Ann Turner Review: The Gospel of Mark Performance
by Ann Turner, Article on Bert Marshall for Crosscurrents

Perhaps if you have been born in a town called “Weeping Water,” it fits you for a life of proclaiming the Gospel. Or—perhaps a long stint as a professional rock musician (Bert’s band opened for “The Who”) gives you a taste for the power and profundity of words. Or, it could be that the many miles spent on the open roads as a truck driver gave Bert Marshall the time to frame his beliefs in words so that others can take them into their hearts. I expect that even a shining career at the Yale Divinity School where he received several prizes merely capped a long preparation for preaching the word.

Whatever the reasons, to hear Bert Marshall proclaim the entire Gospel of Mark from start to finish (a mere two hours long!), is to partake of a sacramental experience, something that lifts us out of ourselves and links us to God’s heart. Those of us who were present on December 14th at the Haydenville UCC witnessed an incredible event—Jesus’ words told and dramatized the way they were probably meant to be almost two thousand years old. No visuals, no distractions, just words—telling of Jesus’ ministry: his baptism by John; the selection of his disciples; the beheading of John the Baptist; the healing of the man with the withered arm and the paralytic let down through the roof; the exorcising of demons; the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000; the astonishing and constant crush of crowds following Christ wherever he was—laying down the sick on pallets at his feet, touching the hem of his cloak to be made well—and then, the disciples.

The disciples do not come off very well in the Gospel of Mark, and Bert Marshall—with his expressions, the pauses for breath, the occasional striding back and forth and arm gestures—clearly showed Jesus’ continuing impatience with the dull-witted disciples. “You STILL don’t get it?” Jesus asks in exasperation. And at the end, when Peter denies Jesus and all the disciples flee, it is almost unbearable.

In the middle of the recitation, Bert took up his guitar and played beautifully, singing a few of Mark’s verses. We sat stiller than stillness itself as Bert began the passion narrative, describing how Christ was beaten and mocked, how he was nailed to the cross, and finally let out a great cry at the end. All during this narration Bert beat loudly on a drum, each beat resounding through the church as we heard the terrible words as Christ approached his death. It was almost unendurable.

The last word of the Gospel of Mark is the word “afraid,” and after uttering it, Bert departed through the door, leaving us in holy silence.
I had to hold Alice Pannoni by the arm and help her out of the sanctuary as her legs didn’t move very well. She kept murmuring, “I’ve never heard anything so wonderful in all of my life! Never!” Her words echoed the sentiments of most of us in the sanctuary that evening.

Bert stayed to answer questions from the audience afterwards, talking about the Gospel, remarking on the fact that there is no infancy narrative and no resurrection narrative. Some used to believe that the front and back of this book had been lost, Bert told us.

His performance capped an intense and fascinating month-long study of the Gospel of Mark with Andrea, where we read through all the chapters, discussed them, and then reread them in the more modern version of “The Message.”

This tiny report hardly begins to encompass what it was like to hear the words of Mark’s Gospel proclaimed in such a direct and powerful way. I suspect that for many of us, we will never quite be the same again. Those words are now lodged within, and I thank Bert for his vision and strength in delivering them to my heart.

Ann Turner, Children's book author and speaker
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Recent Books:
"Hard Hit," Scholastic, winter, 2006: Mark, a 16 year-old skilled pitcher, has to face his father's terminal illness and learn the skills of survival and emotional resilience, along with the help of friends and family. ("Nobody tells you/what it's like/there's no road map/for death...") Starred review, Kirkus****

Coming Fall, 2007:
"Sitting Bull Remembers," HarperCollins: At the end of his life, the great chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux remembers what life used to be, roaming free on the plains, and how it changed when the white men came. Beautiful illustrations by Wendell Minor make this an extraordinary gift book.