Monday, April 9, 2012

Scripture as Performance

Fresh Words

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. 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.

Scripture as God’s Fresh Word

Reading the New Testament we can be struck by the manner in which Scripture is regarded as speaking with incredible directness to its hearers, even though they are far removed in time and context from those to whom it was originally addressed. Paul can take the record of the Exodus from Egypt in 1 Corinthians 10 and, with incredible hermeneutical boldness, relate it immediately to the Corinthians: ‘Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come.’ The Scripture is seen to transcend its original context, addressing us with no less force and immediacy than its original hearers.

The Scriptures are not only texts written for performance, they are also formative texts. While we are often inclined to think of the relationship between Scripture and our lives in terms of two different worlds, between which slender cables of moral parallels transport precious applications from the world of Scripture to the world of our lives, the relationship that Paul seems to envision for the Church is profoundly thicker than this. The Scriptures are to become and to form our world. Our lives are to be improvisations governed by the themes or symbolic matrix of the Scripture.

For Paul the story of the Scriptures and the story of the later Church belong together, like successive movements in a single symphony, bound together by the same themes and motifs. As we listen to the story of Israel, we hear that God has already introduced our theme! The story of Israel, while being about Israel, is also about us. It transcends its own historical moment in history to relate itself to our own. For Christ and the writers of the New Testament, the Scripture wasn’t merely a dead letter referring to a past time, but a figure, an ‘icon’, in which we can recognize the form of Christ and of ourselves as his body.

Christ perceived his vocation as a performance – as the Performance – of the Scriptures. All that he did was in accordance with them. Likewise, the Church is to perform the Scriptures and the gospel of Christ in a manner that leads to the discovery of our world within the figures of the text and Christ, to whom it witnesses, and to discover Christ within our world through the text’s contemporary performance. Performing the Scriptures as formative figures, rather than reading our Bibles for illustrative parallels, cuts our lives and world from the cloth of God’s Word.

The Scriptures Made Flesh

The Scriptures narrate a movement from inscripturation to incarnation, from the Word made script, to the Word made flesh. It is within the context of this truth that we are to understand the place and significance of the Scriptures in the life of the Church today.

The promise of the new covenant is that God will write his Law upon the hearts of his people. We see this promise realized in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life is the complete, consummate, and definitive Performance of the Scriptures. He is the fulfilment of the text. In Christ, the text that had suffered the resisting hardness of stony hearts for centuries, takes the form of a perfect lived existence. In Christ the purpose or end of the Scriptures is achieved.

However, the new covenant promise is not merely realized in Christ, but also in his body. In Christ, the Spirit is writing God’s Law – which is the form of Christ – onto the hearts of his people. Through this writing, in Christ our lives become part of the fulfilment of the text of Scripture. Christ is written into our lives and the Holy Spirit works out his Performance in us.

This is the message of 2 Corinthians 3. In Christ, in the life of his body, the veil that lies over the Scriptures is removed and we encounter Christ himself as they are read. We see the telos of the Scriptures – the Word made flesh – within the Word made script. As the veil is removed and we see the Word made flesh in the Scriptures – for they bear witness to him – we are, by the work of the Spirit, transformed into his image. Through this transformation the Word takes up residence in our flesh too. Through our engagement with the Scriptures as the body of Christ, we enter into Christ’s performance of/as the Father’s Word, through the direction of his Holy Spirit.

The key point to recognize here is that God’s writing hasn’t ceased. God continues to write his Word. However, in Christ this word is no longer in the form of texts standing outside of human communities, but in the form of performing communities, in whom the figures of Scripture are realized in beautifully variegated manners appropriate to historical, cultural, and personal context. God is writing his definitive Word – Jesus Christ – into a new humanity. Scripture is the DNA of the new creation in Christ.

An important biblical metaphor for our relationship with Scripture is that of ingestion. Scripture is something on which we ruminate and with which we are fed and edified. Scripture is something that can be hard to swallow or chew. It can burn our insides, as it did the prophet. It can feel bitter like the swallowed book of John in Revelation. Scripture is something outside of us that we must continually feed upon in order to live. As we digest it, it becomes part of us, but never in a way that negates our continued dependence upon it, or its otherness from us.

The reception of the Word is consummated as the reception of Christ himself, the one in whom they are fulfilled. In the sacrament, which is a performance of the Word (in the undiluted ambivalence of that expression), the reception of Christ as the Word and Bread of God is disclosed in our bodies, and through feeding on him our bodies as the communing Church are realized as word.

As we receive God’s Word in such a manner we grow into a deeper and fuller relationship with the Scriptures. Although their otherness is not extinguished, they also become part of us. There is a unity and continuity of being between us and the text, a unity most fully manifested in the Church’s public and diverse performances of Scripture in the many forms of its worship. In the new covenant Scripture can be recognized as our home, our world, our food, our life, our flesh. It is a word that is close to us, in our mouths and hearts. It is word that is living and active, discerning our thoughts and intents, and dividing us as a sword for living sacrifice. It is a word that speaks directly to us and our situations. It is a word that translates us into Christ, the one who speaks to us in them. Surely there can be no fresher word than this!

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