Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

BIBLE: The Gospel of Mark and the Great Books

Question: why are readings from the Bible included in the Great Books reading plan? Answer: the Bible is the heart of Western Civilization; and for Christians the Gospels are the heart of the Bible. Biblical knowledge is absolutely necessary, even for non-believers, in order to understand western culture. Art museums, plays, music, poetry, architecture, politics, philosophy, history, even the sciences, have all been directly influenced by the Bible. For many people the Bible is divine revelation. But it also stands as a great work of literature in the Great Books tradition.

One way to consider the Bible as a Great Book is to bounce Biblical passages off other Great Books readings. For example, one of our readings comes from the modern American philosopher John Dewey. Dewey thinks if we want to change our lives then we should concentrate on changing our habits and external conditions. In the Gospel of Mark both Jesus and John the Baptist say we should “repent” of our sins. Here we have two different approaches to changing the way we live. What needs changing most: our habits or our hearts? It makes a big difference how we answer that question. Another big difference is this: Dewey says that Belief in magic has played a large part in human history. And the essence of all hocus-pocus is the supposition that results can be accomplished without the joint adaptation to each other of human powers and physical conditions. In the Gospel of Mark we read that there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And (Jesus) was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. Question: is this a miracle, or is it magic? The way we answer that question makes a big difference too.

Or consider the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill thinks we should be free to live however we choose. He says I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions… The term “utility” to Mill means whatever works to bring about the greatest amount of human happiness. This sounds reasonable enough. But in the Gospel of Mark Jesus thinks we should follow the will of God. Jesus says not what I will, but what thou (the Father) wilt. This is quite a different concept from Mill’s notion of everyone living whichever way they choose. Question: is the purpose of life to obtain personal happiness, or is it something else? The way we answer that question makes a big difference in the way we live.

A final example might be taken from one of the greatest plays of western civilization. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet we have some of the most famous lines ever written. Hamlet is wondering whether it’s worth it to go on living in a corrupt world: To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. In other words, should I put up with this? When someone wrongs me, should I just let it slide and get on with my life? Or should I try to get even? If I don’t look out for myself then who will? This sounds reasonable. But in the Gospel of Mark Jesus goes about preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. It’s a very different place from the kingdom of this world. Jesus says that a man should take up his cross, and follow me. For whosever will save his live shall lose it; but whosever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. This is a hard saying; hard to understand and hard to do. The Gospel of Mark often serves as a mirror which both reflects and challenges the western values all of us try to live by. That’s one of the hallmarks of a truly Great Book.


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