Performance Criticism as Critical Pedagogy

Article excerpt

Few themes have so dominated contemporary New Testament interpretation in recent years as the Roman imperial context of those writings. Whether interpreting the Gospels, Pauline letters, or Revelation, New Testament scholars have shown how the "empire of God" announced and embodied by Jesus and his followers offered an alternative to the Roman Empire. This paper asks not about the empire that ruled then, but about how power dynamics like those employed by Rome continue to rule today.

Let me pause for a moment of confession regarding this challenge. Sharing the abundance of anti-imperial interpretations opens my university students' eyes to dynamics they had not seen in the texts. Yet, and here the confession, I often suspect that I am promoting anti-imperial ideas through an imperialistic mode of teaching. I struggle within the restraints and possibilities of the twenty-first century higher education classroom to nurture learning as a liberative process for my students. I don't merely want to deliver ideas about transformation and reciprocity, I want us to experience these virtues in the classroom. I fear that the unintended irony a student offered me rings true. He wrote, "Your understanding of freedom captivates me." This current struggle is an old friend; as a parish pastor I longed to help my congregation members to interpret the Bible, yet often ended up teaching them my already defined interpretations.

Performance criticism of biblical texts

I have used biblical performance criticism in several ways in my undergraduate classrooms. I perform stories for my Introduction to Theology students; I have taught a unit on performance criticism in an interpretation course; I have worked with students on extended performances like the Gospel of Mark, Galatians, and the Jacob Esau cycle. I also have participated in congregational "scripture by heart" groups that prepare stories to tell in congregations. A few years back, students who had seen me perform biblical texts in the classroom asked me to teach them how to do it. We set up a one-credit course which involved meeting for one hour a week with a group of five students. We decided that we would all work for six weeks on a single pericope from the Gospel of Luke. I chose the story of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) because it would come up in the lectionary in seven weeks and thus the students could go out and tell the prepared text in a congregation of their own choosing.

Every time we met we began with exercises that reminded us that we are embodied people. (1) Then we read the text together, we performed the text, and discussed what we saw as a result. During the first session, I taught them the story using a method in which I would tell the text line by line in an embodied way and they would repeat back to me the words and motions I had offered them. This quickly led to an awareness that my way of embodying the text, while it looked natural when I did it, did not fit for all of them. So once the text was learned in this way, each had the freedom to reinterpret it. We discovered that there are many interpretations of the text that have integrity, but may not be transferable in uncomplicated ways to other interpreters. We also discovered that bodies make a difference. In fact, by the end of the six weeks we found it unbelievable that this text, which deals so much with the relationship between bodies, could be approached by any interpreter in an un-embodied way and still be understood.

One exciting thing that took place in our repeated performances of this text was a growing awareness of the multiplicity of meanings possible within a relatively fixed text. Students are accustomed to thinking of texts as having one correct interpretation they must discover, forsaking all the others since those must be wrong. Many scholars and parishioners operate under the same assumption. The act of interpretation becomes profoundly more complex through this repetitive process. …