Performance criticism is an emerging discipline among biblical scholars that seeks to apply elements of related disciplines (historical criticism, narrative criticism, reader-response criticism, rhetorical criticism, etc.) to the Bible in such a way as to interpret the text via its original medium: oral performance and story-telling. The letters and stories that comprise our New Testament were originally delivered primarily as oral and aural events, meaning that even if a given NT document were a fixed text at the point of its original dissemination it was primarily performed to an audience of illiterates rather than read silently by individuals. Performance criticism asks us to imagine the text not as a text at all but as a performed event — a moment, a story, a word made flesh.
In my short time studying performance criticism, and my even shorter time actually performing as a student and youth minister, I have come to believe performance criticism to be of true value for a deep, personal engagement with Scripture. As both an audience-member and performer, I find myself pulled into and arrested by the story in ways that had heretofore remained beyond the scope of my experience. The story becomes real in the telling, living and active and charged with potential. In performance we are not simply vocalizing old stories as much as we are allowing them to be incarnated in us; the Word becomes flesh and dwells amongst us once again. In performing the crucifixion narrative in Mark, the chasm of history is transcended. The performer and her audience stand not in a modern-day church building but are transported to a hill not so far away, to an old rugged cross — the emblem of suffering and shame. It is here at Golgotha, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, that a performer and audience can experience the story that serves as the very bedrock of their faith with their own senses; more importantly, they can become a part of it.
Though not a direct equivalent of performing the Markan story, a missioner to Indonesia has for over two years been using the approach of “bible sharing” amongst prisoners in a Maumere jail. Led by two facilitators, a group of fifteen prisoners (comprised of thirteen men and two women) have gathered around the Markan passion and resurrection narrative and read themselves into the text, with different groups of prisoners taking on the story from a different character perspective within the narrative. This creates an environment that not only engenders diversity, since each prisoner reads from a different perspective from both within and without the text, but also creates an “inter-pollination between biblical stories and everyday reality [which] has opened up an era of immense theological creativity” in the community.” Prisoners who come from a religious, cultural, economic and political context “not so distant from that of first century Palestine” are finding themselves in the story of the Anointed One in ways that were once obscured by the “public transcript” that has been preached by the pastor or teacher in the past.
In such an instance, is not theology “from below” and of the people given room to grow in ways typically not found in our own contexts of pew and classroom? And, if so, is not this kind of theology potentially similar to that which might have been borne by a first century performing community, struggling to remain faithful under the strictures of religious and political oppression of the Roman Empire? If this is the case, then performance not only offers us tools for the interpretation of ancient texts but also connects us with the experiential heritage of the stories themselves. We bridge the gap between our experience and that of the community for whom the echoes of Jesus’ dying cry could still be heard. We submit ourselves to the story, to the God it reveals, and to one another as we each bring a unique voice and ear to the narrative that defines us.