Review of Raquel St. Clair’s Call and Consequences

Review of St. Clair, Raquel A. Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark. Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress Press, 2008.

The person of Jesus is of great importance to many African American women. He reveals God, and is a co-sufferer with them. This becomes problematic, however, when that suffering is understood as ordained by God for the sake of others. If discipleship entails following Jesus into similar suffering, Christianity can only enforce the status quo in which African American women suffer in service to the good of others.

While Markan scholars have examined the suffering of Jesus, it has often been divorced from his life, on the one hand, and from discipleship on the other. Also, insufficient attention has been given to the difference between agony that is transformative (what St. Clair calls pain) and agony that is simply ongoing (what she calls suffering). Pain, ultimately, is “the named, recognized agony that comes as a temporary result of life-affirming ministry” (162). St. Clair constructs a sociolinguistic methodology based primarily on Blout and Chatman which allows her to incorporate a narrative analysis that takes its cues from the context of the Second Gospel with the questions provided by womanist theology.

In Chapter 4, St. Clair establishes contexts from which to interpret Mark. She concludes that Mark was most likely composed in “a village in southern Syria near the Galilean border shortly after the fall of the Jerusalem temple” (95). I am concerned that the text does not offer enough support for such precision especially since St. Clair does not provide a methodology for her assumption that the characters in the Gospel reflect the Gospel audience (103). However, her conclusion to this chapter (107-108) is stunning in its clarity as it highlights the elements of her assumed original readership that parallel the cultural context of African American women.

Chapter 5, the longest chapter, contains her analysis of Mark 8:31-34. She suggests that Peter (v. 32) does not rebuke Jesus, as some scholar suppose, because he misunderstands the nature of Jesus’ messiahship by leaving out the need for suffering. He has, instead, correctly apprehended Jesus’ identity because of his life-affirming ministry. St. Clair points out that there is no agony inherent in Jesus’ ministry itself (132-33). In fact, “[t]he primary connection Mark makes between ministry and agony prior to 8:31 is to show that Jesus’ ministry is characterized by eradicating the agony of others” (161). And because Jesus’ ministry is affirmed by God, “the alleviation of agony” is his will (164). In Mark 5:26, for example, the woman with the flow of blood exercises “life-sustaining behavior on behalf of herself” (122) which ultimately is confirmed and brought to fruition by Jesus’ healing.

Instead, Peter rejects agony as “the consequences of Jesus’ messianic ministry” (113). Yet Mark 8:31 lists “the elders, chief priests, and scribes” (120), and these should be seen as the agents of Jesus’ pain, not God. God, rather, is the one who allows the pain that is inevitable given the resistance to Jesus’ ministry but redeems Jesus’ honor through the resurrection (120-27). The agony that Jesus endures (based on St. Clair’s analysis of Mark 3:4-6; p. 119) will be both physical—the cross—and social—shame (119). She weaves in the relationship of the text to the concerns of womanist scholars by pointing out that “[t]he existential dimension of agony identified by womanists corresponds to the social dimension of shame identified by New Testament scholars. The physical dimension of agony corresponds to the physical dimension of shame” (121).

In another important section, St. Clair argues that the self-denial required of disciples (Mark 8:34) cannot be understood as the individualistic denial of one’s own needs that Western culture would assume it to be. It is, instead, the denial of one’s duty to family or class that would have been the center of one’s identity in the Mediterranean world (133-36). “Read within this context, the command to deny oneself is a command to relinquish one’s primary group orientation and accept Jesus and his followers as one’s new group” (135). “Therefore, the call to follow Jesus is a call to reorient their perspective and affirm Jesus’ honor system. Rather than seeking the honor that the religious rulers and other elite members of society have the power and authority to ascribe, they must seek the only true honor—that which God bestows through Jesus” (139; see also 160). To deny oneself means that disciples “must be prepared to deny their claims to worth based on their initial group membership. They must choose association with Jesus as their primary group, even at the risk of being rejected and therefore shamed” (161). Thus, “following Jesus results in the sharing of his shame and his honor” (140). This honor come from God, but will only be visible to others at some future time (13:32) (143; 162). All of this coheres quite well with the social scientific analyses of the Bible of scholars such as J. Brian Tucker with whom I work.

St. Clair’s conclusions disassociate agony from discipleship and therefore from ministry (160). All suffering is not carrying our cross (8:34). However, self-denial (i.e. denying oneself the honor one might otherwise pursue) and pain come as a result of Satan’s resistance to the work of disciples, their ministry (162-63). “Since pain is one of the consequences of discipleship, only the agony that we endure as a result of life-affirming, God-glorifying, agony-eradicating ministry is analogous to what Jesus experienced and can be identified as a cross

This book is extremely helpful in counteracting one prevailing model of discipleship that fails to address the suffering of Christians (particularly the suffering of marginalized groups) because of the mistaken belief that any and all suffering is evidence of discipleship and that the call of the Christian is to bear it gladly. St. Clair provides the exegetical analysis that undergirds a call to action, a call to a discipleship that instead works to alleviate the suffering of others and accepts social shame because of the honor that God provides. I recommend this book as a vital resource to any scholar of Mark and to every Christian leader.

I do have a few quibbles and concerns:

I believe Gundry’s insights are incorrectly applied on p. 111 to conclude that Mark 8:31 signifies that Jesus is teaching something new. I also believe that pathein and anastēnai are only co-extensive because of the dei (125) which extends to the other infinitives in Mark 8:31 as well. I am not convinced of Neyrey’s analysis of nakedness, cited on p. 137, but that does not annul St. Clair’s argument that crucifixion was shameful. I am concerned that her section on “The Tenor of Discourse” (144-58) links “Pharisees, Herodians, scribes, chief priests, elders, Satan, and, eventually, the crowds” (158) in a way that opens the door to anti-Semitism (and I am not convinced by the references that Mark 1:24 and 5:9 show Jesus encroaching on the social space of the scribes and the Romans; p. 146). On p. 112, she seems to be contrasting interpretations of v. 32 with interpretations of v. 30, although she does eventually get to v. 32. And I was not convinced by her analysis of dei in Mark 14:31 because she omits attention to the conditional in that sentence (114). There were occasional missing words and typos, including the missing word “beginning” on p. 111, line 11, and I believe “physical dimension” should be “social dimension” on p. 138, line 18. However, none of these notes are meant to detract from my deep appreciation for this work. I will be recommending it to everyone I know.