Satan & the Secret of the Kingdom

In the Gospel of Mark, Satan is obviously the enemy of God and of Jesus and the people of God. But his opposition isn’t merely generalized. It’s very specific, taking the form of preventing Jesus from being the cross-shaped Messiah who goes the way of weakness and self-giving love.

Mark doesn’t say much about Jesus’ temptation by Satan, and it seems that readers should regard the temptation in 1:12-13 in light of Jesus’ rebuke to Peter in 8:33. Peter is enthusiastic about Jesus as Messiah but doesn’t want to hear any talk of going to Jerusalem to be betrayed and put to death. The temptation in 1:12-13, involves, presumably, Jesus embodying his role through some spectacular display, through grasping after power and prestige, leading a revolutionary movement to get rid of Rome and establish the Kingdom of God.

So, as others have suggested, in Mark’s Gospel, Satan is opposed to the cross, to a cross-shaped Messiah, and to a cruciform people of God.

It seems to me that the specific opposition of Satan should inform the parable of the soils and its interpretation in 4:1-20, especially Satan’s action of taking away the seed sown in v. 15. Like birds that pick up seeds scattered along the path (v. 4), Satan takes away the seed that is sown in some people.

I don’t think this is a generalized action. That is, it doesn’t involve gospel preaching in general, as if Satan snatches away the force or the content of what we might understand to be gospel proclamation so that a person doesn’t repent and believe the gospel.

The action of Satan seems specific here because the “word” also seems very specific. It is the gospel of the kingdom (here, the “secret of the kingdom”) that Jesus has been proclaiming. Now, it appears that all of Galilee is rife with kingdom fever and longing for the arrival of God’s anointed. But Jesus knows that this fervor is corrupted by a desire for a powerful, revolutionary Messiah who will rally a military revolt through spectacular displays of heroism leading to an uprising.

In this context, the preached word is specifically the word of an unexpected kingdom, an unanticipated Messiah, a countercultural people of God. This is why Jesus keeps tamping down expectations, keeps telling people to keep quiet and not spread the word about him. If momentum grows, the expectations will get out of hand, and people won’t understand that Jesus is not bringing in the sort of kingdom they imagine.

All of this is to say that the way Satan “snatches away the word” is not necessarily by removing from a person’s consciousness gospel preaching as we might conceive of it – a generalized announcement. Satan does so by taking away Jesus’ message of a Messiah who goes to the cross, who refuses to grab for power, who gives his life for others, who calls for kingdom participants to take up their crosses.

Satan takes away the word by clouding Jesus’ message of the cross with the mounting revolutionary fervor so that people respond positively to Jesus because they think he’s going to be the sort of Messiah they want him to be.

Perhaps this is why throughout Mark, the crowds that gather around Jesus and press in on him are not regarded positively. They prevent Jesus from carrying out his ministry and from clarifying his role as Messiah.

Ironically, for modern readers of Mark, it can only be a great thing that there is popular and enthusiastic response to Jesus. And certainly in an American culture of celebrity, cravings for prestige and power, the gospel gets corrupted so that ministries are evaluated by their size and the celebrity magnetism of the pastor.

Where we see signs of ministry “success,” Mark might see Satanic opposition to the “secret of the kingdom” – the gospel of the cross.



Exegetes at Church

Repost: This topic has come up a few times in conversation, so I thought I’d repost this.

A few recent conversations have sparked some thoughts about going to church as a critically-engaged exegete.

Biblical exegesis is all about critical analysis of the details of a text and critical scrutiny of other exegetes’ work.  Several times after intense and involved class discussions, someone has commented that it must be tough to go to church.  If you’re analyzing the nitty-gritty of a text so closely, emphasizing each feature as crucial, how do you put up with sloppy preaching?

Good question.

Here are a few scattered thoughts, in no particular order.

First, there’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a critical spirit.  A critical mind is essential for the classroom and important for life.  A critical spirit, however, is soul-corrupting and community-destroying.  Hopefully, as I mature, I’m cultivating the first while avoiding the second.

Second, I don’t expect a classroom experience in church or an academic paper from a preacher.  Further, my attention span on a Sunday morning is about eight minutes.  The kid sitting in front of us usually reads Berenstain Bears books during the service, so I have to fight the urge to lean forward and find out what’s making Papa Bear freak out.  Rather than a complex treatment of interpretive options, I love hearing someone trace the broad contours of a text to provide a sweet and simple glimpse into the grace of God in Christ.

Third, when I hear something I haven’t heard before, or even something I’ve previously dismissed as unworkable, I don’t pass judgment and shut down.  I take it up and consider it.  I look again at the biblical text and ask if it fits.  Such opportunities force me to re-examine the text more closely and that’s always a good thing.

Fourth, ministry is hard.  It’s lonely.  Pastors hear far more criticisms than encouragements.  Rather than an exegetical critique on the way out, what a pastor needs to hear at the end of a service is, “thank you.  I appreciate that.  I hope you have a good week.”

Finally, I go to the weekly gathering of my church family as a Christian.  That is, my aim must be God’s aim, and his priority for my church is for it to grow in unity and love as a people called and brought together by the Spirit of God in Christ.  That aim must orient my behaviors.  So, when I’m at church, I try to have one or two good conversations, asking someone some good questions about how they’re doing.  I try to have some good laughs.

Criticizing the sermon simply is not on the agenda.

Exegetes, new and experienced, how do you approach the Sunday gathering?

Pastors, what are your experiences with professors in the pew?

Philosophy & Sport

Mark Edmundson asks whether collegiate athletes should be taught Plato, who reflected at length on reason in relation to passion. I wonder whether athletes at Christian colleges should be required to reflect theologically on a range of issues that might transform how they envision spirit, mind, body, and community (bodies in relation).

It’s not only the athletes that need to (re)think these things, but more importantly college and university trustees, administration, and athletic departments whose accumulated pressures result in a perverse formation of athletes as whole persons.

On Hating & Loving the Old Course

The Dunhill Links Championship was played last week over the Old Course at St. Andrews, Kingsbarns, and Carnoustie. I’ve played all three and the Old Course is certainly the least immediately impressive.

So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Rory McIlroy said that when he first played the Old Course he hated it. Bobby Jones felt the same way when he first played it, but came to love it over time. Not only this, but McIlroy’s home course is Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, one of the top few links courses in the world and certainly one of the most beautiful.


Getty Images /

His comments sum up the reaction of most golfers who get to know the Old Course, its quirks and its continued challenge to modern golfers:

“Thought it was the worst golf course I’ve ever played,” he said. “I just stood up on every tee and was like, ‘What is the fascination about this place?’ But the more you play it and the more you learn about the golf course and the little nuances, you learn to appreciate it. Now it’s my favorite golf course in the world.”

Postures of Fear

Just over a decade ago a conversation about fear-based motivations in relationships sparked some extended and seriously fruitful reflection about hopeful versus fearful postures toward others. The beginning of this NYT article about Marilynne Robinson, whose new novel is just out, brought much of that back to me.

This June, as a grandfather clock rang the quarter-hour in her modest Iowa City living room, the American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, a woman of 70 who speaks in sentences that accumulate into polished paragraphs, made a confession: “I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ”

“ ‘So I shot him,’ ” I said.


“ ‘Can you blame me?’ ”

‘‘Exactly. Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.

Academic Inquiry & Practical Relevance

I frequently supervise student research projects and I occasionally hear something like this: “I don’t want my research to be merely academic. I want it to have practical relevance for the church.”

When I heard this from undergrads I would nod and say, “sure, I get it, relevance, so how about you engage these two or three views on this issue and then also reflect in a final section of your paper on the relevance of this discussion for the church?”

I don’t quite like hearing students say this, but to this point I haven’t made a fuss. I encountered this sentiment again recently and it became the occasion to clarify some thoughts.

It strikes me immediately as laudable to desire that one’s research have eventual payoff for one’s practice, for Christian discipleship in general, and for relevance to the church. But I think this goal ought to be kept at arm’s length. Students should not assume that they already have the capacity to determine when they have arrived at something that is practically relevant or that they know how to determine what is relevant and what is not.

Some areas of research that students tackle are massive and complex and students should seek to get their heads around them as much as possible as a purely academic exercise. They should get to grips with how people have configured the problems and how they have sought solutions. What is the range of opinions? Where are the fault lines? What solutions consistently rise to the top? Rather than cherry-picking what is “practical” while gaining only a general acquaintance with the larger issue, students should sit before the discussion and its history and learn it thoroughly and humbly.

I recently told a student that he wouldn’t be struck by anything “practical” or worth passing on to anyone else in the first few weeks of his study, or even after 8-10 weeks. I told him, however, that the whole time that he was learning, he’d be grappling with the overall issue and coming to a deeper understanding of the field not for others, but for himself. But this would lead to seeing the biblical text in new ways. He’d begin to discern strategies of biblical writers like never before, and all of this would enhance his ability to describe what is happening in biblical texts to lay people more effectively.

Students should not be trying to find the practical aspect of Issue X, to shake loose what is dispensable from what is crucial. They need to understand Issue X more deeply so that they can explain it more simply and clearly.

Student research involves penetrating deeply into a topic, understanding its complexities so that they themselves arrive at a deeper, more involved and profounder grasp of it. This ought to reconfigure their ideological frameworks and transform their vocabulary and conceptual grammar, making them better equipped to explain realities more plainly and more compellingly to others. Further, it will allow them to make connections with a range of other concepts and prepare them to grapple with ones they haven’t encountered yet.

The “purely academic” pursuit is the prelude to a person’s wearing her or his learning lightly, gaining the ability to attain the simplicity on the far side of complexity.

It seems to me that the alternative approach that raids the field for practical “nuggets” often reinforces the assumption that the academy is detached and irrelevant. This is the student who is only vaguely familiar with an issue, who can throw out some terms and refer to concepts, but who doesn’t actually grasp them and leaves others confused and with the impression of what is “merely academic” in the worst sense.

It is an illusion is that the more one gets lost in complex and involved discussions the less relevant and useful that person becomes. This is precisely wrong. Rather, such a pursuit opens the possibility of having a greater capacity to enrich others.


It’s been a bittersweet year for us as we’ve seen two kids off to university. While we’re delighted for them, we have felt and will feel their absence keenly.

Last year, during our final camping weekend of the summer before Maddie left for school, Sarah took this shot that captured the moment beautifully.


I felt much the same about this shot of Jake.


These are some of the best and happiest times for us. As our children turn and walk down new roads, however, I’m finding that it’s not nearly as easy as I thought it would be.

Football, the Reality

Hypocrisy abounds, along with the ugly exposure of interests and ham-fisted public relations, in the range of issues professional football has had to face. I’ve been thinking recently about how easy it is to point fingers at certain players, teams, and league officials, when there’s a larger complex of forces, including fans and media outlets (e.g., ESPN, major networks that carry football) that work together to create the kind of people that many football players have become.

Serge Schmemann, summarizing the news over the past week, puts this quite well in his final paragraph:

Disclosure: I love football, and when stationed as a correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s I had video cassettes flown in so I could watch games. But football fans can no longer close their eyes to the price the game exacts on the players and their families.

For one thing, there is no longer any dispute about the damage to players. The N.F.L. has acknowledged in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems.

Then there is that video of the running back Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée in an elevator, and the revelation that Adrian Peterson, perhaps the best running back out there, viciously beat his 4-year-old son with a switch. More names are coming out and more will surely follow, raising all sorts of questions about the N.F.L.’s standards and leadership, about the maturity of the players, and of course about us, the fans, who like ancient Romans in the Colosseum cheer on the latter-day gladiators to ever greater “hits.”

Interchange & Improvisation

There’s a fascinating piece on the Kronos Quartet in the NY Times where they discuss their communication with one another and how they improvise. It’s fascinating in itself and beautiful to watch, but it also might serve to illuminate the manner in which we speak of relationships and community dynamics.


I was especially struck by David Harrington’s comment about the necessity of openness. He might prepare and practice and come to resolution about the manner in which a piece ought to be played, but when he joins the others, he needs to be open to the manner in which interaction with other members of the quartet will shape how he must play.

Clarifying the Privileged Imagination

In assessing Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Jennifer McBride offered the following comments clarifying the manner in which white American Christians envision their situation within the wider culture and how they ought to do so.

It is disingenuous for white Protestants to deem ourselves alien to a culture and society we benefit from and have created. Certainly, the call to think of ourselves as resident aliens is normative: we should be resident aliens in that we should not participate in the destructive forces of American society even if, at present, we foster and maintain them. But their use of the term is also descriptive—as Christians, we are resident aliens—and this description is profoundly self-deceptive.

Given the dominance of white Protestantism in our liberal-capitalist-democratic culture and given the privilege that naturally follows, the first step toward a more faithful existence is not to deem ourselves alien to this society but to name our complicity as residents in its sin and repent in concrete ways: by becoming allies in our everyday lives or joining coalitions working to undo racist structures like prisons.

See the rest of McBride’s comments.


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