Truth, Method, and Multiplicity: Performance as a Mode of Interpretation

By Swanson, Richard W. | Currents in Theology and Mission, August 2010 | Go to article overview

Truth, Method, and Multiplicity: Performance as a Mode of Interpretation


Swanson, Richard W., Currents in Theology and Mission


A pastor sits with a text and a task. The text is clear enough: that is the gift of lectionaries. The task is also clear enough: analyze and experience the text so as to be able to speak the word of gospel appropriate to this moment and this particular audience. The unity of God and the clarity of the gospel conspire together to suggest that there will be a single, clear, trumpet-like call to be heard out of this single text. And so the pastor begins her work, using the tools provided by her education and experience.

Interpretation and the unity of truth

We have before us a paradox, or if not a paradox, then an odd and ironical complication. Modes of biblical interpretation are developed in an effort to crystallize and regularize interpretive practice and results. Thus it was that early historical criticism hoped for a set of scientific protocols that would yield replicable results in the hands of any competent interpreter. Thus it was that early structuralist study expected that precise attention to the exact structure of language would yield results that were also precise and exact. Thus it was with method after method: interpretive methods emerge out of our (understandable) desire for univocal interpretation.

Of course, textual interpretation has always proved more complicated than might have been hoped. Each drive for universal agreement has yielded global variety. Each attempt at precision has had to recognize that anything that is "cut ahead of time" (the implied root action behind the word "pre-cise") is acted on outside of the precise boundaries of methodological purity. And, perhaps oddest of all, each proposed single method has yielded burgeoning elaboration and variegation. What, exactly, is historical criticism? The more one knows about the study of history, the more complicated answers one is compelled to give to this simple question. Military history interacts with political history interacts with economic history interacts with social history interacts with archaeology, and each of them comes to different conclusions. What, exactly, is linguistic criticism? The more one knows about language(s), the more complications and contradictions one will have to reckon with to answer this question. Grammar generates syntax generates poetics generates semantics generates culture generates societies that study grammar. What does it mean to study biblical literature? Even if we were to confine the answer to the matter of literary approaches to biblical texts, the history of this fascinating enterprise attests to the tangles that attend such a venture.

And now there arrives on the desk of our imagined pastor a new mode of study: performance criticism. It is, itself, an approach to biblical literature, but aims to study not the private reading of a silent text (though this would be a justifiable approach since "lit-erature" is, after all, lis-able), but aims rather to discover how a text is read when it is embodied, performed for an audience. But even this specification does not yield a simplification, since there are at least two separate but interlocked kinds of reading involved in performance: the reading done by the performer in preparation for performance, and the reading done by the audience that is present for the performance.

Everywhere one looks in an effort to find simplicity one finds complexity. Every attempt to create a text with a single voice finds itself entangled in pluriform methods and polyvalent meanings. In this essay I will explore this complexity and its importance for those who will interpret Scripture in public.

Performance criticism as a method among methods

There may be those who argue that performance criticism is the method that will displace all previous interpretive methods for biblical narratives, but most such statements are more street theatre than serious claim. Sometimes it takes overstatement to get a public hearing; that is not new. …

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