Bringing the Word to Life

Bringing the Word to Life

It’s Sneak Peek Week on EerdWord, when we’ll be sharing excerpts from four of this month’s most exciting releases.

Today’s excerpt comes from Richard F. Ward and David J. Trobisch’s Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It.

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Performance Criticism and Form Criticism

The reading experience in antiquity differs considerably from a modern reading experience. Whereas reading is mostly a silent, solitary activity today, the manuscripts of antiquity were designed by authors, editors, and publishers to record sound; published literature was intended to serve as a script to be interpreted to an audience by a performer. Form-critical approaches stress the importance of understanding the situation of communication in which a text functions, and performance criticism can provide the necessary contextual information.

“Sitz im Leben”

The Pope received a phone call from Jesus Christ. “The good news is that I have returned,” Jesus said. “And the bad news?” the Pope asked. “I am calling from Salt Lake City.”

Much will depend on who tells this joke and to whom. It makes a difference if a Mormon, a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jewish person tells it. And it will make a difference who listens. The joke may mock Catholics (if a Mormon tells it to a Mormon), it may express an uneasiness with organized religion (if a Protestant tells it to a Protestant), or it may be an expression of poor taste (if a Jew tells it to a Catholic). In this context the joke simply illustrates the form-critical term Sitz im Leben and the importance of assessing the situation of communication. Its historical value would be mostly sociological, documenting attitudes of a segment of the population. To the question of whether the Pope even takes phone calls, the joke contributes little. . . .

Jesus Tells a Bathroom Joke

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus talks about hypocrites who stand at busy intersections and pray so others will see them. Jesus rebukes such practices and says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). Like our homes today, houses in antiquity had at least one room that could be locked: the bathroom. Jesus was trying to be funny; his original audience was expected to laugh.

Once an interpreter accepts the form-critical assessment that this saying of Jesus may be based on a joke he made in public, the irony of the other statements in the context becomes apparent. How likely is it that a pious person would stand at a street corner and pray in order to be seen? Or that he or she would have someone “sound the trumpet” when they went to give alms “in the synagogues and in the streets” (Matt. 6:2)? Don’t we know from our own stand-up comedians that exaggeration is part of a strategy to make us laugh at ourselves? If Jesus was joking, then the criticism of the “hypocrites” might just be a criticism from within, a call for renewal, an attempt to communicate through humor. Jesus, a pious Jew, is asking other pious Jews to return to their own ideals, to remember God’s commandments and promises.

The text continues, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name . . .” (Matt. 6:8-9). The editor of the Sermon on the Mount, who used the saying of Jesus to introduce the Lord’s Prayer, may have already missed the irony. The genre shifted from a joke to an exhortation. And in the tradition of Christian preaching, Jesus’ caricature of a Pharisee has often been interpreted as disparaging Jews; it was easily turned into political propaganda. Considering the medieval pogroms and the mass murder of Jews in the twentieth century, committed by professed Christians, this misinterpretation is no laughing matter.

The Experimental Nature of Performance Criticism

In 1947 the Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl and five other daring seafarers launched a balsa wood raft outside the port of Callào in Peru. They sailed more than 4,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean and landed on the Raroia Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago 101 days later. The voyage demonstrated that it was possible for a primitive raft to sail the Pacific and that Polynesia was well within the range of prehistoric South American seafarers. Based on linguistic, physical, and genetic evidence, however, many anthropologists remain convinced that Polynesia was settled from the Asian mainland in the West and not from South America. But some apparent American influences — like the sweet potato as part of the Polynesian diet — find a satisfactory explanation in Thor Heyerdahl’s theory.

In very much the same way, performance criticism of the New Testament can demonstrate possibilities and create plausibility for new understandings that otherwise seem far-fetched. Like experimental archaeology, which recreates tools, events, and settings of the period studied, performance criticism recreates the situation of a performance of literature for which the New Testament originally had been designed. And like experimental archaeology, performance criticism can be used to test methods and theories.

The Experiential Nature of Performance

In the performance of the text, the word becomes flesh. Interpreters explore possible authorial intentions, the basic structure of the argument, reactions from the audience, and subtexts of underlying humor and irony, some or all of which might have escaped their attention had they only studied the text sitting at a desk and read it quietly to themselves.

During a performance, text is simply experienced; the analysis takes place afterwards, when an emotional distance from the performance has been established. A debriefing session after the performance, preferably the following day, will typically help students reach a high level of exegetical and theological reflection.

After engaging text through performance, one often finds that a specific text can be understood in more than one valid way. Like other forms of art, performance of literature will present only one of several possible interpretations, not necessarily the most authoritative one, or a scholastically viable reading. Especially in those rare cases when the setting allows for repeat performances before the same audience, and the interpreter performs the same text in several different ways, the multifaceted nature of human communication through art becomes evident. Developing a variety of possible interpretations is a crucial step of scholarly discourse; the performance of texts before an audience helps to achieve this goal.

Click to order Richard F. Ward and David J. Trobisch’s Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It.