Most of the time when we engage with the Bible at church, we do it episodically. We get small weekly portions from the Revised Common Lectionary in worship or just selected texts in our faith formation programs. This is helpful for covering a lot of ground across the Bible and avoiding some of the less compelling parts of our sacred texts (cubits, anyone?). However, we miss out on fully appreciating the flow, internal logic, and experience of reading one book all at once.
Binge Reading Mark
Last summer, my church hosted a gathering where we read the Gospel of Mark together, as a group, out loud, all at once. In short, we decided to binge-read all the episodes of Mark in one night. We gathered in the parsonage with about thirty people squeezed into an oddly-shaped circle (you could just as easily do this on a Zoom gathering), and read the Gospel together. We picked Mark because it was the shortest of the Gospels and we could read through it in one evening.
Here’s how the evening flowed for us.
Once everyone had arrived, I divided the number of verses in the Gospel of Mark (678) by the number of participants present (around 30), so each person was asked to read around 22 verses. We went around the circle, reading 11 verses at a time, so each person would read from the early and latter parts of the Gospel.
To start, we watched the following video, which is an excellent summary of the Gospel of Mark by The Bible Project. They have even more information on their website.
Then, I highlighted some of the key facts and themes to Mark’s Gospel, so we knew some things to look for.
Quick Facts About the Gospel of Mark
- It is the oldest Gospel, written around 70CE
- It is the shortest Gospel, composed of 16 chapters, 678 verses, and 11,304 words
- The author, Mark, was believed to be John Mark, interpreter of Peter, a disciple of Paul, possibly located in Southern Syria or possibly Rome
- It is used as a common source by the Gospel writers of Matthew and Luke
Key Themes in the Gospel of Mark
- The Messianic Secret
- Jesus’ Identity: “Who Do You Say That I Am?”
- Frequent use of “immediately” — the action moves swiftly
- The blindness of the disciples
- Expanding Mission from Galilee (1:14-6:13), to Beyond Galilee (6:14-8:26), from Caesarea-Philippi to Jerusalem (8:27-10:52) and Jerusalem (11:1-16:8)
- Faith in a time of crisis (little apocalypse of Mark 13)
- Shorter (16:1-8) and Longer Endings (16:9-20)
Note: An introduction to Mark in a Study Bible will provide most of the background on these facts and themes that you need. The Oxford Companion to the Bible is another good resource. The Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has published helpful suggestions on offering a public reading of the Gospel of Mark in this excellent document.
With the stage set, we started taking turns reading out, in the spirit of the earliest believers, who passed these sacred stories down as an oral tradition and only later compiled them in written form.
We took an intermission after Chapter 8, the half way point, to stretch our legs, snack, and visit. At that point, I asked for any observations on what we had read. I did that again at the end of the night.
People commented on the repetition, for example in the early healing stories, and the immediacy and urgency with which Mark brings us through the story.
In my favorite part of the night, we also noticed the humor. We all laughed out loud at Mark 8:14-21, which does not even appear in the Revised Common Lectionary. Jesus has just fed 4,000 people with seven loaves. Afterward, they get back in the boat for their next destination when the disciples realize they didn’t bring any food, and they are freaking out. Jesus becomes aware of it:
“He said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’
We laughed out loud because we could feel Jesus’ frustration after performing these miracles, journeying with the disciples, and his exasperation that they still didn’t understand.
Hosting a reading night was a great experience for us. Almost no one who was there had read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end, and certainly not out loud.
It connected us with the overarching story of Jesus and to each other. It, as Mark had hoped, evangelized us, bringing into a closer encounter with Jesus, and into a deeper affection for our Biblical tradition.