I guess because I grew up hearing sermons in church, I spent a large part of my life thinking of a sermon as primarily an oral presentation, rather than a written document first. When I began to preach with some regularity that perspective changed. I found I was a better preacher once I learned a sermon was a written document first – I needed to have worked out what I was going to say – and then an oral presentation.
When I was teaching high school in Boston to classes with seventy percent or more nonnative English speakers, I was daunted by the fact that Shakespeare was part of the curriculum. Most of the kids had trouble with modern English; how were they going to understand what Will wrote? I went to a workshop on teaching Shakespeare and was reminded that, though we were handing the play to the kids in book form, a play is intended to be performed, not read. Over the years, I taught the kids how to choreograph a swordfight on stage, how to figure out what was happening in a scene. From the opening line, we acted the play out in class and the language came alive. They got it. I did, too.
This morning, Ginger and I drove to Greensboro for a meeting of Baptist professors of religion who were gathering prior to a larger convention. Dalen Jackson, president of the group, had invited Ginger to do the devotion for the group at the beginning of their session. I went along for the ride. After the devotion, we hung around to hear Dalen’s paper, “’Clumsy Mark’ Again? Mark’s Gospel as the Transcription of Peter’s Public Performance of the Gospel Story.” It has been awhile since I got to be in on an academic discussion, and I learned something.
At the heart of Dalen’s paper was a discussion of performance criticism, which was new to me. He used a quote to describe the idea:
A performance was an integral part of every early Christian experience of the compositions that now comprise the writings of the New Testament. The New Testament writings were either written “transcriptions” of oral narratives composed in performance or they were composed in writing (perhaps orally by dictation) for use in oral performance.
I’ve always thought of the Bible as a book (more of an anthology, I guess). My experience with it is primarily in print. What Dalen taught me today was the gospels, along with most of the rest of it, were just the opposite of my sermons: oral before they were written. They were more like Shakespeare’s plays: intended to be performed, because that is how they were created.
Reading the gospels, for me, is sometimes like reading email messages in that tone is often hard to convey. Here’s one of the passages from Mark that I wonder about, for instance, Mark 3:31-35:
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
How did Jesus ask who his family was? It’s not an easy answer – by that I mean this doesn’t feel much like a Hallmark card moment to me. The tone we infuse into the words makes a difference in how they can be interpreted. If the words stay in the two dimensional world of the page, tone stays out of reach, because it needs the three dimensional world of performance to have room to move. In a time before books, that’s how the stories got told. If we want to get to the heart of the stories, then we have to let them live off of the page; we have to incarnate them, if you will – perform them.
My favorite liturgist at church is a person named Suzanne. When she reads scripture she does It from memory. She tells us the story. She is a part of the Network of Biblical Storytellers who already know what Dalen is talking about, though they get to it down a different path. Rather than connecting back with long ago, they are looking at present trends. They describe themselves by saying, “We bring God’s stories to life for a post-literate, digital age.” Whatever the age, they are on to something: the gospel story is a living, breathing thing, not something static trapped between book covers. These are stories to be read (aloud) and wrestled with, to be talked about and talked through, to be performed and remembered.
My friend Beth is an actor in California. She wrote me the other day about a character she is going to play in an upcoming performance because there were some theological issues in her character’s background that were more akin to mine as a Christian than to Beth’s, who is Jewish. Our discussion was both fun and meaningful to me, in part, because I got to learn something about how Beth, as an actor, goes through the process of becoming a character, learning about her and then climbing inside her skin for the two hours she is on stage. It reminds me of one of the earliest and still most meaningful explanations of the Incarnation given to me along the way: Jesus was God with skin on. Jesus stepped into the human story as one of us.
Dalen’s invitation, as I heard it today, was for us to step into Jesus’ story by climbing inside its skin, if you will. The dictionary says the word perform comes from old words that mean to alter and to accomplish. When we tell the story – when we perform it – we alter it by breathing life into it again and we accomplish the task of letting it come alive in us.
I had fun learning today.