In part to create a sense of ritual and schedule in the midst of our “hunkering down” and in part because any excuse is a good excuse to fortify your faith, my household has begun a daily read-through devotional of the Gospel of Mark. Though perhaps not daily and perhaps not every chapter, I’d like to record and share our observations here.
Mark 7 has a wonderfully liberating message that continues to develop themes discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 about the supersession of the law. When Jesus declares that it is not what goes into us but what comes out of us that defiles us, he radically recenters the locus of religious belief and practice from how most Jews understood it at the time (though not, most Christians would argue, from where it should have been in an appropriate reading of the Old Testament). Mark 7 also continues to work through the recurring motif of Jesus’s failed attempts to hide his identity, with the disciples once again being “so dull” they didn’t get it but in the next passage the author declaring flatly that “[Jesus] could not keep his presence a secret.”
Our devotional discussion didn’t touch on any of these fine points, though. Instead, we focused on those parts of Mark 7 that challenge our modern, scientific notions of the world. One challenge came with the healing of the man who “deaf and could hardly talk.” Healings have not, in themselves, generated much controversy in our discussions, but this one raise some eyebrows. Jesus cures the deafness by placing his fingers in his ears and the muteness by placing his spit-on fingers in the man’s mouth. (Just because Jesus ignores the CDC, doesn’t mean we can.) The special actions made sense in the context of Mark, where special words and actions seem to function as symbolic gestures that ratify the real source of healing, faith. (This is made nowhere clearer than in Chapter 6, when it says “[Jesus] could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.”)
The problem arose in the way the story treats the man’s inability to speak. The old, disparaging stereotype of the deaf-mute (or “deaf and dumb”) is based on an antiquated understanding of the relationship between deafness and speech. Rather than the inability to speak being a concurrent malady, many deaf people cannot speak because people learn speech through hearing other speak it. It is not a malady that needs curing but a “side effect,” as it were, of deafness. (For the record, many deaf people also can speak and choose not to either because of the stigma that comes associated with their different speech patterns or as an affirmation of the culture of deafness and its own [sign] language.) What then are we to make of this “curing” of muteness? Did this man have an actual concurrent condition that prevented him from speaking (even though could evidently talk some)? Did the “healing” amount to Jesus essentially uploading a lifetime’s worth of speech learning into the man, who then went on “to speak plainly”? We didn’t settle on an answer, except that if we believe Jesus can raise the dead, it would be inconsistent to assume he couldn’t also teach someone to speak a language by touching their tongue with dirty fingers. (Though we didn’t realize it, we would come back to this idea of miraculously speaking languages.)
Already primed to bring our modern prejudices to bear on the text, we turned to the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was rid of a demon at a distance by Jesus (again, in response to her very humble declaration of faith). This prompted each of us to give in turn our understanding of demons. One person gave the naturalist stance that “demons” was the only way the biblical authors had to describe mental illness, so that “demons” as such have never existed and never needed to be cast out. We should treat, in this view, demon stories as healing stories like any other. We discussed as well the common cessationist position in the Churches of Christ that demons existed and possessed people, but the time for this and other miracles had passed now. (No one was actually willing to claim this stance though.) The supernaturalist perspective was offered, however, as one person shared a belief that demons existed then and now and that on rare occasions she had encountered people who, by their behavior or by her intuition, she believed to be afflicted by something above and beyond simple illness.
For my part, I incline more to the supernaturalist position than the naturalist or the cessationist one. It costs me nothing, intellectually, to affirm the existence of demons (while it requires a suspension of good sense to adopt the standard textual justification for cessationism). Meanwhile, it resonates powerfully with my own sense of the significance of epistemological humility to admit that there are things which both exist and are incomprehensible. I have never seen or read a modern account of anyone I believe to have been genuinely demon possessed, but I believe possession is real. I have never seen or read a modern account of anyone I believe to have been miraculously healed, but I believe healing is real. I have never seen or read a modern account of anyone I believe to have genuinely been speaking in tongues, but I believe in tongues-speaking. Rather than possibly doing violence to the text to make it comprehensible in my worldview, I would rather let a belief in these things serve as a check on my worldview so that it never closes me off to the flaws in my way of thinking.
In expressing this, I struck an unrelated nerve: what is tongues-speaking and does it still exist? A spirited debate arose about, first, whether speaking in tongues exclusively meant other existing language and, second, whether or not tongues speaking had ceased. One member of our group was insistent that the “glossolalia” was something unrelated to the speaking in tongues at Pentecost (incidentally, in Greek, “lalein heterais glosssais“). She’s not alone in this position, arguing that glossolalia is specifically a speaking in angelic tongues. She believes (and I hope I am representing this faithfully) that this gift still exists but that the gift of interpreting those angelic tongues has passed away, rendering glossolalia moot as a spiritual gift.
Setting aside the question of why one has ceased and the others have not, I cannot agree with the suggestion that tongues speaking in the New Testament refers exclusively or even usually to speaking in angelic tongues. The reason is pretty simple and textual. Only once in Scripture, to my knowledge, is there a references to “speaking in tongues of angels.” It appears in in 1 Cor. 13 right after Paul has castigated the church for trying to sort each other based on the quality of spiritual gifts rather than coming together in love. When he references angelic tongues, he does it as the climax of this argument:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
At first blush, it appears unequivocally that Paul affirms the existence of a glossalalia of angels (in addition to the glossalalia of men), but he uses a three consecutive rhetorical flourishes here to make his point. We can evaluate the nature of the first if we can agree on the nature of the second two. First Paul talks about a scenario in which he had prophetic powers that allowed him to understand everything without exception and such faith that he could literally move mountains. Should we conclude from this that are people in the Corinthian church who in fact do have such comprehensive knowledge and are in fact casting mountains into the sea? I don’t. Then he offers a similarly hyperbolic scenario where he gives away everything he owns and voluntarily surrenders himself to be burned by the Roman authorities. We know that Paul does not himself court persecution by the government, and we can with some certainty presume his audience doesn’t either (or else, they’d be too busy lining up for execution to be his audience).
Both of the other lines in this passage are self-evidently arguments from hyperbole. Paul takes an actual spiritual gift practiced in the Corinthian church and stretches it far beyond their actual giftedness. Even in the most extreme situation you can imagine regarding spiritual gifts like prophecy or charity, the absence of love negates their value. If we take that perspective and read the first verse, “even if I speak in tongues of men and angels,” the hyperbole there is clearly the idea of speaking in tongues of angels. If angelic tongues-speaking was common practice (as we can infer from chapter 14 that speaking in human tongues is), then there would be no hyperbole here, no superlative extension of the spiritual gift into a realm far above what anyone in the Corinthian church actually practiced. Angelic tongues speaking operates as extremity, the absurdity beyond the real. It’s the only way the rhetorical structure of this passage makes sense.
To me, anyway. No progress was made on the specific issue at our devotional, and that’s fine because Mark doesn’t have any interest in tongues speaking. I appreciated the “iron sharpening iron” that a good disagreement can bring, but I look forward to Mark 8 and the beginning of the narrative’s turn toward Calvary.