Our first advice is that you read this gospel naked. That's right. Strip. Get nude. Then you'll be ready.
Hold on there. We're not talking about stripping off your clothes—just your expectations. Everything that comes to mind when anyone utters words like Jesus, Mary, Peter, Christianity, gospels, Christian—take it all off.
Only in the buff will we be ready to recognize how utterly different Mark's world was from ours. For starters, Christianity was not a major religion as it is today. Nope it was just a little group in a big Roman Empire.
Christianity was also a very weird religion, making an astoundingly ridiculous claim. We're supposed to believe that some guy named Jesus from a village of rednecks in the hick-state of Galilee is the Messiah who's going to repair the whole of this stupid, little, mean world. And get this…Jesus was executed by the Roman government for criminal activity. These would be among the dumbest things some Romans, Greeks, and Jews had ever heard.
So Mark's big challenge number one is to tell the story of Jesus in a way that convinces people that a crucified Messiah is worth something to them.
That's not all. Mark also lived in a world that was not always hospitable to Christians. These people had it rough in the early years of the movement, and Mark wrote right in the midst of all of this, right around the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70. He was probably in Rome, Syria, or another region neighboring Judea—but that that's up for (heated) debate.
What does this all mean? Well, Mark's big challenge number two is to tell the story of Jesus in a way that would address the fact that life as his follower was pretty darn difficult. That life lacked the things most of us want and need to be happy—think safety and security or a bit of status and the respect of our friends, family, and compatriots.
Tradition, of course, gives us many different answers to questions of location, date, and purpose, and sometimes offers little gems of trustworthy information. But remember, we are buck-naked readers, totally nude. In our birthday suits, we'll keep ourselves in the loop about Mark and what he was all about.
This one's not your grandma's gospel. You love her dearly—and we're sure we would, too—but still she probably likes the other three New Testament gospels better.
Why, you ask? Let's just say that Mark is prickly. He'll make Grams ask questions that just don't have easy answers.
Only in Mark will you be forced to come to terms with disciples who are utter washouts, who fail to understand this strange God-man Jesus at every turn, who are scared of his uncanny powers, who abandon him, and who violently weep over their failures (14:72).
Want more? Well, we can do you one better: reading Luke or John won't put you face-to-face with a Jesus who accuses God of forsaking him on the cross (15:34). That's right—in Mark, Jesus calls God out. On the cross. Yowza.
With all the craziness doing down in the world these days, we're pretty sure religious people everywhere are asking, "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (15:34). Replace "God" with "world," and it works for the non-religious, too.
It may help to think of this gospel as the independent film that appears at the Sundance Film Festival while the other three are the Hollywood blockbusters. And we have to admit, we love us some Sundance—the flicks there are different, a little peculiar, and allow us to think about our own unhinged (and unhinging) world.
Really, you should ask your grandma which of the gospels is her favorite. You never know. Many of us have exceedingly cool and savvy grandmas who will love to hear all about why Mark is such an oddball.