Dianne Bergant

Megan McKenna is a storyteller. Even when she interprets someone else’s story, she uses the medium of story to do so. In On Your Mark she tells a story about a Gospel story about Jesus. By employing the familiar summons to a race—“On your mark! Get set! Go!”—she conveys the fast-moving pace of the Gospel of Mark. Her exceptional creativity is evident in the way the chapter titles play on both that phrase and the name of the Gospel itself. (For example, On your Mark: Here begins the Gospel…; Mark my Words: Callings and Conflicts; Jesus: Mark My Ways; Marking the Last Days; The Resurrection—“Go!”)

The popular author may be an expert in creative writing, but her reading of the Gospel is anything but whimsy. The book’s subtitle, Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross, reflects the seriousness of her topic and the manner in which she addresses it. Though she avoids footnotes and the scholarly engagement they often represent, her understanding of this Gospel is well grounded in the findings of contemporary biblical research. The bibliography, though a relatively short listing, provides excellent background reading.

In the first chapter, McKenna sets the context for the remainder of the book. She provides a brief history of the Jesus movement, which eventually grew into church communities. She then lists and explains some of the major theological themes of Mark’s Gospel. She underscores the role played by the passion and death of Jesus, as well as the kind of life expected of those who choose to follow Jesus as disciples. Though attentive to historical and literary questions (“We must read the Gospel of Mark in its context”), she is most interested in how its religious message might challenge us today (“and then apply it to our time”). It is in this latter perspective that McKenna shines.

Chapter by chapter, as McKenna leads the reader through a retelling of the Gospel stories, she illustrates their message by means of other stories. These include, for example, stories from other parts of the Bible, stories from the author’s personal experience and stories that lay bare the broad scope of her own reading: Tacitus, Hans Christian Andersen, Martin Luther King Jr., et al. There are stories from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Celtic, Indian, Vietnamese and Hispanic writers. Rather than explicitly assert the universal relevance of the Gospel message, McKenna allows the various stories that she brings to the Gospel account to make the connection with our contemporary situations. This approach not only throws light on the message of the passage, but also brings that message into other life situations.

Scholars today talk about the world within the text (the world of the story created by the author), the world behind the text (the historical world of the author) and the world in front of the text (the world of the reader). McKenna carefully leads us through the first two worlds so that we ourselves can internalize and personalize the message. And she does this without falling into eisegesis (reading details into the story that are not there). The imagery she uses in her exposition opens up the meaning of the biblical text in new and creative ways. For example, like most biblical commentators, she thinks of a parable as “an experience of another reality.” But she says it is “almost like a trapdoor into another world.” This striking image is a fitting metaphor for a parable, which is supposed to surprise or shock us.

Is this book a commentary on the Gospel of Mark? Very definitely. It provides just enough historical background for the reader to understand the meaning of the passage—and no more than that. Although the author explains how the literary structure of the passage facilitates one’s understanding of it, the book is not a literary analysis. It highlights the salient religious themes of the Gospel, but it is not a theological treatise.Those acquainted with the writings of this prolific author will be further enriched by the insights she brings to her reading of this Gospel. Those interested in Scripture study will find that her approach situates the “good news” squarely in the midst of today’s world. On Your Mark is a fine reading of the Gospel of Mark that not only provides insight into its original meaning, but also offers a contemporary, challenging interpretation.

Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., a former author of the Column The Word for America, is professor of biblical studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.