Wednesday, July 31, 2019


I have just written 5,000 words about the Bible without once mentioning Star Wars. So this is me, mentioning Star Wars.

About half way through Episode IV, the Millennium Falcon blasts its way out of Mos Eisley spaceport through a blockade of Imperial Stardestroyers (the big triangular ones) and dramatically makes the jump to Hyperspace. In 1977 the Hyperspace jump was reckoned to be a stunningly impressive special effect; it was said to draw applause from first night audiences. It firmly drew a line under the films first act. The heroes have escaped from their first major peril and we go off and spend some time with the villains.

When we return to the Falcon, all is calm. The robot and the hairy alien are part way through a game of chess; the hero is being given fencing lessons by his mentor. Everyone has a good-natured bicker, and they arrive at their destination. The scene takes about three minutes.

George Lucas understands, although many of his fans and his detractors do not, that there is a distinction between screen time and narrative time. Three minutes is not very long for a space ship to cross the galaxy; but it is a very long pause in an action movie. The audience feels that our heroes have had some down time between act one and act two. When the action starts up again we perceive them as a group of Six Buddies, not some strangers who were randomly thrown together just a few minutes ago. Our imagination expands and fills out the narrative space. 

Mr William Shakespeare fools around with time in very much the same way. If you pedantically read the script, you would find that Romeo and Juliet knew each other for scarcely 24 hours before their mutual suicide. But the more important truth is that they fall in love in Act I and die in Act IV -- which is about as long as a theatrical love affair can possibly be. (Entire essays, and indeed entire books, have been written about the Dual Time Scheme in Othello. You probably don't need to read them.) 

A related technique, much used in American TV shows and rom-coms, is the montage. We are shown a sequence of vignettes, lasting perhaps three seconds each, in which the The Hero and The Heroine accidentally burn their dinner; paint the living room; open their Christmas presents; and (invariably) spray each other with a garden hosepipe. This conveys to the viewer that time has passed and a new "normal" has been established -- we've jumped in a few seconds from "moving in together" to "being an established couple". The montage was so over-used that it now hardly ever occurs except as a self-aware parody. 

Anyone who has ever been to Sunday School or attended the Christian Union has a very strong mental image of "the ministry of Jesus". We have a general sense of what happened during those three years. (Everyone knows that it was three years, but no-one can say how they know.) Jesus preached -- on mountains, on the sea shore and in boats. He healed people -- the blind, the deaf, cripples and lepers. Children came running to him. He taught his twelve special friends and got to know them. He went to parties with people who were usually regarded as the dregs of society. He argued and debated with religious leaders. He went to synagogue on Saturdays. He ate a lot of fish. And after a long period of relative tranquility, he makes a decision to go to Jerusalem. 

I have an overwhelming sense of those years as being peaceful and idyllic, possibly because of that darn hymn which always accompanied Miss Beale's black and white slides. ("Oh sabbath rest by Galilee! oh calm of hills above!") 

It is often said that Mark's Gospel lacks structure: that it is a higgledy piggledy collection of traditions about Jesus that tumble out in no particular sequence. It is also said that Mark gallops over Jesus's ministry and dedicates disproportionate space to the final week in Jerusalem. This is true, in the same way that it is true that you can get from Tatooine to Alderaan in three minutes and Romeo and Juliet only knew each other for an hour and a half. You certainly can't create a coherent chronology or time frame from Mark's text. Some people have tried. Your Sunday School Bible probably included a map of Israel, with a little wiggly line showing Jesus's to-ings and fro-ings from Capernaum to Gardarenes and back again. (The one of St Paul's missionary voyages is much more useful.)

No-one enjoys this kind of game more than I do. Last year I started entering the exact dates on which particular Spider-Man adventures happened on a calendar. It would be terrific fun to give St Mark the same treatment, but unfortunately Google Calendar doesn't go back as far as AD 30. 
  • Friday 28 April 0030, morning: Jesus returns to Capernaum. A crowd assembles, and he teaches them. Incident of the cripple on the roof. 
  • Friday 28 April, afternoon: Jesus leaves Simon's house and goes for a walk on the beach. A new crowd assembles, and he teaches them.  
  • Friday 28 April, evening On his way home, Jesus invites a tax-collector to join his entourage. Returns to Simon's house with his new friend Levi and a whole bunch of people from tax offices. Argument with Scribes.
  • Saturday 29 April, morning: Jesus heads out to Synagogue. Disciples munch on some raw wheat. Argument with Scribes. At Synagogue. Heals man with poorly hand. Argument with Scribes.
  • Saturday 29 April afternoon: Jesus goes for a walk on the beach. A new crowd assembles and he teaches them. 
  • Saturday 29 April, evening: Jesus Leaves beach and heads up mountain. Appoints Apostles.
  • Sunday 30 April: Jesus returns to Peter's house. A new crowd assembles and he teaches them. Huge argument with Pharisees. His family turn up to have him sectioned, but he refuses to see them. 
And once you have done this, it is possible and very enjoyable to start seeing all kinds of stuff which just isn't there. The disciples who go off to Synagogue with Jesus on Saturday morning are obviously the very same publicans and sinners who were at the party on Friday night. So obviously they aren't worried about the finer legal details of where breakfast comes from. If the big meeting on the beach comes straight after the incident of the man with the withered hand, then it must still be Saturday: having offended the scribes by healing one man on the sabbath he goes down to the beach and heals hundreds.

But no. It's a game. Mark Chapter 1 does indeed have a strong sense of forward motion; and as we will see, Mark 4 and 5 conflate multiple Jesus-stories into a single narrative. But Mark Chapters 2 and 3 contain about a dozen incidents, only one of which (the healing of the crippled man) comes across as anything like a story. There are four or five records of the sayings of Jesus, with a tiny little narrative wrapped around them; there are three or four incidents so short that you wonder what they are doing in the text at all; and there are several general depictions of Jesus ministry. 

It is impossible to misread a literary text. If the text means something to you, then that is what the text means. "I found Moby Dick quite boring" is a rock solid piece of data: it is a much more solid starting point than "Moby Dick is about the dichotomy between theism and pantheism" or "Melville was born". If you feel baffled by a passage, then the passage is baffling. It is the critic's job to record this fact; not to cure you of your bafflement.

If Mark presents the second section of this Gospel as a series of unconnected vignettes, our job isn't to connect them; our job is to say "how does this fragmentary form make us feel while we are reading it?"

I tried to imagine the first chapter of Mark as the opening scene in a movie, with sweeping longshots of crowds in the wilderness and sudden close-ups of camel-hair loincloths. I think we will get a better sense of Mark 2 and 3 if we imagine it as montage. Here are lots of short, fragmentary glimpses of kinds of things that Jesus used to do during those first years in Capernaum. Here is a picture of him sitting in Simon's house, teaching and arguing. Here is a picture of him getting into a legal argument with some Scribes (don't worry overmuch about the content of the argument: just see him, out-Lawyering the Lawyers). Here he on the beach, with a crowd; here he is, on a beach with a bigger crowd; here he is on the beach and the crowd is so big he's had to fall back into a boat. Here he is, calling a sinner, almost at random. (He did that a lot.) 

Speaking in the house; proclaiming on the beach; teaching in the Synagogue. Beach; house; synagogue. Small crowds, big crowds, huge crowds, crowds bigger than he can cope with. This is how it was. For weeks and months and years. 

Let me tell you a Jesus story. Jesus has just finished teaching at Simon's house. Jesus has always just finished teaching at Simon's house. That's how Jesus stories start.

I'm Andrew. I write about about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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1 comment:

Aonghus Fallon said...

Chesterton usually has a bit halfway through the Father Brown stories intended to establish that a certain amount of time has elapsed between the crime and the denouement - often it involves the authorities chasing some red herring or the newspapers getting the wrong end of the stick -but the timeframe is frequently a bit off. The characters reassemble at the crime scene the following evening when it should be a week later, or the characters behave as if no time has elapsed at all - in 'The Quick One', Brown and his companion never leave the hotel bar.