Performing Scripture

Presence-Dusty-BibleA notable feature of a number of contemporary debates in the church is the lack of well-informed use of Scripture. It’s not unusual to hear one party or other either trot out a proof text, or write Scripture off on the basis of such proof texts—or here views expressed which demonstrate basic lack of familiarity with the biblical witness.

In part this comes down the reduction and diffusion of engagement with Scripture, starting with their training, on the part of leaders in the church. But it is also the result of a decline in the study of Scripture, perhaps in small groups, within congregations. For some churches, there has simply been a loss of interest. For others, Bible study groups are seen as inward-looking and dull, and are displaced by ‘missional’ activity or a focus on experience.

But the most obvious sign of this change is the loss of reading Scripture as part of public worship. I am constantly amazed at the paltry amount of Scripture actually read in evangelical churches—when ‘middle of the road’ Anglican churches will hear five or more passages in the course of a liturgical service. Now, simply hearing Scripture read is no guarantee that we understand it, still less that we live it out. But it seems to me that hearing Scripture read is a necessary pre-requisite to the other two. And doing this together, in public worship, engages the breadth of responses and perspectives not present in other contexts.

This raises a real practical challenge, one we are reluctant to admit to: for most people, listening to endless Bible passages read is so boring!

I was confronted with this several years ago when leading the all-age part of a Sunday service. (We always had the first 20 minutes with all ages together, so we could praise, confess, pray, read Scripture and learn from it all together before doing this in separate groups.) The reading set was Matt 25.31–46, the parable of the sheep and the goats. The passage fills one column in English translations, and my immediate reaction was ‘Oh my goodness—it is so long! How on earth will I keep the attention of the children?’ (Children show you if they are bored; adults just sit their politely waiting to the end to tell each other how bored they were.)

Then it struck me:

Did anyone ever complain that Jesus’ teaching was boring?

In fact, did anyone who listened to the gospels or letters when they were first being read ever think that they were boring? Difficult to understand, perhaps (2 Peter 3.16); but boring—never! What have we done to the reading of Scripture to make it so dull?

So I decided to do what Jesus did—to simple teach, to ‘perform’ the passage. I set aside an hour and a half on the Saturday evening to learn the passage, and on the Sunday morning simply removed my collar, rolled up my sleeves, and without any announcement, started: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and his angels with him…’ I learnt four important things:

  • Jesus’ teaching is far from dull! Everyone was gripped; those on my left were particularly engaged by the second half of the passage. The children did not move a muscle.
  • Jesus’ teaching is very easy to memorise, because it is very carefully structured. The ‘least of these my brothers and sisters’ are described by six terms, which come in three pairs, and are referred to with increasing brevity in the four repetitions (two by the king, two in response by each of the groups of sheep or goats).
  • It is easier to remember things than I thought. Nearly 20 years on, I can still remember the passage more or less word for word. Memory is a muscle which gets stronger with use.
  • Memorising the passage was a powerful way of dwelling in it, and as a result I completely changed my mind on what the passage was all about, as I explain here.

There are some good reasons to think that performance of texts was a key part of the practice of the early Christian communities.

We have the odd clue in the texts themselves. So Rev 1.3 includes a blessing for the lector (singular), the person reading aloud to the assembly, as well as to those who hear the lector’s reading. We know that letters would have had designated letter carriers (such as Pheobe in Romans 16.1), and there is some debate about whether this person would also be the lector, or whether this would be a local member of the congregation.

Secondly, the social context also supports this. Although many New Testament documents were written for further study (witness the careful structure in Luke, Acts and Revelation which would not be evident on hearing), in the first instance they would have been read out loud, not least because literacy would not have been uniformly high, and because copying manuscripts was a relatively expensive business. (Are the ‘attendants of the word’ in Luke 1.2 those who looked after the communities’ documents, including the first copies of the gospels?)

Thirdly, some NT texts are evidently written for oral performance. Hebrew is perhaps the best example of this, but the letter of James, with the links between different sections based on word plays rather than logical progression, is another possible example. (The qualities of wisdom in James 3.17 are linked by alliteration, the first group starting with epsilon, and the second with alpha—something that is lost in translation.) And of course the gospels record Jesus’ teaching which was first offered as performance. Even where the gospels diverge on other details, they tend to converge when recording Jesus’ own words, suggesting that we are hearing what was said, even if in translation.

Fourthly, some scholars (such as Tom Thatcher) are arguing that we should understand that the gospels were widely performed prior to being written in a final form, which might explain some of the differences between early manuscripts. We might again find some hints of this in the text, such as John 4.6, where Jesus sits down at the well ‘in this way’ (omitted in most English translations)—though this interpretation is contested.

Fifth, in many ways the proof of the pudding is in the performing. When teaching John’s gospel, I used to take John 9, print it as a script, and get different readers to simply act it out in class, unrehearsed. It works perfectly! And the performance, with characters moving on and off stage, demonstrates its careful chiastic structuring. Watch this performance Hebrews 9 and 10 by Ryan Ferguson:

And some years ago the actor Alec McCowen filled a West End theatre with his performance of Mark’s gospel in the Authorised Version (which I remember watching on television one Christmas day afternoon as a teenager).

When in 1978 he gave his first public performance of ”St. Mark’s Gospel” for a nervous management in the northern city of Newcastle, there was definitive proof of the Gospel’s power to arrest and intrigue. The key moment came when a little old lady seized him after he had finished one evening and said with open astonishment what critics and audiences were soon to be repeating all over England and America: ”It was as good as a play.”

So, what can we do to make the reading of Scripture more engaging? Four things:

  1. Actually read it! Don’t put it on screens or print in service sheets. Include several readings of Scripture in your services, and get people to open their Bibles to follow the reading if they can.
  2. Train your readers to read well. This means planning who is reading carefully, letting them have the readings ahead of time, and offering some training in reading well.
  3. Occasionally find someone who is willing to learn and perform the reading without reference to a script. It is not as hard as you might imagine!
  4. Put on a performance of a whole gospel as an evening events—perhaps replacing a Sunday evening service. Sell tickets to people who would not normally come to church.

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20 thoughts on “Performing Scripture”

  1. I hear this same argument trotted out again and again: “I am constantly amazed at the paltry amount of Scripture actually read in evangelical churches—when ‘middle of the road’ Anglican churches will hear five or more passages in the course of a liturgical service.” I don’t think that the issue is the reading of scripture – it is the engagement with it, to allow it to be a living book.

    I have been part of a number of ‘middle of the road’ anglican churches and generally speaking, an ‘average’ congregations members’ knowledge of scripture is very poor. It seems to me that it is poor not because they haven’t heard the words (whether performed or otherwise) but because it is not personally engaged with, whether in a group context or individually. I think that it the biggest gap – how do we teach people to allow scripture to speak to them.

    Having recently lead a number of Alphas and people asking how they can read the Bible, the one thing that people have consistently found the most helpful is reading HTBs Bible in One Year app. Performance will certainly help with making the text come alive and I think its a great tool that should be used more, but it requires a higher engagement than simply hearing.

    • Thanks Matt. I wouldn’t disagree with you on the question of engagement—and say so above! But I don’t know how you can engage without hearing it. And of course the answer to bad use/reading is not no use/reading but good use/reading. I rather liked the discipline we had at college of having 30 seconds silence after the reading so you could process it before rushing on to the next thing.

      I am aware that quite a few people like BIOY. But it has a massively high drop-off rate (not publicised) which suggests it does not meet the needs of quite a few. For one thing, it is individual, and for another, it requires quite a high level of literacy. I understand that the average reading age of adults in the UK is around 14.

      Engaging through performance has the advantage of being corporate, not requiring high literacy…and actually emulating the way these texts were first received.

  2. Thanks for the link to Alec McCowen’s performance of Mark’s Gospel. I was not aware of this. I suppose you know about Mark’s Gospel on stage with Max McLean? This is the NIv and it is marvellous. I have shown the DVD to some church members in our living room and they were very taken by it.

  3. I have used passages such as the story of Zacchaeus and memorised it and before I tell the story ask the congregation to listen carefully and then they have to retell the story as accurately as possible to the person sitting next to them in church. They listen very attentively and then have fun telling it to each other. We then unpack the story with a series of open ended questions. When I have returned to a church may be 3 months later some people still remember what was said. All this is detailed in a guide/booklet produced by Walk through the Bible called Talk the Word.

      • Looks like I made a mistake with my email, hopefully correct this time. I would be happy to send you a copy of the guide “Talk the Word”. I used to work for the Scottish Bible Society until I retired in January this year and they have copies in their office and I’ll send you one if you give your mailing address.

  4. Hi, Andrew Cullum has performed John’s Gospel in churches in his home town of Coventry. I think he has done Matthew as well. He will be delighted to discuss doing this in other locations. I heard both readings and it was am immensely powerful experience. It really brought it all to life.

  5. Hi Ian, I am so pleased that you have written this, and thank you for the Ryan Ferguson link.

    A couple of years ago, a group of us attended a dramatised reading of St. John’s Gospel in a local church. We all thought that the reader/performer really brought the gospel to life, and some commented that, if we were to read in that way at our weekly services, there would be standing-room only in our churches!

    The man who did the reading was Andrew Cullum, the husband of one of our group members. He is a Christian and also a free-lance actor who works in both an amateur and a professional capacity.

    I did a search on YouTube, in the hope that I might find a video of Andrew performing the gospels, but I haven’t found one yet – I will keep looking. Andrew also performed a dramatised reading of St. Mark’s Gospel at another local church.

  6. Great post and comments. I agree entirely with the points about readers in church. There seems to be a culture that you must read scripture in a monotone and that Jesus never raised his voice even in anger.

    Is part of the problem that we have lost the oral tradition and the skills of telling stories aloud?

    Should this be part of the training of Readers in the church of England and even anglican ministers? Some of them can structure a sermon but very few can deliver a sermon.

  7. An excellent case. Thank you.

    A couple of years ago I dropped in on a local church, which was very proud of its “Bible-based” credentials. The service started (and continued…) with a long “time of worship”. Very long. Then… “Time is running short, so we’ll skip the [one] reading and go straight to the minister’s word.” What??!!

    I, too, vividly remember Alec McCowen’s performance of Mark. Sitting down in front of the telly, thinking “I’ll try to force myself to stay for at least the first twenty minutes.” And being absolutely spell-bound and drawn in for the entirety. May I also recommend reading McCowen’s own account in his book “Personal Mark”, which is his own mini-commentary on how he read Mark during the process of developing this show.

    Finally, return to the Grove booklet, “Reading the Bible at the Eucharist” by the late, great Michael Vasey. Does that have something to bring to the table also?

  8. The problem of helping people engage with Scripture becomes more acute when you are dealing with people who are not literate; something which is still all too frequent around the world. There are a wide number of resources and ideas floating around in the Global mission world which could well be of interest in the UK as churches seek to help people to engage with Scripture. This is a good place to start:

  9. Amen. Last Sunday I resisted the temptation to go for the shorter (39 verses) Passion reading and read the whole of Mark 14-15 at the evening service with a 30 second rumination gap following. Comments afterwards were very positive.

    I would take slight issue with the first of your final points. I *wouldn’t* encourage people to follow in their Bibles, since it reduces the impact of the performance as an oral and community act rather than as a literary and individual one.

    • Simon, that is really interesting.

      Yes, I think I would agree with you about following—but it really depends on how you are reading. In a full-blown dramatic engagement like the one you describe, I would agree. I think my comment about following was reflection on week in, week out practice.

      When people open their Bibles, they do some interesting things in terms of looking around at the context and wandering about, which adds to their understanding.


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