Book Review: The African Memory of Mark

Thomas Oden writes books that invite me into a wild old world. He grapples with church history and patristic theology in a way that's rich and fresh and vibrant.

I picked up The African Memory of Mark at the Urbana bookstore. I only had a few minutes to browse the bookstore at Urbana. This book called my name. I've very glad it did.

The ancient church in Africa has been telling stories about John Mark for millennia. We know him as the author of the Gospel of Mark. The African church knows him as a Libyian church planter: born in Cyrene to Jewish exiles, returned to Jerusalem, folded into the early church through his relatives. They talk about how Mark traveled with Peter, founded the church in Alexandria and died a martyr's death.

The African Memory of Mark is, on the surface, an exercise in post-critical theology. Oden dismantles the Western critics of the Markan narrative. Western critics dismiss the African stories about Mark as folk stories and point to the lack of physical evidence to back it up. But Oden points out that the stories must have originated somewhere, that they originated early, that they originated in unexpected places. And he points out that these stories have inspired faithfulness for generations in the African church. We should pay attention to them.

Reading this book did two things for me:

The African Memory of Mark energized and inspired me. It includes the biography of this brilliant man who loved to tell stories and was completely convinced that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God. Though he lived thousands of years ago, I see something special in his ministry. He passed along stories about Jesus to people who needed to hear them. He cared deeply about the people God placed in his life. He used his education in creative and unexpected ways. I would love to be like Mark.

Inspiration is easy to explain and understand. The second benefit I received from reading this book is a little more difficult to quantify.

The temptation, when you're in ministry and are reading books, is to select books that equip and arm you for ministry. Books on strategy. Books on teamwork. Even books on theology. Piles and piles of books can fill a pastor's shelf and a missionary's bedside table. A stack of utility reaching for the ceiling.

The African Memory of Mark provided me with very little tangible utility. There was no direction on preaching. No ministry innovation. No new nugget of theology. Just mental exercise. Good arguments laid out clearly. Food for the learner in me.

Do you ever read just to learn?

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