Chapter 4: The Goddamned One(s)

What is it about Jesus that emanates such haunting force? Though specific and adequate answers to that question may be out of reach, it does bring me back to one of the initial quests tied to this work. Why bother with Jesus if the metaphysical foundations that held up his authority and story eventually crumbled under the weight of critical thought? Nothing now can rescue the implications once ensured by the metaphysical, supernatural claims attached to him. Jesus was human, a Jew of the 1st century. He was killed on a cross by the Romans and has been dead for some 2,000 years now. Strip the metaphysical assumptions away, all the divine stuff about him and the literal resurrection of his body, and what is left?

I do not know all the answers to such questions, but I have come to (un)know that he is still here shaping, informing, smirking at the world of ethical and religious thought that claims him. The haunting aspect of this experience looms, however, in the reality that Jesus really is not here. The ghostly figuring of Jesus is not Jesus. But it is. Beloved is not real but she still enacts her haunting work. She weighs-in on the conversation of white supremacy and racism. She converses with those critically engaging hauntological spaces. These figures materialize before and among those vulnerable to the reflections afforded by hauntological frameworks of being. In order to tease Jesus’s ghostly figure from the shadows, I turn to the first Gospel, Mark.

 

Mark’s Jesus, the Goddamned One

Often those who bother to trace the development of Christian thought are troubled by a memory. Something haunts the Jesus emerging as Christ throughout the centuries, the one co-opted by moral and religious agendas, the one championed by the discourse of God-talk. I call this disturbing figure the Goddamned one, the likes of which begin to take shape with a closer look at Mark’s Jesus. At the close of Mark’s story, Jesus “has lost confidence in any God up above. He himself is all there is—he alone. The climax to his life is six hours of torture nailed to a cross. It ends in a colossal scream, as he breathes his last. There is no resurrection from the dead. The story closes inside an empty tomb, with three women fleeing, out of their minds with fear.”[1] This Jesus, Goddamned, condemned by a God story asserting an ontological totalization, bracketed out of the spaces framed by supernature, relegated to realms of shadowy speculation and doubt is a haunting social figure that still sends people running in fear. In fact, conjure this specter within most churches or religious spaces today and watch as the anxiety levels reach explosive levels.

Although, admittedly, Mark’s gospel accounting has been consumed and sanitized by the discourses of God-talk, it still weighs-in with haunting force.[2] And a careful reading of it, one vulnerable to a hauntology, facilitates a reckoning with the seething absence hidden by the shadows of those discourses. Mark’s Jesus brings into a fuzzy focus the ghostly figure of the Goddamned one. This gospel materializes and figures this spectral Jesus with a narrative force that breaks open a hauntological space for reflecting on the weight of the world.

Why Mark’s account? Of the four canonical gospels, scholars agree that Mark’s gospel is the earliest.[3] Most scholars would place the time of its writing between the years 65-75 CE.[4] Many of them settle on this period of time by recognizing that the gospel needed to be written late enough for the oral tradition to have been established for Mark’s use but early enough to serve as a resource for Matthew and Luke.[5] This places Mark’s gospel around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, to which Mark alludes (13:2).[6] This dating indicates that the fledgling Jewish sect of Jesus followers would have been amidst great anxiety over losing some crucial components of their faith.

The exact location of the gospel’s production is unknown and difficult to assign with any certainty.[7] Even so, there are still a few characteristics about the community for which Mark’s gospel was composed that we may deduce from the gospel itself. That Mark’s gospel translates Aramaic phrases (5:41; 7:34; 15:34) and offers explanations for Jewish customs (7:3-4) “suggests its intended readers were Gentiles.”[8] However, this community would have been deeply engaged with aspects of the Jewish religion since Mark assumes some knowledge of Jewish customs on their part (7:1-23; 11:27-12:40).[9] Still, this is not a lot of data from which to draw strong conclusions.

The safest conclusion to make is that Mark’s gospel presumes a community that may have fears and reservations about their commitment to following Jesus because of the religious upheaval brought about by the Jewish war. Mark’s Jesus relates to a group of people buried under the weight of concentration, crammed into spaces of death by other bodies leveraging a totalizing narrative for their positioning. Surmising the social historical situation of Mark’s addressees, Boring writes, “it was not to one’s advantage politically, economically, or socially to be a disciple of Jesus.”[10] Thus Mark’s Jesus bears the weight of world shifting toward unworld and challenges the forces enforcing these shifts. Mark’s gospel is an invitation to solidarity; it opens a way into the story of the Goddamned one without promising the security of an answer for the way out.

Mark was not just passing on the history of Jesus for the sake of delineating information or recommending a perfect model of humanity to follow. Nothing like that is resolved in Mark’s story. He intentionally crafted his narrative to bring particular theological perspectives to bear upon his intended audience. As Eugene Boring aptly puts it, “Mark’s potent story cannot be summarized; it must be experienced.”[11] Mark unfolds a story of becoming world in which his Jesus stumbles through, failing along the way, and yet persists in a hope against hope. In their book, Re-Reading the Gospel of Mark Amidst Loss and Trauma, Maia Kotrosits and Hal Taussig write, “For Mark there is no heroic rescue or comprehensive transformation.”[12] Mark’s Jesus has no illusions of grand plans. He only hints at possibilities and in the end suffers as the Goddamned one, ultimately forsaken by God and unable to pull it all together.

Mark cleverly unfolds this narrative and offers Jesus as one who senses and struggles with the weight of the world. He composes a story where Jesus embodies radical inclusivity and hospitality (2:13-17) to only be abandoned by his closest friends in the end (14:50). He is at times irritated and insulting (7:24-30). Mark’s Jesus is “transfigured” and affirmed by God (9:2-8) then mocked, God-forsaken, and alone at his death (15:34). His story is a struggle of hopeful hopelessness that leaves open the possibility that the reader may take up the challenge with him. Mark’s Jesus by modern standards seems deeply flawed, profoundly human with spurts of hopeful anticipation and insight that are beaten back by despair and loss. Mark’s Jesus is not Jesus the triumphant, divine, saving, and world-redeeming, resurrected hero we have come to know in Christianity. Mark’s Jesus, it seems, died alone and in shame. Mark’s tomb sits empty with only hints and suggestions toward “something that might eventually materialize.”[13] Mark’s Jesus never appears again. But neither does he go away.

 

Haunted by the Historical Jesus

I credit those scholars committed to historical Jesus research for forging paths along which the haunting presence of Mark’s Jesus could travel. The variety of quests for the historical Jesus unleashed the narrative force of Mark’s Jesus to disrupt the discourse of God-talk in a way that provokes a re-imagined ontology, breaking open new modes of understanding within spaces of hauntological reflection. Attending and engaging these spaces, one can expect an encounter of (un)knowing, of catching glimpses here and there of a spectral memory, of phantasmal contours of something not-there, the figure of a ghost, Jesus, the Goddamned one. I will not pretend that scholars on the quest for the historical Jesus have reconstructed him and neither would they defend that claim. However, they have served to press the boundaries of an ontology restricted by God-talk and have cleared the way for a hauntological reflection in which to understand Jesus beyond the restrictive discourses that rely on rigid metaphysical assumptions.

Those on the various quests for the historical Jesus have precipitated an encounter with the haunting presence of Jesus, the Goddamned one, in two ways: by drawing into focus his seething absence and by critically illuminating the art-force of his parables. The haunting nature spun from these quests is profoundly present among those who have dismissed historical Jesus research as impossible and misguided. Joe Bessler exposes this fearful anxiety when he argues that the scholarly development of a distinction between a “Christ of faith” and the “so-called historical Jesus” functioned to avoid the lingering issues these quests unearthed. He writes:

“What they missed was the possibility that the question of the historical Jesus was, in fact, not only a historical question but also a historic question—a question that created a series of profound social, political, and theological impacts that have continued to shape and reshape our world. It is a question that cannot be reduced to this or that particular proposal about the historical Jesus, but a question whose disturbing power has not only not gone away, but continues to open up new spaces of historical and theological construction and new spaces of lived faith.”[14]

It is that “disturbing power” that fosters an awareness of a seething absence.

 

 Jesus as Ghost: A Seething Absence

As historical Jesus research evolved and intensified, the most pressing insight to emerge was that the Jesus of Christian discourse constructed within the framework of God-talk is not Jesus. Jesus, the historical person, is not there. He is absent. Whoever emerged from the tomb and traversed through centuries of Christian thought was certainly not the Palestinian, peasant Jew who struggled to make sense of life and faith in Mark’s gospel. Mark’s Jesus is nowhere to be found. The Christian world is clinging to something that is not there. As historical Jesus studies advance their research, a ghostly figure of something once there and not not-there weighs-in, begins to make its presence felt through the force of its imposing absence.

Through the contributions of historical Jesus research and its critical illumination of Mark’s Jesus, that which is unseen from behind the towering walls of God-talk presses against the metaphysically buttressed imaginations and discourses of Christianity. Those claiming to follow Jesus run in fear from Mark’s empty tomb and the haunting of its implications in order to write a story of their own. Who wants to enter a space of reflection occupied by the Goddamned one, when it is God who orders the world and space of meaningful refection? But when all the structures of God-talk implode, which has begun and continues, who is it that walks among the wreckage? Is it the Christ of faith constructed from the resources of God-talk or is it the Goddamned one once exiled beyond the borders of a world created within the security of metaphysical and supernatural assumptions? It is the one not not-there who endures, and who instigates a sort of huantological real-talk for navigating a world littered with the mangled structures of God-talk.

 

Jesus as Ghost: Parables as Art-Force

The parables of Jesus as understood through historical Jesus research suggest an ethical impulse of the Goddamned one, the historical Jesus figured as ghost. His parables weigh-in as art-force and impress bodies becoming world with the weight of re-imagination, calling attention through narrative force to that which stirs beneath the hopes and longings of those suffering under concentrated weight. They harbor a something-to-be done within the seething absence. Meeting Jesus as ghost, however, does not ensure ethical conclusions or provide completed resources of ethical decision making. We are talking about ghostly presence, an ephemeral figure that shows up in response to shifts in the world’s weight, to haunt but a moment. And were we to ever see him clearly, we would no longer be looking at what was haunting us.

The parables of Jesus, Brandon Scott argues, “rank among the supreme literary creations of western literature, [and] testify to the consummate religious genius who had a unique vision of God.”[15] The poetic art-force of Jesus’s parables hauntingly revolt, press against the shifts toward unworld with an alternative vision of possibility. Although Scott suggests, “Jesus’ vision is not an alternative…in the sense that it is a replacement. It is a counter-weight, a counter-reality…Thus, it is always dialogically related to that default world.”[16] The possibility trafficking through the art-force of parables gives the haunting presence of Jesus its weight and shapes a sense of something-to-be-done, opening a space to re-imagine what could be against what is.

Joe Bessler hears in Scott’s work on parables the echoes of Caputo’s insights on the event. He writes, “Caputo’s ‘event’ and Scott’s parable do not project new systems, but resist the closure of the name, or the closure of Jesus into the name of Christ. They seek, as poets, to stir, to provoke, to prompt a re-imagining of language and experience, and so to hold open a space for thought and action.”[17] They explore the hauntological spaces in which this ghostly figure, animated through seething absence and art-force, shows up. This ghostly figure is not Jesus, nor an actual ghost of Jesus, but a specter of what stirs in the name of Jesus, the haunting impulses of what is harbored in the story of a parable, a restless lingering of what God-talk has failed to foreclose.

 

The Goddamned Ones

So, then, what does it mean to be Christian outside of God-talk? Is it possible? The gist of these questions haunts me. Yet they have forced me to reckon with the ghostly presences that disrupt and frustrate the ontological assumptions and epistemological resources I’ve used to construct a theological assessment of my Christianity. I contend that an encounter with the Goddamned one, the figure of Mark’s elusive and befuddled Jesus informed by critical historical Jesus scholarship, opens up a hauntological space for entering into solidarity with the event astir there. And there, in the discursive intersections of this encounter, the Goddamned ones appropriate god-talk as a way of tracing and theorizing the complicated interrelating of spaces, forces, and bodies comprising an always ever becoming world.

The Goddamned ones refer to those condemned by a dominant narrative written from the assumptions of God-talk. The big “G” God damns us for our suspicions, for acknowledging the figures that haunt metaphysical certainty and burst to pieces its framework with the weight of re-imagined ontology. Still, we engage god-talk, we persist in the residue of these fading systems of thought, which once rejected us and pushed us out, leaving no room for us. It is this sensibility to the consequences of the shifting and constant movements of a becoming world that enables one to develop the vulnerability required for encountering the haunting forces emerging as resistance.

Framing Jesus as a ghostly figure that rises from the fissures split open by Mark’s narrative and historical Jesus research, I understand the Goddamned one as a real presence that welcomes into dialogical tension those who have summoned the courage to reckon with its haunting presence in their lives. And so it is those who are suspicious of God-talk and its assumptions that are able to re-imagine modes of knowledge within hauntological spaces of reflection. All the while, the Goddamend one continues haunting every turn we make toward the comforts of an ontological system grounded in metaphysical presumption. It haunts every temptation to embrace God-talk’s security and ordering of life, forebodingly resisting every urge that the ontology of God-talk fosters within us to forget its victims.

For me, Christian identity most authentically aligns with the Goddamned ones—those squeezed out of a Jesus narrative that is haunted by the coalesced force of Mark’s Jesus and the seething absence and art-force weighing-in through the work of historical Jesus research. And in this sense, I find that a re-imagination of the ontological framework, in this case a hauntological imagination, creates a Christian identity being always ever formed by the spectral impulses that originally shaped the Jesus movement. By braving a hauntological space, and struggling for sense under its haunting affect, I assume an interpretive posture for figuring Jesus that is responsive to the event harbored in his name and also holds together the creative tension he negotiated in the making of an always-becoming world. After having said all of that, let me put it this way:  Perhaps I am a Christian.

 

[1] John Carroll, The Existential Jesus (Berkely: Counterpoint, 2007), 2.

[2] Though scholars do not have any strong consensus about who really wrote this gospel, I follow the tradition for the purposes of this paper and reference the writer as Mark.

[3] See M. Eugene Boring, “The Birth of Narrative Theology,” in Chalice Introduction to the New Testament (St. Louis: Chalice, 2010), 136-151; John R. Donahue, “Mark” in The HaperCollins Bible Commentary, ed. James L Mays (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 901; Mark Allan Powell, “Gospel According to Mark,” in HaperCollins Bible Dictionary, ed. Mark Allan Powell (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 601.

[4] Boring, “Birth of Narrative Theology,” 148.

[5] Boring, “Birth of Narrative Theology,” 148.

[6] Mark Allan Powell, “Gospel According to Mark,” in HaperCollins Bible Dictionary, ed. Mark Allan Powell (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 603.

[7] Earlier scholarship reservedly placed it in Rome, see Donahue, “Mark,” 902. But modern scholarship questions this location, see Powell, “Mark,” 601.

[8] Powell, “Mark,” 603.

[9] Boring, “Birth of Narrative Theology,” 150.

[10] Boring, “Birth of Narrative Theology,” 150.

[11] Boring, “Birth of Narrative Theology,” 137.

[12] Maia Kotrosits and Hal Taussig, Re-Reading the Gospel of Mark Amidst Loss and Trauma (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 37.

[13] Kotrosits and Taussig, Re-Reading the Gospel of Mark, 37.

[14] Joe Bessler, A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013), 2 (emphasis his).

[15] Bernard Brandon Scott, Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2001), 1.

[16] Scott, Re-Imagine the World, 138.

[17] Bessler, A Scandalous Jesus, 225.

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4 thoughts on “Chapter 4: The Goddamned One(s)

  1. sidmartin says:

    Interesting, Josh. I like your description of Jesus in Mark as the Goddamned One. My thesis was on Mark — Martyr and Messiah: Narrative Structure in Mark. The Gospel is the story of the rise and fall of Jesus Christ, the rise of the messiah and the fall of the martyr. Taussig’s book has a similar view of the gloomy Gospel. My book, Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark, shows how Jesus is a symbol of salvation. The story of Jesus recapitulates the history of salvation and is designed to encourage the reader to keep the faith following the disastrous fall of Jerusalem. I look forward to auditing Taussig’s course later this month.

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  2. sidmartin says:

    I took Hal Taussig’s course on Mark at Phillips. I’m writing a paper on Fight Club as it relates to Mark. I borrowed two quotes from Josh’s blog on on the Goddamned One in Mark. Thanks, Josh.

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  3. sidmartin says:

    “Mark’s gospel is an invitation to solidarity; it opens a way into the story of the Goddamned one without promising the security of an answer for the way out.”

    “Mark’s Jesus has no illusions of grand plans. He only hints at possibilities and in the end suffers as the Goddamned one, ultimately forsaken by God and unable to pull it all together.”

    Like

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