Why is the public reading of scripture so boring?

‘My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man’. For a generation (or two), Alan Bennett’s ‘Beyond the Fringe’ spoof of a pious sermon summed up everything that was dull about Bible reading and preaching in church. In this generation we have different challenges: dull monotone; or perhaps the ‘high rising terminal‘ (imported from America or Australia?) at the end of every verse; or simply treating every verse number as a paragraph marker, so there is no fluency in reading; or the deathly projection of Bible readings on screens so we are not even engaging with the reader (please don’t do it!); or just a lack of sense of interest in excitement on the part of the reader. Whatever the phenomenon, the public reading of Scripture in church has become dull!

In the latest Grove Biblical book, Performing Scripture, a New Testament scholar (David Seal) and a theatre actor and director (Michael Partridge) have come together to explore the issue. The root of the problem, they believe, is that we have lost touch with the ancient context in which texts were read.

When we think of performance, we tend to visualize Broadway-type productions with various types of accoutrements, costumes, elaborately designed sets, music and unique lighting. However, in the ancient world, the original performances of literature were often relational, vocal, dynamic, emotive and transformative. This performance element was true of many of the stories of the Bible and some other types of biblical literature. They were either presented from memory or recited from a document before an audience. These performances might have occurred in informal conversations or as storytelling in a house or in the marketplace. The performances might have also transpired in more formal settings, such as after a meal or during worship in a home, synagogue or at the temple. It is likely that the performances would have been presented in an engaging manner to keep the attention of the audience, perhaps using a full range of gestures and vocal modulation. The monotone style of reading the Bible that occurs in some churches today, with little or novariation in tempo, volume or emotion is very different from how it would have been recited originally.

Pastors, Bible teachers, youth ministers, children’s ministers and smallgroup leaders will all bene t by learning a preaching and teaching form thatattempts to come close to how the original audiences may have received the teaching—performed by word of mouth. We believe there are several good reasons for developing a repertoire of biblical teaching methods such as the one explained in this book. First, people vary in the ways in which they receive and process teaching and preaching. Performing a passage of Scripture will connect with people whose preferred learning style is either visual or oral. Secondly, variation in forms of teaching and preaching is a good antidote to the boredom and predictability often experienced by those attending church gatherings. Finally, we need a repertoire of forms to be faithful to the God whose ways of revelation are broad and varied.

The authors then go on to explore some of the features of ancient oral cultures, including the importance of good performance in reading texts aloud, relatively low levels of literacy, and the importance of memory.

Transmission of religious traditions, poetry, songs, stories of origins, legends of ancestors and heroes, laws and proverbs, to name a few, were usually passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. This is apparent in various texts of the Old Testament (Exod 15; Deut 6.7; 31.30–32.47; Judg 5; Ps 78.5–8). Moses instructed the Levites and elders to perform a regular reading of a text (Deut 31.9–13). In this example, God chose to instruct his people through the oral repetition of a previously inspired, fixed text. The prophets admonished their audience to hear the word of the Lord rather than read it (Isa 1.10; 7.13; Jer 2.4; Ezek 34.7).

Reading out loud in an oral culture was an e ective way to communicate to large groups of people. Roman emperors and other officials used heralds to read official decrees aloud to subjects living in the outlying provinces of the empire. Reading aloud the Jewish sacred books was a common practice in the synagogues of the first century (Philo, That Every Good Person Is Free 81–82; Luke 4.16–21; Acts 13.15; 15.21). Letters written to the churches by Paul and others were also read aloud to the assembly (Acts 15.22–35; Col 4.16; 1 Thess 5.27; 1 Tim 4.13; Rev 1.3)…

In addition to factors that can prohibit the transition from oral to more written modes of communication, oral cultures tend to have certain characteristics that distinguish them from non-oral cultures. First, in oral cultures, people are more skilled at remembering what they hear. People’s memories serve as the storehouse of information rather than books. Teachers in the rabbinical schools lectured from memory. The first-century writer Seneca the Elder boasted that he could repeat two thousand names in the order they were given to him and he could recite from memory numerous lines of poetry. In oral cultures memory was often trained more vigorously than it is today. Often memory aids were built into a written text. For example, in the Hebrew culture, literature used in worship, such as Psalm 119, utilized an acrostic, where the first letter of each line of successive stanzas were successive letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This assisted the faithful in memorization of large amounts of material and allowed them to participate more fully in public worship.

All these factors had important implications for the way that the written texts that we have in our Bibles were read, performing, and listened to in the ancient world.

A public reading of a text is likely to have involved some level of practice as opposed to a speaker delivering their speech, message or story impromptu. In ancient Hebrew writing, only the consonants of a text were inscribed, and the vowels were supplied by a uent reader. Greek writing also presented difficulties for the unprepared reader. Vocalization of ancient Greek texts required navigating through a river of letters since texts were written without any punctuation or gaps between words but were just a continuous sequence of capital letters. Thus, a speaker would need to be well acquainted with the work prior to reciting it before an audience, while dedicating some time to regular practice. To read aloud in public is likely to have required a much higher degree of comprehension by the reader than it does today.

It was from this kind of oral/aural environment that the Old and New Testament documents emerged. They were composed with their aural and oral potential in mind, and they were meant to be orally delivered or performed when they arrived at their destinations (see the mention of the lector in Rev 1.3). People understood the full meaning of a written text by experiencing it being performed. An ancient Israelite or a member of the early church would not only hear the words spoken, but they could also experience the characteristics of the speaker’s voice such as modulation, tone and volume. All these vocal features helped to convey the written or memorized message. There was also a visual component in the delivery of the text. The speaker’s facial expressions, body movement and gestures also enhanced and contributed to the words spoken. Thus, oral literature does not fully come to life until it is performed, using the appropriate and intended vocal variation and physical expression…

How much dramatic movement did ancient speakers utilize in their performances? Ancient images of orators provide some insight. Richard Ward and David Trobisch describe an ancient painting on the wall of a Roman villa in Pompeii, Naples, depicting a typical oral performer utilizing his body:

A robed gure is standing, speaking and clasping a scroll in the lefthand. The performer’s right hand is lowered, loose and at rest; an extended forefinger points to the oor of the stage. The artist has draped a toga across the left arm. The performer’s face, unmasked, is a thoughtful countenance, revealing that the piece being presented is no comic diversion; its subject is serious.

From the image, it is apparent that the right hand remained free for gestures. The picture also reveals that facial expressions can convey emotions that correspond with the text being recited.

All this has implications for how we prepare both ourselves and our texts if we are going to read well in public in such a way that those listening can really understand the text that is being read. Seal and Partridge, in their closing chapter, offer a series of guidelines relating to our engagement of the text, our own preparation, and what is involved in the ‘performance’ of a biblical text.

Probe Your Text for Sound and Voice Features

Your first task is to probe your selected passage for any sound and voice features which might have been employed in the original performance. Vocal variety will enhance the performance, as voice patterns are not constant or predictable. Interest is heightened through changes in your voice. Consider the following when probing your passage for sound and vocal features:

  • Are there sound-related literary devices in the text such as asyndeton, polysyndeton, assonance, consonance, antistrophe or onomatopoeia? If so, what are their functions?…
  • Scan the text for any repeated words or phrases. If there are repeated words or phrases, try and determine their purpose…
  • Are there indications in the passage where a change in volume, pitch, tempo or tone is noted or implied? Commands such as ‘rejoice’ or ‘Praise Yahweh,’ suggest variation in voice…
  • Change in voice might also be appropriate when a New Testament author quotes from the Old Testament
  • Consider ways you might differentiate characters when they speak. They should not all sound the same. A person’s social standing can be a clue as to the type of voice you might use.
  • Consider how a character might feel at the time they are speaking…
  • Are there references to any emotions in the passage?…
  • Note any striking imagery which was intended to create an emotion that will be remembered…

Probe Your Text for Gestures, Movement and Other Body Language

As you read the passage consider culturally appropriate gestures and movements. Non-verbal language such as facial expressions and gestures will help influence your audience’s acceptance of the message…

Probe Your Text for Opportunities to Engage the Audience

This section will discuss opportunities to engage your audience perhaps in ways that are comparable to how the original audience may have been actively involved in the performance…

The chapter goes on to explore ways to prepare for reading, and practical guidelines for the actual performance of a text.

This is a fascinating exploration, that not only contains interesting insights into the ancient world and the way people read, performed, listened and engaged with texts, but also offers a wealth of practical advice on how the ‘performance’ of Bible reading could be enhanced in the local church. It addresses an issue for any church concerned about its engagement with Scripture.

You can buy Performing Scripture from the Grove website, for £3.95 post-free in the UK, or you can buy it as a PDF e-book to download.

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12 thoughts on “Why is the public reading of scripture so boring?”

  1. This is really important. It first struck me when I was listening to the late Martin Lee speak at a student conference. I thought the content was good, but I know others who could say the same, but he was coming across in a way that stood out. I was wondering what it was, when it struck me as he was reading from John’s Gospel as Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection. He got to the bit where Jesus simply says her name. He stopped and said I don’t know how to read this. He then proceeded to read the name “Mary” in 5 different ways. What Jesus laughing and warm? What he gently chiding? Was he confused that she didn’t recognised him? All that was conveyed in the say he read the name “Mary”.

    Since then, I have tried to publicly read the bible to give it life. Of course, its a good idea to give pre-warning when reading the section where the demonaic yelled at Jesus. I startled someone rather badly once.

    • Thank you for sharing that, and I wish we had more of this type of reading/recitation. I remember reading a theory that Hebrews was originally an extended sermon, rather than a letter, and hearing this I can well believe it.

      • Certainly it would be natural to put in a letter whatever was currently being preached. All of Romans, Hebrews, ‘Ephesians’ and 1 John are occasional letters that are required to be sent at a given juncture, but that does not lessen the fact that they are treatises too.

  2. The entire Old Testament has an embedded musical score. And it is stunningly beautiful.

    I have spent the last 8 years exploring this music. I put several examples in my book, The Song in the Night (Energion press) and you can hear a pin drop when these passages are sung with actors in the liturgy. Using a computer program that I write in 2015, I have transcribed the entire Bible into thousands of pages of music. All this music available freely in Hebrew through a resource page.

    This is not to make it easy. The real problem with our humanity is thoroughly demanding. I have recently drafted an oratorio, Unleashing Leviathan, (about an hour and 10 minutes long at present) that expresses this problem and solution entirely from the OT.

    If you only have time for 1 of several examples, listen to this performance of Genesis 1 by Esther Lemandier. This I used as a frame for my oratorio. It is, possibly, how this was sung when the music was originally marked in the text. There’s plenty of argument about the signs, but no argument is possible about the beauty.

  3. Over ten years ago God set it on my heart to devote myself to the public reading of Scripture. In the process of figuring out what that meant, I was challenged by a professor of mine that “if you are going to read the Scriptures, read them well.” This small comment has shaped me over the years and lead me to not only read the Scriptures, but also to memorize them so that I can share them from my heart and truly bring the Bible to life for those who hear.
    My hearts desire is that before I die, the Bible sounds different in our churches than it does now. Here is a recent video I did of the entire book of Philippians, spoken in a way that does it justice.

  4. What? no parsonic intoning? Are you suggesting we read aloud the words of eternal life allowing for personality, colour, texture, phrasing, intonation, expression, passion and wonder? Many of here are Anglican clergy, remember that Ian. lol

    One of the standout and shocking experiences in ministry 25years ago was sitting with some newly ordained deacons for morning office and they recited the office and read the Scriptures with as much personality and passion as a dead parrot. Never heard anything like it, seemed they were all reading aloud under water

  5. There is a lady called Rachel who reads in our church, and is never boring! On a different note, my next novel is going to feature a society with a low level of literacy, where the Bible is less read than memorised or performed as story. Of course this might include a few additional flourishes, especially in exciting passages like Acts 27!

  6. A recommendation here for bible.is, which is free to download to a mobile phone. It offers text and audio in over 1000 languages. A decent number of these include a “Drama” version with sound effects. I remember playing some of Mark chapter 1, in Romanian, to a small group of building-site workers having a rest break; their eyes widened at the open-air reverb added to the Prophet’s “..crying in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord….'” and the crowd noises at the river Jordan.



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