Rev’d Dr Jeanette Mathew’s gives a fascinating (and often humorous!) lecture on the Old Testament prophets and how we can more intimately understand these ancient events using ‘performance criticism’.
There is a quotation from a late professor of performance studies with the wonderfully American name Dwight Conquergood that I have used more than once in my writing projects:
[Scholars of Performance Studies] are committed to a bracing dialectic between performance theory and practice. We believe that theory is enlivened and most rigorously tested when it hits the ground in practice. Likewise, we believe that artistic practice can be deepened, complicated, and challenged in meaningful ways by engaging critical theory.
The reason this claim appeals to me is that it embraces a principle that can be applied to all of life, not least to the study of theology.
Conquergood speaks about a commitment to both theory and practice. Theory needs to ‘hit the ground’ in practice. But practice, and here I’ll specify Christian practice, is deepened, complicated, and challenged in meaningful ways by theoretical investigation!
As any of us begin to delve more deeply into theological and biblical study, our faith will be deepened. And yes, it will become more complicated. Study of theology is much more about grey areas than about black and white certainties. It will also be challenging, asking us to question our own presuppositions and biases, to articulate our faith in new ways, to see its application to a vast range of issues, and all of this will be deeply meaningful. But none of it will be of any value if it is not hitting the ground in practice – if it is not being displayed in our actions or affirmed in our commitments. You see the dialectic I hope! And since this is a mixed audience of scholars and laypeople, let me say this a slightly different way:
Scholarship that intersects with ethical and liturgical practice is scholarship that serves the church as much as the academic institution.
Biblical Performance Criticism
In my research area of Biblical Performance Criticism this principle of a commitment to both theory and practice is very evident. Many who adhere to this method gain new insights into biblical texts by memorising, internalising and performing their chosen texts. Amongst my own small circle of friends and colleagues I’ve seen the books of Habakkuk and Revelation performed by Peter Perry, the gospel of Mark by Phil Ruge-Jones and Mark’s passion narrative by Tom Boomershine and Pam Faro, the 15 Psalms of Ascent by Melinda Cousins, the book of Job in a zoom performance by a group including Melinda, and the letter to the Romans by Sarah Agnew, and I’ve seen many others performing smaller portions of scripture. Sarah is here and has been involved with Biblical Storytellers International for many years, so she can tell you more about this way of approaching scripture (in fact, she has written the book on it!). The motivation for performing scripture is not to impress others (although that is always true), but to deepen our appreciation for these texts. Let me tell you about two main aims in performing scripture:
The first is that performance is a method in itself. By translating and performing the biblical passages, these scholars learn things that they’ve never noticed before. Let me give you an example:
When I translated the book of Habakkuk for my PhD, I noticed that apart from introducing the prophet in the first verse, the book rarely identifies who is speaking. Most commentaries agree that the first chapter is a dialogue between the prophet Habakkuk and God, but it isn’t really clear who is speaking when. I wanted to translate the book as a script, so I had to make a decision, and I followed most commentaries by attributing verses 2-4 and verses 12-17 to the prophet, and verses 5-11 to God. Peter Perry whom I’ve already mentioned took my translated Habakkuk script and performed it to a number of audiences at Fuller seminary and in his church in California, and then wrote about what he learned from the experience. He said as he was rehearsing the script, it seemed to him that the prophet was interrupting God in verse 6 of chapter 1. God says “Behold, I am raising the Chaldeans” and the next few words are “that hurtful and hasty nation, the man who marches across expanses of the earth and takes possession of dwelling places that are not his own”. Peter found it most convincing and consistent with the book to perform the script as God making a statement, “I am raising the Chaldeans”, and the prophet interrupting with the incredulous “that hurtful and hasty nation? The man who marches across expanses of the earth and takes possession of dwelling places that are not his own?” Performance opened a new way of understanding the first chapter of Habakkuk.
The second motivation is that performing scripture gets us closer to the original audiences, who were undoubtedly receiving these words not as written texts like we do, but as spoken performances. When reading texts we miss whole aspects of communication that would have been part of an original spoken experience: gestures, tone of voice and emphasis (as in the example I just gave), pauses and other rhetorical techniques. Think about the difference between reading Martin Luther King Junior’s ‘I have a dream’ address and watching a film recording of it. Very different experiences! Audiences of spoken performance more readily notice repeated or familiar words and traditions, humorous intent, times when they are not just being told a story but were being directly addressed, and audiences take cues from each other while listening collectively to what is being communicated. In an ancient setting there might have been interjections or questions for clarification. In fact, this could explain why we occasionally find contradictions or inconsistent theology in a written text preserved in our biblical tradition. Biblical performance criticism is attempting to replicate the whole communication event that lies behind our written scriptures.
As I have studied the Old Testament prophets, I have noticed how quintessentially performative their role was in the bible. They addressed audiences in public settings. They mediated between God and their communities, including religious and political leaders. They most especially spoke in times of crisis – and in performance studies we use the term ‘liminal’ for these in between moments – the times of political and social upheaval where normal cultural structures and activities are suspended (sound familiar?) At such times a community may be more ready to hear critique of the current reality or be offered a new vision to embrace. The prophets used symbolic actions and sign-acts, giving new meaning and significance to even ordinary objects and events. They weren’t just channels for God to speak through but were embodied communicators, absolutely embedded in their messages and their communities.
One of the basic tenets of performance criticism is that each performance is unique. If you have been part of an orchestra or involved in amateur theatre you will know that even when the same material is performed night after night, each time it will be different. Performers and audiences are not machines, so variation is to be expected. A member of my church told me recently that the prophetic books all seemed the same to her. I respectfully but vehemently disagreed! Especially while translating prophetic texts from the Hebrew, I am struck again and again at how different the prophets are to each other. Their style, their expression, their choice of examples, their individual use of the same traditions, the way they communicate. Even when using the same words they can end up sending opposite messages. Isaiah said ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more’ (Isa 2:4) but Joel said ‘beat your ploughshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears, let the weakling say “I am a warrior”’ (Joel 3:10). One prophet uses that image and those words to communicate peace, the other to stir up conflict. The key to interpretation is that they were speaking into different liminal moments, and so their audiences needed to hear different messages.
Recognition of these differences alerted me to the creative artistry of the prophets. I’ve developed a threefold method of approaching prophetic texts, adapted from another essay by Dwight Conquergood.
Now as I read the prophets I consider their creativity, any commentary on their prophetic performance, and the connections they made with the issues of their times. I think this pleasingly alliterated trio can be applied to us here at St Mark’s as we seek to fulfil our commitment to both theory and practice in this new year. In saying this I am really just reiterating what our website claims when it says
‘we are passionate about the practical connection of theological principles to public and private life while championing intellectual rigour in the pursuit of academic excellence’.
Creativity among the prophets
Let me first tell you about creativity amongst the prophets, using just three examples as in my book. There were definitely prophets in the Israelite community. But as I read their stories, I read them as stories rather than history. I read them with the appreciation that this wonderfully diverse literature deserves, knowing that the best stories are vehicles for profound insight into relationships between ourselves, our world, and our God.
The prophet Elijah is a commensurate performer who knows how to gain attention. He appears from nowhere in the middle of the book of Kings, dominates several episodes in the story of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel, then disappears into the clouds in a chariot of fire. In one episode he confronts the powerful Queen Jezebel and her prophets of Baal, by challenging those prophets to a public showdown on Mount Carmel. This is more-or-less what he says to Jezebel’s prophets: “Let’s both get a bull ready to sacrifice then call on our god to send the fire down from heaven for the sacrifice. You do it first – there are lots of you. Take as long as you like, I’ll wait over here.” In the hours that follow they almost kill themselves trying to get a response from their god Baal, while he sits on the sidelines and teases them. There is a lot of humour here! Then when it is his turn he puts on a real show – drenching his sacrifice in water three times before praying to the God of Israel and instantly getting the response he wanted – fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice. In another episode – an image that is portrayed on the front of my book – Elijah dramatically predicts a downpour of rain in the midst of a 3 year drought, also from the top of Mount Carmel, then as the downpour begins beats the king’s chariot back to the capital by racing against it with superhuman speed. Another episode takes place on Mount Horeb – and I think we are supposed to see the significance in this being the same mountain where Moses had encountered God according to the writers of Deuteronomy. But instead of the thunder and cloud of Moses’ experience, Elijah is met by God as a qol demamah daqq?h – usually translated ‘still small voice’. This story has given us a lasting metaphor that continues to inspire our worship. When I worked through the various episodes of Elijah’s story, it read to me like a Netflix mini-series. In my book I’ve presented it in four sections titled “A new prophet”, “Jezebel strikes back”, “The foreign menace” and “Return of the prophet”. And if you are hearing a connection to popular culture there, that is deliberate. Not only was Elijah creative in his critique of Israel, we can be creative in connecting his prophetic message with our time!
Now let me turn to the prophet Ezekiel who was creative in a very different way. He wasn’t a lone individual confronting king and community like Elijah, but was amongst the refugees in Babylon, far from the homeland, suffering along with the rest of the exiles. But even so he felt compelled to bring God’s messages of judgment and later restoration to that community. And he chose to do that by way of strange sign acts, using his own body in the way a contemporary performance artist might do. He swallowed a scroll bearing words of lament. He got others to tie him up to demonstrate how Israel had allowed herself to be immobilised by rebellion. He cut his hair with a sword and scattered it to the wind, symbolising the scattering of Israel among the nations. He lay on one side for weeks to denote the punishment of the northern kingdom, then the other side to show the shorter period of time that the southern kingdom would suffer judgement. He created a diorama of the city of Jerusalem under siege. He ate bread cooked over a fire fuelled by smelly animal dung. (Actually, the first instructions he received from God were to cook it over his own dung, but that was a step too far for this prophet-priest who was steeped in purity laws). Another time he let a pot of meat stew burn dry to symbolise the burning of Jerusalem. But he also brought messages of hope to his people with his wonderfully creative and lasting images of good shepherds and the breath of new life animating a field of dead bones.
The third prophet in my book is Jonah. This prophet is widely known because of the whale, but there is a lot more to his story. It also is told with a great deal of humour in which God sequentially appoints a storm, a great fish (a better translation than whale), a plant, a worm, and a scorching wind. All of these are intended to teach the prophet of Israel that God cares for those outside of Israel too. Jonah’s disobedience and selfishness stands out in stark contrast to the non-Israelites in the story: first the pagan sailors sacrificing and praying to God and then the image of the contrite king of Nineveh, along with all the inhabitants of the city, and even their cattle, donning sackcloth and sitting in ashes in repentance. The story of Jonah ends with a question to the prophet which is also a question to us as we hear this story: God says “should I not be concerned about the great city Nineveh, all the people in it, and all those cows?” Fancy ending a biblical book on that question! I guess it is a really important question. Do we think God should be concerned about cows?
Creativity at St Mark’s
Creativity is about adapting the good news to the right time, the right place, and the right audience in ways that are engaging and challenging. It is about theory hitting the ground in practice. In the Old Testament at times the Israelites needed to hear God’s word of judgement, and at other times they needed God’s words of promise and hope. The performances of the prophets responded to those needs and to the prompting of God’s spirit to bring the right word into the right place and the right time. We are still living in a time that is challenging all of us: how we teach, how we learn, how we communicate, how we interact physically. One way that St Mark’s chose to respond to the events of 2020 was in a special edition of St Mark’s Review in which the faculty and a few students addressed the COVID-19 crisis from our own experience and subdiscipline expertise. We titled the collection “The year of living graciously”, riffing off another well worn phrase but re-configuring it as a reminder that it is possible to respond creatively to crisis.
The St Mark’s community welcomes you to explore your creativity with us here in this new year, and together we may discover more about our wonderfully creative God.
Commentary on the prophets
In turning to commentary on the prophets I want to explore their prophetic performance a little further. You see, their performances can serve as models for us: for both faithfulness and faithlessness. We need to discern carefully whether the biblical story is giving us a model to emulate or in fact a counter illustration – a warning that prophetic performance may not always serve the gospel message of grace.
Let me begin with an obvious failure: Jonah. Right from the beginning of Jonah’s story we are shown a prophet who lacks the qualities we might expect of a prophet. God says to him ‘get up and go to Nineveh.’ It’s important for the story to realise that Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, and the Assyrians were a powerful and destructive enemy of the Hebrews. Nonetheless, the command to go to Nineveh came from God to God’s prophet. And we are told that Jonah got up, but then got on a ship to go to Tarshish – in other words he headed in exactly the opposite direction. Continuing the effort to get away from God’s call we are told he went down to the bottom of the ship and fell asleep while the sailors battled for their lives against a raging storm. When woken and questioned he tells them that he is the cause of the storm, and suggests they hurl him off the ship. After trying even harder to row against the storm they reluctantly toss him overboard, then offer prayers and sacrifices of thanks to Jonah’s God when the storm subsides. Meanwhile the prophet is swallowed by the large fish appointed by God, where he piously recites a psalm implying he has always put God first in his life. Careful attention to the Hebrew here is revealing: the grammar of the words make it clear that the pagan sailors wholeheartedly prayed to God, while Jonah’s prayers are half-hearted: “with a voice of praise I wish to sacrifice to you. That which I vowed I wish to fulfill”. They could sound more like negotiation. If you save me, then perhaps I’ll praise you. When commissioned for a second time, Jonah does head off to Nineveh, but acts like a reluctant child carrying out the bare minimum required to avoid another time-out. His message is famously brief – only 5 words in the Hebrew which I’ve tried to capture in my translation: “yet forty days, Nineveh overturned”. No introduction saying this is God’s message. No explanation for the judgement. No call for repentance. We can also infer that there is no expectation on Jonah’s part that there will be a response. Yet there was: a wholehearted and extravagant turning to God from the king to the last cow. But the story continues to picture the prophet as childish: sulking outside the city because the Hebrew God was willing to forgive the pagan nation. When God tries to engage with Jonah with the question “Is it good for you to be angry?” there is silence, and then the second time Jonah is asked he responds with a frustrated outburst “yes, it is good that I’m angry, angry enough to die!”
So why has the bible preserved this story? Perhaps it is to show us that God’s love and action is larger than we realise and not necessarily dependent on those called to ministry. Perhaps it reminds us that despite our worst intentions, we are sometimes effective anyway. After all, Nineveh was overturned as Jonah had prophesied – but by grace, not judgment. But I think the main point of the story is that God is continually inviting us to engage in matters of faith and salvation. The questions of God to Jonah become questions to us also. “Should I not be concerned over Nineveh the great city where there is in it more than 120 thousand humans who do not know between their right hand and their left, … and a lot of livestock?”
And here is where the book of Jonah makes connections with our world. Do we find God’s mercy to those who might be regarded as our enemies a good thing? Do we share God’s concern for the whole world, including those cows?
For my commentary on Elijah’s prophetic performance I want to return to just one episode, possibly the most familiar one to many of us. Following his public confrontation of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah is told in no uncertain terms that Queen Jezebel is now seeking him to rid herself of him. Repeated words in the Hebrew stress the significance of this – she sends the message “I am seeking your life” and he “runs for his life”. After a day of running he prays to God “take my life!” Then he lies down and falls asleep. Interesting that the prophets think they can escape their calling by sleeping – perhaps this is why we have so many stories of God talking to biblical characters in dreams! Anyway, there is a touching scene of an angel of God gently shaking him awake and providing him with food and drink to sustain him to keep journeying on. Soon we are told he comes to a cave on a mountain – we are told this is Horeb, the mountain of God no less. And here God questions him. What are you doing here Elijah? I’m going to read you my own translation of his answer because the Hebrew has such wonderful word play in it:
Zealously zealous have I been for YHWH the god of hosts while the sons of Israel have forsaken your covenant: your altars they threw, your prophets they slew – with the sword – and I am left, I alone, and they are seeking my life to take it.
Despite the wonderful artistry in this speech the content is problematic. It was Jezebel and her prophets of Baal that were controlling the worship life in Israel, not the sons of Israel themselves. Elijah’s demonstration on Mount Carmel had brought a wholehearted affirmation from the Israelites that were with him that Yahweh alone is God. Later in the chapter God refers to 7000 Israelites who have not bowed the knee to Baal, and at least two other prophets are named in the story who are also living faithfully and who offer their services to Elijah. So he’s not really as alone as his speech makes out. Immediately afterwards God comes to him, not in earthquake, wind or fire, but as a still small voice. Still God was offering that gentle touch. And so what I find most interesting in this episode is that Elijah repeats his speech, word for word, after he has been privileged to experience God’s presence. Even the reassurance of God’s tender presence is not enough to turn Elijah’s focus away from his own perspective of events. In the Hebrew translation there is a mark in the paragraph here that suggests a reader should pause, perhaps to consider along with God what to do now with Elijah. What else will convince him to see reality through another lens? Then the next instruction that comes from God is that Elijah should anoint another prophet – Elisha – to take up his mantle. Not long after this Elijah disappears up into the clouds and the story carries on with Elisha. And I actually think this story is another lesson by counter-illustration. Standing up for God in hostile places may not be easy, but we are not usually asked to do these things on our own. There is great value in connecting to the community God has given us, seeing events through another perspective, and sharing the burdens of responsibility.
In these two illustrations we’ve seen two examples of prophets called by God but reluctant to carry out the commission. And indeed one of the characteristics of biblical prophets is this idea of a call from God. Whether they respond well or not, they do know they’ve been called. For some it is almost a compulsion. There is a recognised literary trope in the prophetic call that we can identify in a number of biblical characters: Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Saul, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Habakkuk: all described as hearing a call from God, resisting it, being reassured of God’s presence and enabling, and then being commissioned to represent God to their communities.
Ezekiel was another called to ministry, for him through a marvellous vision, and he was commissioned by God to say and do some very strange things. There were several times when Ezekiel protested against God’s instructions, and sometimes those instructions changed as a result of his protest. More than once Ezekiel was told to stand on his feet in the presence of God when he had thrown himself down on his knees with head bowed to the ground. I think these interactions between God and the prophet are highly significant. Despite the strong sense of call, prophets were not mere puppets, who acted and spoke at the whim of the director pulling the strings. Rather, they were invited to be conversation partners with God while holding onto their own inherent dignity and agency. I noticed this first when I worked on the prophetic performance of Habakkuk: also a prophet willing to question God’s ways of working in the world. And Peter Perry’s performance just reinforced this observation – the prophet interrupting God with a protest. I mentioned earlier that prophets were embodied communicators. I’ve also noticed that the grammatical form of the Hebrew word that is translated ‘prophet’ has a reflexive meaning, which lets us know that the prophet is as much a recipient of God’s message as the audience they are addressing with that message.
Commentary at St Mark’s
What commentary might these prophetic performances provide for us here at St Mark’s?
Can we be conversation partners with God? Are we willing to ask hard questions, to open ourselves to different perspectives, to listen out for the still small voice that may be much harder to hear than the earthquakes, wind and fire? Can we share God’s concern for the whole world? Can we discern the right word for our place and time? Are we able to avoid the temptation of remaining locked in our own vision of righteousness and open ourselves to God’s judgement and grace? How can we be creative, and maintain a sense of humour, even as we discern and respond to the threats to God’s good creation?
Connections for the prophets and St Mark’s
Biblical prophetic performance is marked by confrontation of injustice, a challenge to God’s people to live up to their covenant with God, and visions of new ways of living and acting in the world. In my reading of the Old Testament prophets it is clear that prophetic action can take on many different guises. There are fifteen books named after individual prophets, but dozens more prophetic figures referenced in other books of the Old Testament, including significant prophetesses such as Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. But just in the three stories I’ve examined in detail in my book, I identified prophetic action in many forms: truth-telling, direct challenge, behind the scenes civil disobedience, compassionate provision and healing, silent protest, disturbance of the peace, provocative art installations, confrontational street theatre, visions, preaching, and merely being present amongst the community. The stories of Elijah are set at a time of severe drought, and Jonah, as we have noticed, highlights the wellbeing of animals.
Both traditions are connections for us in our time of urgency brought about by climate change. What prophetic action might we engage in here at St Mark’s to respond to our current environmental crisis?
But this is just one contemporary issue connecting us with the biblical prophetic traditions. Others that I’ve identified in my book from the stories of Elijah include justice for those living in poverty, the challenge for respectful interfaith dialogue, a focus on land rights, and active resistance to misuse of power by governing bodies. The book of Jonah, of course, also challenges us to welcome and minister to the ‘other’ even if that other is hostile to our beliefs and practices. Ezekiel, and this is not unique amongst the biblical prophets, faced resistance to his message yet continued to uphold the truth and justice his visions had revealed to him. And significantly, he remained grounded in his community even when they didn’t respond to his message.
Here at St Mark’s at the beginning of a new academic year God is calling us again to faithful, committed theoretical investigation and to the practical engagement inspired by that theological enterprise. Let us be a community engaged in creative, risky, truthful performance, strengthened by one another and upheld by the Spirit.
This lecture was delivered as part of our evening Commencement Service on Tuesday 23 February.