The Existential Jesus: Mystery and Being in the Gospel of Mark

I just finished John Carroll’s remarkable The Existential Jesus tonight, and I am compelled to recommend the book to my readers who are interested in how to re-imagine Jesus for our times. Though not devoid of scholarship, the book took me on a narrative journey that certainly was inspirational and thought-provoking. Carroll is a scholar of the Four Gospels, describing himself as one who can’t quit reading these works though not a Christian himself. It was that vantage point alone that drew me to read the book, and it was his perspective and writing style that provoked me to finish it.

Carroll provides his own translation of the Gospel of Mark, and some of the Gospel of John, that is true to the ancient text but yet fresh in its insight. Carroll especially emphasizes the “I am” texts, those concerning pneuma (spirit) and hamartia (reinterpreting sin as being less than “true being” and salvation as a return to “the rightness of being”). Carroll believes that the capitalization of “Spirit” so that we read the text through Trinitarian eyes as “Holy Spirit” misses a larger point of Mark and John — that the same “pneuma” that created the universe in Genesis 1:2, the same “pneuma” that “blows to and fro” in the world (John 3), and that causes dry bones to live (Ezekiel) is the same “pneuma” that animates Jesus and inspires him to become his truest self and the ideal human being. It is “bad pneuma” that enters into human beings as “Legion” that make them something less than human, and the human journey, according to Carroll, is that journey back to the true self or to “I am.” Carroll asserts that this mysterious and even tragic journey of Jesus in Mark is the story of us all as we come to live in relation to ourselves and to the pneuma that blows to and fro over our own lives.

Carroll interprets Mark and John as the discovery of Jesus of his identity through a process of negation of those things which are not core to identity: family, home town, and his religion (what Carrolll takes liberty to call “church”). In Carroll’s estimation, church and its moral systems are a distraction beyond which we must move if we are to find our true selves. When all is stripped away, and we are finally our true selves, then we can enter into “sacred community” that is a community of abiding and love, not a community of laws and regulations.

For believing Christians, there is much to question in Carroll’s account. But believer or not, the book is outstanding in its exegetical insights, fresh in its interpretation of the Gospels for these times when the church and its narrow understanding of “sin” and “salvation” seem irrelevant to our culture. His account is even moving as we come to hear the Story of Jesus and his first followers in a way that mirrors our own human journey and urges us on towards becoming our selves, putting away our daimons, and returning to our right minds.

In the words of one of my favorite hymns:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

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