Gospel of Mark performance (Guest post from Richard Spalding)

March 17, 2006

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…” It was as though those few words grabbed the affable Bert Marshall by the lapel of his tunic and pulled him into the gravitational sphere of a narrative that is both deeply familiar and utterly strange, even shocking. For the next two hours the unfolding story seemed to be a presence of its own in the darkened Great Room of Goodrich Hall at Williams – with Marshall not so much telling it as circumnavigating it, transfixed in its mystery, and with the audience held too in the field of attraction.

Maybe the particular energy of the evening was released by the fusion of the familiar and the unknown. Most people know the basic trajectory of the story – from the fishermen leaving their nets to follow, to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, to the ominous political/religious rumblings and the gruesome death. But no one knows who “Mark” really was. No one knows why this gospel was written – or when – or for whom. No one knows why it ends in the quite particular way that it does. And no one knows why it is that the narrative seems to be charged with astonishment – why the storyteller seems not to know where it’s leading, why he startles himself with the word “immediately” time and time again when the Mystery touches down in the middle of ordinary life.

On the other hand, just about everybody knows Bert Marshall – or is getting to know him – or should. He’s been the pastor of the Congregational Church in Lee for almost a decade. Before that he was a dairy farmer, an innkeeper, a truck driver, and a rock and roll musician. Maybe its not so much the story that’s holy or the text that’s sacred so much as it is the meeting of the familiar and the mysterious, the confluence of the known and the unknowable.

Bert is a commanding figure, even when he’s in the thrall of an ancient story whose power dwarfs him. And for the most part he keeps the magnitude of his achievement with this material backstage. But every so often it occurs to you to marvel at the sheer audacity of it: how he took a three month sabbatical, a year or so ago, and made a kind of pilgrimage to Halifax, Nova Scotia – where he rented an apartment and proceded to memorize every word of the 16 chapters of text. Along the way, he also seems to have swallowed great quantities of humanity, hope and light – because they all come tumbling out as he tells the story. As you watch and listen, you feel as though you’re meeting a new friend you’ve known forever – or, as theologian Marcus Borg has it, “meeting Jesus again for the first time.”.

The shock of the ending of the Gospel of Mark is perhaps its most striking feature. To me the broken, fragmentary ending is one of the holiest moments I know in all of literature:

When [the three women] looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Actually the Greek text is even more abrupt: it reads, more or less literally, “…and they fled from the tomb, for trembling and amazement siezed them – and no one nothing they told, afraid because – ” Why? What urgent need or fear compelled the author to drop the pen before telling us what to make of the astonishing news that terrified them in the midst of death? Bert Marshall simply let the word fall – “because…” – and then paused, waiting to see what the silence after it fell sounded like. Then he walked from the stage, leaving the broken piece of story stuck in our minds. Exactly as was intended from the beginning – “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”


Our first reading at the Mill

March 11, 2006

Last week’s reading was amazing. Fantastic work, read in a beautiful space, surrounded by wonderful art — exactly the kind of cross-genre collaboration I imagined when I first heard that the Eclipse Mill was going to become a reality.

Here’s what the space looked like before anyone got there:

And here’s what it looked like once it filled up:

Here’s our two readers talking before the event:

Jill read first, an excerpt from a terrific short story that brought the weird religious world of snakehandling to life.

And then Andrea read from her new novel-in-progress, set in the early 20th century in a sanitorium. It was fascinating and gripping, and predictably I want to read the whole thing now. Only trouble is, she hasn’t written it all yet.

Afterwards we had a wine and cheese reception. One of the Mill residents told me she felt our event had finally inaugurated their gallery in the way she had dreamed of, which made me really happy.

Reflections sparked by a busy time (Guest post from Emily Banner)

March 3, 2006

Usually here at Inkberry, we try to space our readings out a bit. We’ll have three or four events per season, and a season lasts four months, so we aim to spread our events over that period so as not to stretch ourselves or our audience too thin.

Well, this time we’ve got events three weeks in a row, boom boom boom. As I’m the one who books our reading series, there’s nobody to blame for this but myself.

Fortunately, they’re three incredibly diverse events, quite literally ranging from the sacred to the profane. At the more secular end of the spectrum was last week’s visit from John Dicker, journalist and author of The United States of Wal-Mart.

Thanks to generous support from a consortium of different groups at Williams College (the Lehman Council for Community Service, Students for Social Justice, the Green Party, and the college Chaplains’ Office), as well as the English Department at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, John spoke at both campuses last weekend, talking candidly about his research process, the trials and tribulations of writing about the world’s largest retailer, and most importantly, Wal-Mart itself.

With a charismatic combination of wit and analysis, John answered questions on everything from Sam Walton’s folksy legacy, to how Wal-Mart is likely to develop over the next ten or twenty years, to how (if ever) the company could be stopped – making it clear just why the Montreal Mirror reviewed his first book as “an unusually entertaining and readable account of a normally depressing subject.”

His events were a particular treat for me, since John has been a friend of mine since the late ’90s, when we met in a writing workshop back in Brooklyn. At the time we were both trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives; I dreamed of being a novelist, and he didn’t know if he wanted to be a writer or a labor organizer or what. Reconnecting last weekend, as I watched him talk about the future of globalism, unions, and grassroots politics – at events coordinated by the nonprofit organization I co-founded to promote the literary arts in the region I now know as home – I couldn’t have asked for a more vivid demonstration of how far we’ve all come.

Talking about John Dicker

March 3, 2006

Avid Inkberryphiles may remember that we brought John Dicker, author of The United States of Wal-Mart, here last week; we presented him in a pair of events at Williams College and MCLA. His visit got some good press, which is exciting.

John’s visit was blogged in advance here at greylocknews, and there’s a great writeup by Andrew McKeever in the MCLA Beacon.

The Beacon article — called Union Blues — includes a color photo of John speaking at Smith House, and offers some terrific quotes from John’s talk.

“Wal-Mart doesn’t care what people who don’t shop there think,” said Dicker. “They totally got into the P.R. game late. They realized that their public image affects the bottom line.”

When asked about the future of Wal-Mart, Dicker stated, “I see them maxing out. I also see them changing their format…”

If you weren’t there and want to get a sense for what you missed, check out the link (we hope to reprint the article in our press archive, but at the moment it’s still online at the Beacon site, so you can check it out there.) Thanks for the press, guys!