A play on the Word

Antshillvania was my breakout performance: a seven-year old flower who brought the wrong colour tights and had to stand out in front of everyone white-legged instead of brown in my green plantsuit, head bewigged with oversized yellow petals, but I gave my “Go away!” to the marauding weeds on cue, projecting and enunciating with as much expression as I was able, despite my shame.

Theatre of some sort – much of it wooden and prosaic, rotely recalling lines and following stage directions – was my constant extra curricular pursuit til my college years.

A college professor with a long history as a jock who joined our little band of supposed creatives (on my part) surprised me with his observation that in all his years of team sports, he’d never experienced as profound a sense of team as in doing theatre.

I’m not sure if my lack of understanding was due to an over-hyped ideal of sportsmanship bred by inspirational movie scenes, or my familiarity with theatre, or perhaps my failure to fully participate in that visceral and spontaneous synergy my professor was experiencing.

Possibly the latter. Whatever success I had as an actress can probably be credited to a naturally responsive memory that allowed me to memorize lines, and drilling in enunciation and projection. Never brilliant, I’d like to think I was proficient at the basics. And I enjoyed it.

In the context of such familiar and positive – albeit perhaps shallow – experiences, Anna Carter Florence’s metaphor of the church as a repertory theatre company has resonance.

Some texts – the Bible most certainly among them – need to be rehearsed, says the author of Rehearsing Scripture, recalling her college theatre professor’s instructions to “go rehearse a scene; come back once you’ve found something true and show the rest of us.”

Within this metaphor of rehearsal, Scripture reading is communal, not a solitary pursuit. Solitary readers quickly lose heart with reading Scripture, she says. (Yes, I affirm that from experience.) But..., next point... when we practise – both in the sense of acting out and in the sense of repetition – it, we can arrive at truths.

Yes, that’s truths plural. One can probably take the same rigid approach to interpretation of theatre texts as one can to Scripture, but it is more easy to see the foibles of such an approach. I strongly prefer Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennett to Keira Knightly’s, but one or the other isn’t necessarily right in an objective sense. They both bring versions of Lizzy Bennett that may lead to some appreciation or understanding on my part.

Could we play at Scripture in such a way that we can see the same text arrive at different truths at the same time? “Even if you can’t change the words,” says Florence Carter with a pointed look at the Bible, “you can always change the way you play it.” That’s a challenge we ought to take up as we read the Bible.

{I thought immediately of Don Richardson’s reinterpretation of Jesus’ response to the Syro-Phoenician woman: “It’s not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs [twinkle twinkle].” The words sound awfully harsh, but imagine Jesus saying them in a gently sarcastic way rather than angrily judgemental way. The woman’s response makes a bit more sense, and Jesus seems a bit more congruent with the man we thought we knew.}

“Let loose” was that theatre instructor’s challenge. “Make a rumpus” says Anna Florence Carter, quoting Maurice Sendak’s classic.

Scripture is far too serious not to play with. I just said that, not anyone else, but it sounds to me like something I’ve been learning from Pete Enns. Exactly because it is God’s word we should give it more than a surface reading.

The final move in this metaphor of repertory theatre was a turn to grammar. Oh yes!

“Start with the verbs.”

Nouns are distancing. We get caught up in the cultural trappings of the nouns. We start contextualizing and explaining, and adding adjectives, and picking sides, and entrenching positions.

Verb, she said, we share. They are transcultural. “It’s the very meaning of the incarnation [which – sorry, I just gotta point out – is a noun]: God comes to use to share our verbs. God meets us, raises us, changes us.”

Amid all these instructions and deep thoughts, what is implicit is that we do all this together. Theatre requires trust – you are expecting your partners know their lines and their blocking, or that they know their character well enough to respond appropriately to keep the action moving and give you something to play off of. Everyone has to work together to tell the story. Unless it’s a monologue, it can’t be done alone.

It only makes sense that we should read Scripture together. I probably shouldn’t admit it has become the only way I do of late. However, I can testify that collective reading keeps me from losing heart with it. Hearing others’ truths emerge from Scripture as we “practise” together – even when I don’t agree with or like their insights – gives it life. As we each give voice to the text from our own experiences and thought processes, something richer emerges and we all rub off on each other a little bit.


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