Fresh Words: Scripture as Performance (1/2) by Alastair Roberts
I’m very excited to welcome Alastair Roberts as the first guest contributer here! I came across Alastair on twitter and subsequently, his blog, and have been enjoying his thoughtful writing. After spotting a comment he made about the performance nature of scripture, he generously agreed to expand on that idea here. Here is the first of two parts:
There is an expression that I hear from time to time in Christian circles: ‘fresh words’ from God. What interests me about this expression is not so much that to which the expression directly refers, but what it might imply, for these ‘fresh words’ from God tend to be contrasted with the word that we have already been given in the Scriptures.
While those employing the expression may not intend to suggest as much, there is an implication that the Scriptures are not ‘fresh’, but are perhaps somehow ‘stale’. Although they may be dearly loved, they are old, somewhat threadbare, and starting to show their age. For some they may be treated with that curious embarrassed respect usually reserved for relatives in their dotage: they should be accorded honour, but not taken too seriously. They achieved great things in the past, but they are no longer so relevant to where we are now: we badly need something a little more timely and contemporary.
One of the images that can encourage this perception is that of God finishing writing the book of Revelation, putting down his pen, and sending the Bible off to the publishers. Almost two thousand years later we still enjoy the Bible, but wonder whether God has published anything else lately. Within this post I hope to challenge this picture on two fronts. First, I suggest that there are more appropriate images in terms of which we can think. Second, I wish to argue that God’s writing work is ongoing, and to suggest a more biblical way of viewing the continuing role of the Scripture in our lives.
The image of God as author completing his book, ceasing his writing work, and entrusting it to publishers and interpreters is one that exerts a strong hold upon us. Surely, we think, this is what must be implied by the idea of the closing of the canon, for instance. The divine revelation was completed almost two thousand years ago and now we have the task of interpretation of what the Bible meant in the context in which God revealed it and application, wherein we identify the implications of the text for us today. Revelation belongs entirely to the past. We must interpret the meaning of what God said to people in radically different contexts millennia ago in order to think about what he might say to us today, were he still speaking.
This picture, I submit, is neither the most helpful, nor is it the most appropriate to the sort of thing that Scripture is. For Scripture is a text that was written to be performed.
The Performed Work
To some extent or other, every text is to be performed. Nevertheless, there are some texts that are particularly designed for performance. When we read Shakespeare, for instance, we recognize that the home of Hamlet is not principally on the margined page in the bound book on the shelf, but in the performance on the stage. The ‘revelation’ or ‘truth’ of Hamlet is disclosed, not chiefly in the act of private and silent reading from the text, but in the consummate performance of it by gifted thespians. The once for all activity of the author is finished, perhaps many centuries ago, but the work itself is realized through the contemporary action of many other parties.
One of the first things that this helps us to realize is that the ‘revelation’ of the text, although founded upon the completed writing of the playwright, is not itself completed but is on-going. Likewise, there is no simplistic opposition that can be drawn between application and interpretation, nor ought we to think in terms of an engagement with the text from a distance, as if it did not also address us directly. The script written for performance is realized in that performance. The realization and the interpretation of the script come together in performance: in the act of performance, the interpreter realizes the work, under the authority of and in accordance with the completed script.
The ‘meaning’ of the performed work is not a reality consigned to the past that we have to unearth and ponder over, but is something that continually arrives as the script is related to our world within its performance. The performed text looks us directly in the eyes, and speaks truth into our world, in the unique situation in which we find ourselves. No two performances are the same, or an exact repetition of a previous performance, nor should they be. Each performance must be faithful to the script, while relating it to a particular world. It is in the performance that distemporaneous worlds strike up a conversation, and transformation occurs.
Of course, this does not mean that careful textual study of works in their original contexts is not essential. This study is necessary if we wish to be faithful to the script. However, this is neither sufficient as the act of interpretation, nor is it the central act of interpretation: the central act of interpretation must always be the performance.
Scripture as Performance
This may all sound very interesting, but how does it relate to the text that God has actually given us? Looking at my Bible, I am uncertain about what it might mean to ‘perform’ it. Are we talking about moral application? How exactly would that move us beyond our standard way of seeing things, with its attendant problems? The Bible neither looks nor feels much like a script.
I suspect that some measure of our problems in this area results from the form in which we encounter the Scriptures. For us, Scripture is the Bible on our shelf. That is, the Scripture is a mass-produced, privately-owned, freely sold, printed and bound text, containing all of the books of the Scripture between two covers, in a set order, versified, with navigational tools, study apparatus, etc. This book is primarily encountered in the act of private and silent reading. It is principally engaged with through the eye. When someone speaks of the Scripture, it is this that we think of.
What we risk forgetting is that this way of encountering the Bible is a rather novel one. Before the invention of the steam-powered printing press, and also before Gutenberg and earlier book technologies, the Scriptures and engagement with them necessarily took a very different form. For the vast majority of Christians, the Scriptures would have been encountered almost solely in the context of the performance of the Scriptures in the Church and its life. The Scriptures were to be heard and spoken, to be sung, prayed, read aloud, preached upon, enacted and memorialized in the sacraments. The script was held in honour (and prior to mass reproduction, each Bible had more significance as a ‘performance’ or unique creation in its own right, demanding countless hours of skilled labour and immense cost to produce), often being heavily decorated, processed into the Church, kissed or otherwise treated as a sacred object. However, it was in the script performed, rather than in the script detached from performance that the Scriptures were encountered. This encounter with the Scripture occurred in the context of the assembled Church, and primarily through the ear.
An understanding of Scripture as performance is not solely about the character of the physical text, however. We must relate this position to deeper theological and redemptive historical questions about God’s activity of writing his Word. Within my concluding post, I hope to demonstrate that the case for Scripture as performance finds a basis in the most fundamental character of Scripture and its place as an actor in God’s drama.
Alastair Roberts is a PhD student in Durham University, studying the place of biblical motifs in early church baptismal liturgies and theologies. His passions include studying the Bible, memorizing the Scrabble dictionary, knitting, and English cricket. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria.