You’re Invited: A Review of Dr. Placher’s Mark
Theology has received a poor reputation in modern times. The accusations usually fall in two strands: either theology is some anachronistic game that scholars played in past ages, or it is a pharisaic exercise that distracts from the Christian life and the gospel. As churches have moved away from teaching doctrine and have emphasized the trendier, more emotional aspects of Christianity, theology has naturally fallen by the wayside in the faith, and so it has received little recent attention outside of the academy and ministry. Based on the nature of the attacks made against theology in general, it is clear that those denigrators have not read the works of William C. Placher, particularly his last book, Mark.
It has been nearly two years since Dr. Placher passed away while taking a sabbatical in the woods of central Minnesota. Since then, two classes of Wabash men have graduated, and a third, the last to experience him as a teacher, will soon be leaving the College for pursuits elsewhere. The Class of 2011—my class—was the last to have personally experienced him. While to the classes who have followed us, Dr. Placher is a name mentioned in reminiscences, in tones of respect, and in the syllabus of the new Enduring Questions course for freshmen, to us he is a concrete memory. Many of the members of my class remember him sitting in his Center Hall office, preaching at Wednesday chapel services in Tuttle Chapel, or giving a chapel talk on the 175th anniversary of the founding of the College. Dr. Placher was an active and visible member of the Wabash community, and perhaps the fact that his funeral service was conducted in the Pioneer Chapel speaks to the level of that involvement in and dedication to our community.
While we students might not have realized it at the time, Dr. Placher was one of the most influential Presbyterian theologians of his time. An alumnus of Wabash College, he received his doctorate from Yale University, studying under many theological luminaries of the late 20th century, including Hans W. Frei, an Anglican scholar who was one of the primary authors of what became known as “postliberal theology.” Postliberalism (or narrative theology) placed primary emphasis on both narrative and community in interpreting scripture and theology, particularly in relation to how a community defines doctrine. Therefore, postliberals pay most attention to the narrative being communicated by the texts as opposed to a simple grammatical or historical reading of scripture. This approach was illustrated in many of Dr. Placher’s books. In Jesus the Savior, Dr. Placher used the narrative of Jesus in the gospels to present a Jesus that “can capture your heart and not let go.” In one of his more academic tomes, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture, he again utilizes the gospel narratives, this time arguing that the suffering of God in the person of Jesus Christ—God’s vulnerability—means that God can sympathize with and understand all those who suffer. Dr. Placher’s works are all postliberal at heart, and as such their focus is centered on the scriptures.
This emphasis naturally continues in his commentary on the gospel of Mark, entitled Mark, which was published this past August by Westminster John Knox Press. His commentary is the first volume in a multi-volume commentary on the Bible entitled Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. The volumes that will be published in this series are different than many of the commentaries that you will find in our library, and most likely quite different than ones that you might use for academic papers for Wabash religion courses. Most modern commentaries are primarily historical in nature. They emphasize the time, context, and culture of the biblical texts. The commentaries treat the scriptures as historical documents and literature, and, insofar as they are honest in doing so, they serve a noble and useful purpose. However, such commentaries do not provide the pastor, theologian, or devout layman with many tools that can be applied to Christianity.
Dr. Placher and his co-editor of the series, Dr. Amy Plantinga Pauw of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, recognize this in their Series Introduction, writing: “The writers of this series share Karl Barth’s concern that, insofar as their usefulness to pastors goes, most modern commentaries are ‘no commentary at all, but merely the first step toward a commentary.’ Historical-critical approaches to Scripture rule out some readings and commend others, but such methods only begin to help theological reflection and the preaching of the Word. By themselves, they do not convey the powerful sense of God’s merciful presence that calls Christians to repentance and praise; they do not bring the church fully forward in the life of discipleship. It is to such tasks that theologians are called.”
Dr. Placher is not interested in history for history’s sake, and this is demonstrated in his commentary. His use of the history and context in the scriptures ultimately serves as a tool to explore the gospel.
One of the central themes in this commentary is the notion that Jesus Christ should make us uncomfortable. On its face, this might seem strange. The Church teaches us that Jesus Christ is our savior, redeemer, and love incarnate. He is the Prince of Peace, Lamb of God, and the Wonderful Counselor. He is all indeed all these things—and he is God. Placher’s commentary nicely revives a traditional attitude towards God that has found itself decreasing in popularity in recent years: Christ is my loving savior, but he is also my judge. His teachings convict sin, in which we as human beings inevitably live. While many of us might hear sin being denounced from the pulpit, we often shake it off as something that pertains to that person in the other pew, but think, surely the pastor is not addressing my sin. Christ is on my side, of course, and all of my priorities are in line with his own.
However, Jesus is not our pastor, who ultimately can do little more than reprove us for our errors. Jesus is God incarnate. He carries more power than your neighborhood moralist. Dr. Placher demonstrates this in his interpretation of the story of the Gerasene demoniac, found in Mark 5:1-20. Deep in Gentile territory, Jesus commands demons (who identify themselves as “Legion”) to depart from a demon-possessed individual into a herd of pigs, who careen off a cliff to their deaths. Dr. Placher connects the story to a Roman military campaign that occurred in the region around the time when the Gospel of Mark was written. Therefore, Jews would be ecstatic for the unclean Roman “legion” to be driven from their lands—especially to their collective demise. However, there is still the character of the outsider whom the community keeps on the outskirts of the town, living in a cemetery. Dr. Placher claims that “readers who recognized themselves as oppressed victims of the Romans would also have had to come to terms with the way they isolated the outsiders of their own society.” Therefore, the story of the Gerasene demoniac should inspire one to consider one’s treatment of “undesirables” or outcasts.
However, while reading this story through a social lens, Dr. Placher does not remove the traditional emphasis on the extraordinary power of Christ demonstrated here. As Christ sends the pig herd off a cliff, he inevitably harms the local economy through his power. While we might sympathize with the farmers, especially with the current economic situation, Christ does not seem troubled by this. Christ’s priorities are, many times, different than our own, Dr. Placher argues. Therefore, “we modern readers are fooling ourselves if we think that we, by contrast, would have liked having Jesus around. We do not understand Mark’s picture of him unless we recognize that he is terrifying.” Perhaps the gospel—and Christ—are much more radical than we might assume.
An important part of any commentary on scripture is its analysis of the text itself, particularly in its original language. Dr. Placher approaches the Greek in an incredibly reader-friendly manner, and he shows its beauty and power. He does not use the Greek text for pure historical reasons or to brandish his academic credentials, but instead utilizes it to reveal the kernel of the gospel that is present there. Perhaps the most illustrative example is found in the very first verse of the gospel. In the Greek text, the word used for “gospel” is euangelion, which translates literally into “good message” or “good news.” Ever since the days of the early Church, the word “gospel” has been often used by theologians, preachers, and laity to describe the Christian message.
Inevitably, since the word is part of our common parlance, it has lost much of its inherent power as a word, being something of a cliché within the Church and the culture at large. However, Dr. Placher argues, this was not the case when the first generation of Christians was hearing the words of Mark. “We take the term for granted and lose the surprise and puzzle it might have occasioned among Mark’s first listeners/readers at the beginning of a book. ‘Gospel’ was one of Mark’s favorite words . . . and for him captured what he wanted to say—he had wonderful news to tell, news of a kind, he was signaling his readers, that no previous form of writing could appropriately convey.” As powerful and good as Christians might find the message of the gospel today, there was another level of joy in the world prior to Christian hegemony in the cultural West. The gospel in the first century was truly a blissful and surprising message. Perhaps we should try to remember that and reclaim that power.
You are the intended audience of this book, which serves as Dr. Placher’s last testimony of Jesus Christ. Christianity is a faith that is built upon the foundation of our forefathers. No matter what tradition we claim as our own, our faith experiences are directly related to those of past generations. The Church is a communion of saints past and present, as Paul teaches us, and theology is a dinner-table conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ about the gospel. Karl Barth once wrote that “there is no past in the Church . . . ‘In him they all live.’” Remember that when you pick up Mark. There is a conversation to be had. You’re invited.