroy him.2

The Gospel can be divided roughly into two acts. In Act 1, Jesus inaugurates the reign of God by overcoming the powers of evil with divine power; but in Act 2 he establishes God’s reign by exposing himself to the powers which previously he has subdued. Jesus, who does have the power to save himself, obediently drinks from the cup which has not been removed. The plot presents various agents of destruction - the law keepers, Herod, Judas, the chief priests, the High Priest, Pilate, Christ and Satan, but the most important is the hidden hand of the Father. It is hardly surprising that Matthew, sure as he is of the fatherly presence of God and the virtue of law, places the blame more squarely on human responsibility (Matt 26.15; 27.25).

This brief article aims to gain insight from the angularity and darkness of the Gospel by introducing a process described by its author as convictional knowing.

James Loder’s Model - A Way of Dealing in Darkness

James Loder’s model of convictional knowing offers the promises of insight into Mark because it incorporates self-negation while also giving some regard to history. Loder stresses that Christian theology "returns every insight, vision or image to its historical context as the locus of God’s redemptive action".3His model incorporates four dimensions: the self - the centre of willing and knowing, grounded in Spirit; the ‘world’ - as composed by the self from the data of the total environment; the Holy - the Being that lets created being flourish; and the void, the non-Being that threatens, as it were ‘from below’. All these components are involved logically in a process which occurs in different domains and at different stages of human development.4

Transformation begins when, (1) by grace, the self comes under deeply felt conflict; the void opens up beneath it bringing total annihilation of its constructed ‘world’. The self can neither transcend itself nor escape the situation nor re-compose its world-view, so (2) the conflict must be embraced in its full force and particularity. Even though the self is threatened with destruction by the void, (3) it scans the horizon for the possibility of new being until critical intuition breaks through with overpowering force. (4) This inbreaking reality, which must in some sense also be chosen, overwhelms the threat and "itself becomes the tran-scendent reality with respect to which self, world, and void all become relative". The negativity of non-Being is negated by the integrative power of the Holy.

Loder’s model immediately gives insight into Mark’s gospel. Two incidents will highlight the contrast between the convictional worlds of the crowd and Jesus. The crowd are frightened by the negation of negativity effected by Jesus’ authority, even though it leaves a man sane, and they ask him to leave the region (5.14-20). Jesus, however, though overwhelmed by the negativity of death, dies still scanning the horizon for an absent God (15.34). He knows where new Being is, even though it does not break in on him before his death, but on the Temple instead immediately afterwards. The reader is thereby asked to look forward to the events of Chapter 16 when again the negativity of grief is overwhelmed. A young man in a white robe having helped the women to scan their world, they are seized with fear at what God might be doing in Jesus’ absence from the tomb.

These few examples show how Loder’s model is a useful interpretative tool for studying human transformation in Mark’s gospel. Yet it does not exhaust the gospel’s approach to transformation by destruction, which must itself be allowed to challenge this useful contemporary model of psychological development. By so doing, some notable points about the limitations of all such models will emerge.

Destructiveness in Mark and Models of Self-Destruction

Mark’s gospel is a story interpreting the interplay of providence, pathos and power. It is not an abstraction like Loder’s model, working by process of logic, in however many dimensions. Like all stories, Mark’s gospel relishes the concrete and particular and omits to systematise. For instance, only in a loose way does Mark tie together the various forces of destructiveness ranged against Jesus. Mark does not show Jesus’ convictions changing; his purpose is to narrate the gradual revelation of Jesus’ true identity as suffering Messiah. This however, is revealed to Jesus himself at the very beginning of his ministry. In Mark we are given none of the insights into Jesus’ vocation found in Matthew and Luke. We are given instead Christ’s unwavering conviction that he must do what he has been called to do (esp. 8.31-33); and that if destructiveness prevails even after prayer (14.32ff; cf 9.29), then this suffering is given from the hands of the Father. If anything guides Jesus’ career to the cross it is the vivid images of the cup and of baptism (10.35ff; 14.36).

One reason no path to human growth features in Mark is because of the threatening times in which his community lives. In times such as these, with extreme and continual openness to the word of God, the church can grow and be fruitful (4.20); but this is not in any way an invitation to self-growth by destruction of the ego. The destructiveness of the powers can only be endured (13.13); it is never seen as a void which can ultimately be incorporated into an enlarged self;5it is rather as a malevolent spiritual reality which insinuates itself into the many connected aspects of existence - personal, medical, legal, ritual, natural,6political, as we would now term them.7Jesus’ death enacts the Father’s demand that he give his life as a ransom for many (10.45). In view of the complexity of the problem, it seems stupid to seek a uni-dimensional meaning for ransom; but Mark does want his readers to see that the ground has been cleared for following Christ by Christ’s own suffering and death. Death is inevitable, but death ‘for my sake and for the sake of the gospel’ brings a dimension of promise and opens the future to hope.

Mark wants his story understood as having universal significance.8Loder works outward from the concept of self to the world it constructs, but Mark works in narrative categories which from the start keep people embedded in their given contexts. Mark attends to the characters of a plot who either work for or against God's coming kingdom. Loder sees the vital spark coming from above in a sense analogous to Scripture, through intuition. Mark’s good news is counter-intuitive, relying entirely on the action of the God hidden beyond the destructiveness of death.9Without the Father behind the scene in the Gospel, every act of destruction effected by Jesus would only have had a limited, local effect and every act endured by him would merely have added one more chapter to the human tragedy. The way forward - or the stance for survival - is not predetermined by any logic of transformation but guaranteed only by the Christ who goes ahead of his baffled and bedraggled followers (16.7). Christ is the one whose very dislocation from the readers' immediate horizons paradoxically provokes an intense watching and waiting for the Father’s powerful but elusive hand in history. If there is any sense to transformation by destruction in Mark’s Gospel, the key has been lost from the grave, absent from every power which sought to hold it down. In these times, he is found just out of reach, but one day returning in glory.

It would be unfair to judge Loder by Mark. He is writing for our own times, which allow for a more comfortable vision of human destiny. Our culture still responds to the idea of individual progress, and gives authority to a social scientific world-view. It values models which are descriptive and explanatory. Mark gives absolute authority to God, whose power in Christ has destroyed the roots of destructiveness. Double-negation is now pressing in, but with no scope for tidy conclusions. Disciples are left with the cup and the baptism, with the prospect of failure, and with the words of Christ ringing in their ears: watch! be on your guard! listen!


1. Best, pp.44ff  Return 2. 3.6; cf. 11.18; 14.58  Return 3. Loder, p.95  Return 4. In fact, Loder claims that this is the core process by which the self develops from one stage to the next.  Return 5. Legion's sanity is finally restored by the demons being granted a home in another host. Their destructiveness is finally destroyed by drowning (5.1-13)  Return 6. I am thinking here of Christ's rebuke to the wind (4.35ff. esp.v.39; cf. 8.33)  Return 7. Walter Wink's ideas in Engaging the Powers come closest to this, though unlike Mark he sees these forces as impersonal.  Return 8. Apart from his generalising statements about the nature of discipleship (8.34ff), Mark continually involves the whole population in the drama, whether for good (1.5; 2.13) or ill (15.16).  Return 9. Even intuition undergoes transformation in the Gospel: the cross is a case of God doing what no-one ever would, putting new wine into old wineskins (Fenton, p.15).  Return


Best, E., Mark: The Gospel as Story, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1983/5.

Fenton, J., Finding the Way Through Mark, Mowbray, London, 1995.

Loder, J. E., The Transforming Moment: Understanding Convictional Experiences, Harper & Row, San Francisco,1991.

Wink, W., Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1992.

Roland Riem was until recently Anglican Chaplain at Nottingham University and is now Ministerial Development Officer, Southern Theological Education and Training Scheme, Sarum College, Salisbury.

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You are reading Transformation by Destruction in Mark's Gospel by Roland Riem, part of Issue 14 of Ministry Today, published in October 1998.

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