Bringing the Word to Life [Through Performance] (Review)

 I enjoyed breezing through a nice short book today called Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It (Eerdmans, 2013). The authors are an interesting combination: Richard Ward is a preaching and worship specialist (Phillips Theol Sem), and David Trobisch is recognized especially for his work on canon and the study of Biblical manuscripts. What could bring them together? In this case, it is their mutual appreciation for being formed by Scripture through performance.

Part of the book is historical and hermeneutical – the authors emphasize that the New Testament texts were meant to be performed (much attention is given to the rhetorical advice of Quintilian). The authors clearly side with those that argue that written texts (in their oral culture) were less-than-ideal substitutes for the more favorable resounding voice.

It was primarily an oral world where the technology of writing served the spoken word and expanded its possibilities for communication. ‘Literature’ in this world was inextricably bound to speech: ‘reading’ was done out loud. Text were ‘published’ by means of public performances. Poets, historians, and dramatists who hoped to gain recognition and appreciation for their work were dependent upon performance skills of their own or those of a trusted representative (p. 5).

The authors want to bring the text to life again by promoting performance: “It is through performance that literary works enter the sensorium of the reader/auditor and thus open new horizons for interpretation” (p. 10).

The book includes chapters on theory and application in the church regarding how to do performance of Scripture, but the historical matters of contextualization stuck out to me most. For example, when Jesus read from Isaiah (Luke 4:16-22a), did he perform the text (p. 26)? Also, when Paul promotes the reading of 1 Thessalonians, does he have in mind performance (1 Thess 5:26-28)? And does it include memorization (which Ward and Trobisch argue in favor of and recommend)?

They make the case that the text would first need to be decoded – probably the original letter was scriptio continua – uninterrupted text (no spaces between words, no punctuation). Also, there were abbreviations (e.g., divine names, common names): “Before someone can read the passage fluently, spaces, breathing marks, and punctuation have to be added, and the nomina sacra have to be decoded” (37).

Ward and Trobisch make a very helpful analogy by way of music: “Just like sheet music today, ancient manuscripts were seen as media that preserved sound and required a performer to study them before they could be presented in a meaningful way” (p. 38).

I appreciated their drawing attention to 1 Tim 4:13, where Timothy is told to give attention to αναγνωσις  – the public reading of Scripture. Now, Trobisch and Ward presume that this would include performance, but I looked up Howard Marshall and he says “The reference is probably not so much to the need for skill in performance (perhaps in the right choice of passages or in clear enunciation) as to the need to do the task regularly” (ICC, 563). In any case, it reminded me how much we have neglected the public reading (or performing!) of Scripture in the Church. Most evangelical churches don’t do it, and many of those that do, don’t really feel very strongly about it, I would guess (from the lack of enthusiasm in the voices of the readers).

I suppose the best part about this book for me was the passion these “scholars” have for Scripture and also their desire to see the Word come to life in the Church and change lives through the power of its message. They believe that “performing it” is necessary. I am not sold, but I support fresh and vitalizing ways of bringing the Good News.

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One thought on “Bringing the Word to Life [Through Performance] (Review)

  1. Thanks for your review Nijay, I thought you were spot on. Although I am becoming more convinced that performance criticism is necessary to help scholars and churches alike rediscover the experience of the narrative (while listening to the important criticisms of the discipline). I.e. there is a transformative power in both the knowledge of the story and the experience of it. I think the work of Ward & Trobisch provide a helpful way into this.

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