Mark and The Mountain Goats

The more I study and write about Mark’s Gospel, the more convinced I become that Howard Clark Kee was really on to something when he likened Mark to a fugue.[1] A fugue, for those (like myself) who are not musically-trained, is a compositional technique that introduces a theme early on in the piece and repeatedly returns to it later, oftentimes with significant variation. The author of Mark uses a strikingly similar technique in his storytelling. At the outset of Mark’s story, the audience is introduced to the narrative’s theme as the Markan storyteller fills them in on what they need to know about the story’s protagonist: he is the Messiah [and son of God] and his central aim is to proclaim and enact the good news of God by living and spreading God’s rule on Earth. You get this—all of it—in the first sixteen verses of Mark 1. Mark introduces the theme, and what follows in the bulk of the narrative is simply repetition and variation. From 1:15-16:8 the story revisits and builds upon this theme, layering, defining and re-defining what the theme actually means: by the time the audience gets to the end of Mark’s story, their knowledge of who Jesus is and what his message entails has not been fundamentally altered. It has, however, been built upon; on the other side of the cross, at the empty tomb, and at the end of the story, the audience knows the theme in all its fullness.

After taking a course, writing two papers, leading a six-month bible study at church, and reading Mark “cover to cover” multiple times, I think I finally got my mind around the narrative one night as a friend and I were driving to Chicago. About an hour outside of the city we began listening to The Mountain Goats’ The Life of the World to Come. It’s a brilliant album from start to finish, but one song in particular stands above the rest as my favorite, “Deuteronomy 2:10.” In this song, John Darnielle (the lead singer and songwriter of TMG) introduces a theme early on and repeatedly returns to it and builds upon it until the audience hears the theme in its fullness at the end. I’ll not ruin the beauty of either the song or Mark’s story by explaining their similarities to death. I hope you hear what I hear in both of them.


 


[1] Howard Clark Kee, Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia, Westminster, 1977), 75.

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