In “Through Mark’s Eyes,” an Episcopal priest retells the Gospel that brings us closest to the historical Jesus.
By Astrid Storm
The cover of “Through Mark’s Eyes,” Episcopal priest Puck Purnell’s creative retelling of Mark’s Gospel, features a mysterious pair of eyes on a crackled canvas—obviously evocative of the cover of the best-selling book, “The DaVinci Code.” It’s an annoying marketing gimmick because “Through Mark’s Eyes” is based on a Gospel that had been enjoying something of a renaissance long before Dan Brown ever came along. As the oldest of the canonical and non-canonical Gospels, and the first narrative of Jesus’ life that we know of—preceded only by Paul’s letters and theological tomes and, possibly, some abstract sayings of Jesus—it appeals to many people because it brings us closer to the historical Jesus than any other surviving text.
Mark’s Gospel is known for its simple, laconic prose, its narrative economy, its refusal to spell everything out for the reader, and its very human portrayal of Jesus and the disciples. It’s no surprise that it has been analyzed inside and out over the past 30 years by narrative, source, redaction, and historical critics, and was adapted for the stage not once, but twice—by the renowned Shakespearean actor Alec McGowan, and actor Frank Runyeon. It even has its own graphic novel, Marked.
But invoking “The DaVinci Code” to sell this book is not only annoying—it’s also misleading. After all, what makes “Through Mark’s Eyes” so good is that it hews closely to the Gospel of Mark and (but for one unfortunate exception, to which I’ll return later) doesn’t resort to trendy, non-canonical ideas about Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene, his progeny, or shadowy secret societies that have been keeping this information in locked underground vaults somewhere way off in Scotland. This is simply a re-telling of Mark’s Gospel that, when it comes right down to it, isn’t all that different from the original. And that's to its credit.
“Through Mark’s Eyes” is laid out, just like Mark’s Gospel, in 16 chapters. Like Mark’s Gospel, it begins with John the Baptist’s mission in the wilderness, ends with the women running away from the tomb, and contains everything in between that is contained in Mark’s Gospel—the calling of the disciples, the miracles, the mid-point transition into the suffering Messiah motif, the tests of the Pharisees, Jesus’ bizarre chapter-long apocalyptic discourse, and the trial and crucifixion. It also adheres closely to the style of Mark’s Gospel, with its short sentences, narrative present tense, and abrupt transitions. Its pace is fast, its characters flawed and human, and its ending bafflingly unfinished—all like Mark’s Gospel.
What makes “Through Mark’s Eyes” unique are Purnell’s own elaborations of events and places, as well as of the characters and their responses, movements, and dialogue. In fact, it might be more helpful to describe it not so much as re-telling as a magnification of what’s already there.
Take, for instance, Purnell’s portrayal of the Gospel’s characters. Jesus laughs, pushes his long fingers through his oily hair, blinks back tears, gets tired, and snaps at his apostles, sips wine between parables, brushes a fly off his nose, sweats, and smells. Peter spits a bug out of his mouth at the Transfiguration, and his stomach gurgles at the raising of Jairus' daughter. The Gerasene demoniac smells of vomit, excrement, and garlic. John the Baptist’s honey-soaked beard teems with insects. Pontius Pilate’s ankles are fat and white.
So, too, with objects and places; from the interior of the temple to Jesus’ home in Nazareth—it’s a mud-brick house on a narrow, back street—very little escapes Purnell’s powers of observation. Even the donkey Jesus rides into Jerusalem on gets some added attention, as do the surroundings as the Pharisees wind their way through the crowd:
If the blunt physicality of Mark’s Gospel hasn’t grabbed you lately, it will here, with passages like this. And it’s the same with other aspects of Mark’s Gospel that you may have forgotten—like its major turning point in chapter eight. A quick read-through of the original and you might miss it. But in Purnell’s book, you can’t:
It’s no easy task Purnell set out for himself, augmenting a Gospel that is celebrated for its austerity. But he manages to make it work by sticking close to the story and practicing restraint, thus making it seem as though his observations aren’t anything Mark wouldn’t have added himself.
The only place the book doesn’t succeed is when it veers away from the story at the very end. Everyone knows that the conclusion of Mark’s Gospel is mysteriously abrupt, with the frightened women running away from the tomb early in the morning. Purnell keeps to that, but he also puts a five-petal rose in Mary’s Magdalene’s hand—mentioning it not only once, but twice. Sure, the five-petal rose may have multiple meanings in the Christian iconographic tradition, but who since “The DaVinci Code” isn’t going to connect it with Mary Magdalene’s alleged status as Jesus’ wife and/or the mother of his children?
And Mary Magdalene is described as having “thick, lush, red hair” —hair that, in Christian history, has often been associated with her (trumped up) wayward sexuality. These unnecessary additions are so out of sync with Mark’s Gospel and the rest of “Through Mark’s Eyes” that I couldn’t help but suspect that a marketing person, and not Purnell, was behind them.
Ending notwithstanding, this is a beautiful book, and well-worth the read. If the “DaVinci Code”-like cover makes any sense at all, it’s because Puck Purnell manages to give a new spin to Mark’s well-worn Gospel, making it seem as fresh as some of those recently discovered non-canonical texts. At least it was that way for me, and I would guess it will be the same for even the most seasoned pastors, scholars, and readers of all types. Maybe now, with such a good book, Father Purnell’s publisher won’t have to resort to gimmicks to sell his next one.
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Astrid Storm is the Curate at Grace Church in New York City. Her last review for SoMA was Lauren Winner: Reformed Sinner or Canny Opportunist?
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