Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, May 04, 2013

BIBLE: The Gospel of Mark (John the Baptist)

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand… -Jesus

The Gospel of Mark is our selection for this week. And it may seem like an odd selection following up Shakespeare’s story of Hamlet. But there are several connections between the story of Hamlet and the story of Jesus. They’re both biographies, in a certain sense. They tell the essential life stories of two remarkable men facing remarkable circumstances. The two stories are also both tragedies (in a way) because their stories seem so unfair. Hamlet dies of poisoning after an unfair duel and Jesus is executed on a cross after an unfair trial. Hamlet and Jesus are also both sons of hard fathers who ask much of them, even to give up their lives if necessary. And they both encounter ghosts. Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father. Jesus encounters the Holy Ghost. Finally, both these stories jump right in and get straight to the action. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in Act 1, Scene One of the play. And John the Baptist comes onto the scene in the Gospel of Mark with no fanfare, no introduction of who he is, where he’s from or what he’s doing there.

Hamlet is a work of literature. The Gospel of Mark is… what? Biography? Literature? History? The word of God? How do we classify a Gospel story? We can safely say that Hamlet is a play about a troubled young man facing the problems of life. And through all five acts Hamlet wrestles with what he should do. Should I kill my uncle, or not? Should I kill him now, or do it later? Should I kill myself, or should I keep on living? In many ways John the Baptist is the anti-Hamlet. He’s not the kind of man who sits around pondering whether it’s better to be or not to be. His message is like a great solid fork in the intellectual road of the Great Books. Unlike Hamlet’s caution about how to proceed, John is in the Great Books for just one reason: to point out the road to Jesus by preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. How do other Great Books respond?

Taking one fork in the road are men like Nietzsche and Freud. They view John the Baptist as being weak and foolish and probably crazy too. Nietzsche would say: “sins? What sins? My man (Zarathustra) has no need to repent of anything, much less sins. He has no need of your puny rules. He creates his own rules.” And Freud would think that John the Baptist is mentally ill. “Just look at the way he dresses; and the things he eats. And he talks about ghosts. He thinks he’s making straight the path of the Lord, of all things. Does this sound like a sane man to you? In my opinion this is a case of serious delusion.”

Dante would respond: “men who talk like that end up in hell. John the Baptist is a holy man. Your Zarathustra is not a heroic creator of anything. He’s just an evil man.” This is the other fork speaking, the supporters of John the Baptist. St. Augustine would agree with Dante and support John the Baptist: “There are basically two approaches to life, the City of God and the City of Man. Mr. Nietzsche and Dr. Freud have rejected the City of God. They believe they can re-build civilization on theories made up in their own heads. We shall see.” In the final analysis is John the Baptist a holy man or is he just a crazy crank? Many people thought Hamlet was crazy. He brooded on things like sex and death and revenge and he thought about suicide a lot. There’s nothing wrong with thinking but eventually the clock runs out. Jesus once said “…the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” This is the basic message of John the Baptist: thinking time is over; choose your path.


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