Practicing a Theatrical Hermeneutic in Teaching and Performance (by Paul Patton)

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Paul-Patton-webPracticing a Theatrical Hermeneutic in Teaching and Performance

Paul Patton, Ph.D., Professor of Communication and Media, Spring Arbor University (

I left the traditional pastorate at forty years old in 1993. As I began graduate studies in theater and communication, I knew I was no longer getting paid for studying and writing sermons. The time that had been devoted for years to preparing and feeding the flock to whom I was called would now be spent preparing for other types of exams, other categories of systems, and discovery processes. I simply would not have the time to be engaged in the study of biblical texts.

Yet I wanted to stay engaged as a student of the Bible. So I decided to try to memorize a verse each day. As an actor I had been already involved in memorizing text, learning my part, with the hoped-for intention of being trigger-ready with lines that could be retrieved on command. Memorizing lines written by a playwright, shaped by a director, and driven deeply into mental banks from which I would draw as the proper verbal and visual cues unfolded. I had learned to serve a story by trying my best to remember wisely and well. Again, the goal was to know my part so well that I could actively listen to the play’s circumstances without the emotional toll—and sometimes performance terror—of searching for my next line.

Early into the first semester of graduate studies that fall, I had decided that the verses I would try to commit to memory would be those texts that inspired me to re-think and repent anew. I began with a portion of Peter’s First Epistle. I also discovered the necessity of daily review of the portions of Scripture I had already committed to memory. Each morning I would go for a walk, recite and review the texts that I had learned. I distinctly remember one morning reciting a portion of Peter’s admonition aloud and being stopped in my tracks by the power of the Apostle’s word. Even though I had preached through the book of First  Peter as a Bible teacher and pastor, I had never had the confrontive and redemptive drama of the text so explosively exposed. I had to sit on the curb, shaken, head in my hands.

That was over twenty years ago and the memorization habit remains. The review sessions are the first ninety minutes of each day, getting through the memorized texts of over twenty years once every two weeks. For instance, each Sunday begins with the words of Christ, whose word is to “dwell in our hearts” (Colossians 3: 16). Each Saturday is the Pentateuch and other scriptures of Israel’s history. I can say with the Psalmist that it is a delight.

And with this memorization habit has come many unforeseen opportunities to “perform” the scriptural text in settings large and small, from short three-minute segments to larger presentations of discourses and stories. And with the preparation of each performance, I have to imagine, and subsequently decide, how instructional discourses kept an audience enraptured, how dialogue became world changing, and how insights into spiritual truths were first thrust upon a reading and often only a listening audience.

How does an effective dramatic performance of a text contribute to an audience’s understanding differently than just reading the same text? How does the interpretation of an ancient text—especially one that includes monologues, dialogue, argumentation, and the characteristics of narrative tension—deepen an audience’s understanding and even allow for deeper and more faithful interpretive possibilities? What are the dramatic realities not specifically stated in the text, the text’s non-verbals, that are usually not seriously considered in a silent reading but must be wrestled with in a dramatic reading, recitation, or reenactment?

Theatrical Hermeneutics

These are some of the questions that began my interests in “theatrical hermeneutics,” a term generally associated with the work of stage/film directors, actors, and designers in their process of interpreting and performing a literary art. However, my interests in “theatrical hermeneutics” are especially associated with the interpretation of the Bible and the potential impact of bringing the biblical story to life for an audience. It is an invitation for the interpreter, even in their private (and usually silent) reading of Holy Scripture, to rise above the mental habit of merely getting through it. Theatrical hermeneutics invites the possibility of seeing anew the dramatic tensions, comic releases, and conversation nuances that keep it a page-turner.

In a sense, my use of the term “theatrical hermeneutics” is inviting the devotional reader of the Bible to employ principled efforts perhaps learned in a course in oral interpretation. In their introductory text, Timothy Gura and Charlotte Lee spell out the benefits of practicing principles of oral interpretation:

After all, for most of our lives we have been taught to read silently, not to move our lips, and to get through the material as rapidly as possible. You have probably been asked to look at poems and stories and plays much as you examine rocks in the geology lab or dissect frogs in biology. You have likely been encouraged to point out metaphors, tragic flaws, or third-person narrators, as if literature were simply a bunching together of all these elements. Too often, looking at literature this way leads to study around the work [1]

You may never have taken the introductory course in oral interpretation. Or you may have never been involved in any formal theatrical process—not even a 3rd-grade Christmas pageant. However, there are some simple considerations that should not be overlooked in a serious, devotional reading of the biblical text, considerations that help us from studying “around the work.”

Get in the mental habit of considering the Bible’s unstated, but often necessary, non-verbals. This is an often-neglected aspect of any text of Scripture. For instance, in the Bible and other ancient and medieval texts, and stretching into the Elizabethan era, you will find few, if any, parentheticals, giving hints as to how things were said—again, what we might describe as the essential non-verbals. As an example, in the gospel story of our Lord, the only consistent non-verbal parentheticals given are when evil spirits spoke and, generally, they are spoke loudly. Few, if any, suggestions of non-verbal tone and volume are otherwise offered.

To be specific, how did our Lord, in his resurrected appearance in the garden (John 20:10-16) offer his one-word utterance to Mary—her name—in a way that jolted her into a thrilling out-pouring of exultation and praise? How did Jesus say her name? Was it whispered? Try saying her name several different ways. What interpretation resonates?  What informs your theatrical choice? By guessing at the distance between Jesus and Mary, can the interpreter automatically guess as to the proxemics appropriateness? These are all decisions that the performer, enlivened by the possibilities of theatrical hermeneutics, must make and practice. And it is also part of the arsenal of the devotional reader of Scripture.[2]

Remembering that the non-verbal parentheticals allow for a variety of faithful dramatic renderings, interpreters are sobered in their work of theatrical hermeneutics by considering the possibility of an “unfaithful” reading. Certainly, as in the study of any dramatic text, doing the essential historical/critical contextual analysis is a given in any attempt to render a faithful performance.

Another category of non-verbal, dramatic realities involved in interpreting the text for performance is the presence or absence of dramatic pauses. Once again, this non-verbal parenthetical is not present in texts prior to the last few centuries. We twenty-first  century thespians have been privy to the power of pauses, given the requisite exposure to the dramatic pause master, Harold Pinter. Pinter’s scripts remind us that much of the great and faithful acting is in the silences.

Read what I consider to be the most dramatic dialogue minute in the New Testament, John 8:48-58. It begins with the Pharisees asking Jesus for the confirmation of their assumptions about his identity, that he is a Samaritan and demon-possessed. Jesus chooses to ignore the assumption about his racial and ethnic identity and tells them he is not possessed by demons. Read the exchange and imagine the responsibility of staging the interaction for a play or film. Is the Lord sitting? How many Pharisees occupy the scene? What about any other interesting by-standers in this potentially riotous setting? Is he surrounded? If so, where does he choose to focus his responses, on the one or two that are aggressively posing the questions?

Again, consider the potential for pauses in the dialogue. It is fairly easy to imagine the interrogators jumping on Jesus’ responsive provocations: “Anyone who keeps my word, he will not see death,” immediately met with a denouncing “Now we know that you’re demon-possessed.” And then Jesus’ almost casual aside, “Abraham longed to see my day; I tell you, he has seen it and is glad,” immediately met with the derisive, mocking harangue, “You’re not yet fifty years old, and you’ve seen Abraham?”

You probably know what’s next. But give it a long, dramatic pause—experiment with its length. The inner-monologue of our Lord might have included something like the following, “Are you sitting down, gentlemen? We both know Yahweh’s inaugural introduction at the burning bush (see Exodus 3: 14) and we all know that Abraham lived two thousand years ago. So, are you ready… are you ready for this?” Then our Lord Jesus offers—not jumping on their preceding comment—after a dramatic pause, “Before Abraham existed, I am!” The possibility of the pause further sets up the explosive response of the Pharisees.

One more example, this one from the prophets: read Isaiah 66:1-2, a portion that Deacon Stephen quotes just before he is stoned in Acts 7. Isaiah reiterates the realization of Solomon on the occasion of dedicating the Temple (see I Kings 8: 27) several centuries earlier. Simply put, Yahweh, the Lord of the Universe, is not localized in a “house” of human construction.

But try reading the first two verses of Isaiah’s reiteration with just a slight sarcastic edge (remembering sarcasm was a prophetic instrument). Adding the sarcastic tone drives home the point that can be missed at an uninspired, straight, and safe reading of the text: “As if God needs a house with aluminum siding, living room, and Lazy-boy!” The prophet’s sarcastic chide drives home the corrective assertion that the Creator of the Universe—who formed more galaxies than planets in our relatively tiny solar system—is not necessarily comforted by our needs to domesticate Him. The command to “build a house” was an incredibly gracious concession in order to intervene into human sensibilities and push forward a theological corrective about Yahweh’s transcendence and immanent accessibility. To read the sarcasm in the prophet’s astronomical assertion, “The earth is my footstool,” might have provided some helpful hints for the dismissive respondents to Copernicus’ offerings in the sixteenth century. The earth is God’s “footstool, not his throne!”


[1] Timothy Gura and Charlotte Lee, Oral Interpretation, 11th  ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005),  [11].

[2] I would like to thank the Reverend John Peck for this example and exercise in oral interpretation.

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