Mark of a Non-Realist: A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel by Ian J. Cairns
Published 2004 by Fraser Books, Chamberlain Rd, Masterton RD8, New Zealand
Reviewed by Noel Cheer
Born in 1930 in Ashburton, the Very Rev Ian Joseph Cairns was ordained in 1959. He was a scholar and teacher in classics, biblical and Islamic studies. With his wife, Mae, Ian spent 20 years in Indonesia, both as a teacher and as a chaplain. As well as being a parish minister, Dr. Cairns was, in 1984, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand where he was an advocate for for gay and lesbian people during the homosexual law reform debates of that time.
Ian and Mae were foundation members of the Dunedin Branch of the Sea of Faith Network. In this book, Ian records "a major milestone" when, in 1993, he attended a day-seminar conducted by Don Cupitt. This helped to persuade Ian that "following Jesus" did not entail "copying Jesus". It also persuaded Ian that Jesus, like each of us, was a "child of his time" and that Jesus would have held attitudes and beliefs that we no longer do. The use of "non-realist" in the book title is justified by Ian when he writes, "Jesus was in all probability a realist ... [and that] ... requires me to translate the which he shared with his generation, into the non-realism which I share with mine." The gospel writer, Mark, also would have been a realist but nevertheless, what he wrote is still of value. Incidentally, referring to this gospel as "the second" is out of step with modern liberal and radical scholarship which refers to the 'priority of Mark', it being drawn on by the authors of 'Matthew' and 'Luke'. However, the gospel in question is placed second in traditional New Testament collections.
Ian had finished this book by the time of his death in 2000 but had not had the opportunity to revise it. Nevertheless it reads fluently and shows a wealth of scholarship. Obvious comparisons could be made with the work of The Jesus Seminar (which he cites appreciately on several occasions) and the New Testament translations done by Jim Veitch, both a decade or so ago. These are attempts to "get the record right", while Ian Cairns is trying to use postModernist principles of de-construction in order to re-construct the essence of Jesus' teaching to fit the knowledge and the vocabulary of today: making the record address today's world and its needs. We may see something similar in present-day attempts to so analyse myths as to 'break' (Tillich's term) them or, following Richard Holloway, to 'break them open' (think of an egg), extract the valuable interiors and then serve them up in more appropriate dishes.
Ian does this with his frequent translations of the biblical idiom into the non-realist idiom. So, we see on page 8 'repentance' (and the Greek 'metanoia') rendered as 'leaving an old mind-set behind, and re-ordering one's priorities from a new perspective, a new way of looking at things'. On page 16 the support that Jesus received from 'an angel from heaven' is understood as 'Jesus' inner resources'. On page 19 the 'torn heavens' of Mk 1:10 and Rev 6:14-16 are seen as 'symbolic of direct, unmediated apprehension of reality". The testing in the wilderness (page 25) becomes 'priority-setting time' and meditative prayer (page 23) is 'community-oriented-solitude ... communing, not with "Abba" but with life's totality.' With that promotion of 'life', one expects that Ian would have welcomed Don Cupitt's "Life, Life" published in 2003.
The two major themes of resurrection and Kingdom are reconstructed non-realistically.
A non-realist reading of the resurrection of Jesus becomes (p129) the persistence into our time of the record of his life and the example that has inspired millions. Death didn't get the last word.
The 'Kingdom' (recently given a drubbing at the NZ Sea of Faith Conference by David Boulton who insists on a 'Republic') is called variously 'Commonwealth' and 'Kin-dom', both more-or-less successful attempts to remove notions of hierarchy. But whether Kingdon, Commonwealth, Kin-dom or Republic, all non-realists would agree that what is of concern is not a place but rather a mode of living, as recommended and exemplified by Jesus.
Some readers may be offended by the freedom of interpretation that Ian assumes. He notes (p92) that Mark's writing shows evidence of 'theologising' and he asserts that the same freedom that Mark had, we have too, and to better effect: “Our reconstructed version may in fact be closer to the actual happenings than is Mark's". And what of Jesus? On page 20 Ian refers to "Jesus' attunedness to life [surely in Cupitt's sense of 'Life, Life'?], his being at peace with himself, with his fellow human beings, and with his total environment ... [which] ... is not in principle unattainable by human beings. What Jesus was, every human being may in principle become." Mentor, exemplar ... but not the saviour of substitutionary atonement.
This book, then, is a bridge between the biblical world and the secular world that has replaced it. If there are gems from that world which may be recovered and brought into our world, it will be through the works of people like Ian Cairns.