To combine art and ministry--to stand balanced between them--is a challenge Wright seems to find at once inviting and fraught with aesthetic peril. Which is perhaps why this first experiment is no original text, but a textual interpretation, and not much of one at that. Wright will wear no costume, depend on no other actor or prop, provide no added drama beyond that of his voice reciting Mark's words from memory. He will introduce the book with a few comments on when it's believed to have been written (it predates Matthew and Luke) and by whom.
"I'll also make it clear that I'm not changing anything," he adds. "A lot of this stuff, when you say it, sounds so normal and natural, or funny, and people think, 'Oh, he must've thrown that in.'"
Lest I imagine that Wright's faithful adherence to the text comes from a lack of insight, he eagerly unveils more theories than I'd ever want to know about symbolic fig trees and some textual controversy called the Markan Secret (don't ask; I did).
What he wants, he declares, is for people to hear the words for themselves: "When you come to the Parables, it says: 'Again, Jesus went out to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables.'" Setting aside his performer voice, Wright says enthusiastically, "The minute he starts to speak to them in metaphors, he's speaking to them across the water. That's a very elegant image: The waves of the water between them becoming the waves of interpretive distance that allow people to hear things the way they want to hear them, to add their own contributions in their hearing. That's what metaphor does: Metaphor invites, it doesn't limit."
Bandying biblical exegesis with Wright, I begin to see how a writer, an artist, could become consumed with what is simply--or not so simply--a very old story. It's his belief that the Judeo-Christian tradition lies in people's creative engagement with 1) the Bible, and 2) the history of previous people's creative engagements with the Bible. Those ancient words themselves, Wright would say, represent an artist's work--many artists' work, in fact. The primary Christian text is a postmodern invention, in that it contains multiple, contradictory viewpoints, no one of which is solely true. The New Testament isn't content with one Gospel's truths about Jesus; it offers four. "We didn't write four constitutions!" Wright jokes.
Then Wright starts to tell me something his son said, and I think, "Ah yes, here's the minister's best friend, the topical, grounding anecdote." Really, though, I'm not feeling preached at. Wright exudes such a contagious intellectual excitement that he never seems like some condescending priest or chummy youth-group counselor. But back to the story: After Wright had explained the origin of the name Minneapolis, his son asked what St. Paul meant. "I told him, 'Well, it's named after the guy who wrote most of the New Testament.' And my son said, 'So you're telling me Paul finished a book that Moses started?' 'Yeah.' 'So we could add more to it if we wanted.' 'Uh huh.' Then he said, 'There probably wouldn't be so many diahs in the new parts.' I looked at him. 'Well, you know, Zedekiah, Jedidiah. It would probably be more like Bob, Steve, Mike.'" Wright flashes that pleased dad look. "I said, 'Good point.'"
The Jesus of Mark is likewise portrayed as someone moved and affected by other people. "He's not sliding through the world in a divine condom," Wright says. Sly eyes wait for my laugh. "I think for some people who are in really dire straits, a savior who's perfect--who can just reach down and pull you up--is quite helpful. And there we have the Jesus of John or Luke. But for a lot of us whose problems have more to do with self-actualization, it's more helpful to think that as we're stumbling around, God is stumbling, too. That it's a journey to become divinity incarnate in human flesh. So when we're confused, and we're learning, we don't have to see that as an aberration or a step off the path. That is the path."
Confusion has been built even into Mark's text, Wright stresses. "There's no argument put forth that isn't immediately tempered by its own opposite. More than telling you what to think, it tends to invite you to teeter on your own, shifting between poles of interpretation. And to have to think about it.
"I'm not saying that this book can be turned into a feel-good message for everybody," Wright advises emphatically; I've complained about this Jesus's harsher extremes, up to and including a promise of eternal damnation for those who doubt his divinity. "You can't agree with everybody. You have to claim some existential ground on this earth. Maybe you don't want to accept the parameters that Christianity offers, but you're going to choose some other parameters. And then it's not so much a question of your being damned by God: If you got an invitation to a party in heaven and thought it was from hell, you just wouldn't show up. But you can't live without choosing, I'll say that."