In Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2018), Anna Carter Florence, a professor of preaching and ordained minister, advocates for what she calls a repertory church: a community of people regularly gathering together in a room to read and rehearse scripture—to really read and rehearse it, to engage in a variety of approaches to text, such as “reading the verbs,” like those applied by theatrical repertory groups to plumb the depths of a script—then “to come back and say something true,” to tell others what was encountered and learned in engaging in such practices.
In doing this, not only do we learn much about God and gain new insights about what the scripture is telling us, she explains, we learn how to fend for ourselves when reading scripture and how to feed ourselves, so to speak, when searching for guidance from the Bible.
This can be done alone, too — this idea of “acting out” or “rehearsing” scripture — and the book provides suggestions that can be implemented alone, but the benefits to be had from a group that engages with the methodologies outlined by Dr. Florence, whether it is a Sunday School class or book club or group of friends or what have you, are apparent in the examples of the book.
Dr. Florence is the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminar in Dectaur, Georgia, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Rehearsing Scripture, perhaps true to its art, is at the same time quite structured and quite energetic. It is easy to follow and instructs us in step-by-step fashion how to go about this approach to scripture. At the same time, the book carries the reader along on a journey, an exciting one at that, one filled with promise of the feast approaching scripture with this methodology can bring.
Part I—chapters one through six—serves as somewhat of an instruction manual and Part II—seven through ten—as an example of how things might go. The book also includes appendices with more details and examples of various questions and implementations of that which is discussed in each part.
Part I begins with a most helpful point that nouns in scripture — and the parts of scripture on which we often focus — can almost immediately allow the reader to distance themselves from the text. The reader can usually easily note that “I am not a [fill in noun that is in the story],” which can allow us to step away very easily. Verbs, on the other hand, are common across time and space and do not allow such distancing, at least not as easily.
So, Rehearsing Scripture urges us, “Enter scripture verbs-first” and then takes us on a journey of what a difference it makes if the reader focuses on just the verbs, using Genesis 3:7-8, when Adam and Eve realizes they are naked and hide from God. Listing each verb and then asking questions like which actor gets which verbs, the verb order, what the verb tense and mood might say, what does the verbs stir or evoke, and others connects us to the story and does not allow us to step away so easily.
Stay in the Scene
Rehearsing Scripture urges us on still. Urging us to “stay in the scene”—to keep going, to recreate the scene with a group of people and to see that it feels like to act it out. What do we learn from playing one role? What about when we switch roles? Did any one verb make a big difference in the scene? What if it were a different verb?
Come back, we must, the book tells us, after doing these things, and say something true. What we saw, we should say. Dr. Florence gives several questions to prompt us along the way in considering the scripture verbs-first and in staying in the scene to ask ourselves what we are seeing.
There is always something that strikes us, as a community of readers, in going through this relationship with scripture if we stay in the scene, and, as her college theater professor would do, we might keep going until we have something true to say, she insists. It is there for us. And Rehearsing Scripture gives us lots of questions to prompt us to realize we did see something and to help us form it in a way that we can express to others.
I was delighted with Rehearsing Scripture’s chapter on “Playing Fair.” Recognizing that theater and such rehearsal involves letting loose and a good deal of vulnerability, Dr. Florence encourages participants to be kind and, specifically, to treat this work like we are all kids in a sandbox. The advice, I think, is applicable to lots of situations, many online. A few of them:
(a) Come together joyfully and have fun. This is supposed to be fun.
(b) Let’s just all acknowledge that the format is a bit messy, so come ready for it to be a bit messy and don’t be surprised when it is and don’t take it personally. Expect to get some sand on you and some sand in your eye; just smile and keep on digging.
(c) Shovels are for digging, not hitting each other with. As long as tools like commentaries, Greek knowledge, etc., are for digging further and extending conversation, fine. If they are for hitting someone over the head, not fine.
(d) We are playing together and gathering ideas, often. Often, we need everyone asking questions, what if…. When doing that, you can knock down your sandcastle, but not someone else’s. We are gathering ideas, so it is OK to ask questions and ask “What if …,” but knocking down ideas / sandcastles will sap energy.
(e) The sandbox will be here tomorrow. No need to “win” sandbox.
And many more.
Rehearsing Scripture in Part II demonstrates how to employ these steps with some specific examples. The examples are interesting and instructive. In one example, though, the one addressing chapter 5 of Mark, it presents one interpretative possibility that rehearsing scripture reveals (Jairus’s daughter not being present for Jesus’s instruction not to tell about the event of her being brought back from the dead, and thus Jesus telling only the adults, leaving her free to speak) too confidently, essentially as the only possibility, when the Biblical text does not mandate it as the only possibility. This caused me some pause relative to the reliability of some parts of the book. I realize that rehearsing scripture can reveal interpretations and meaning not revealed in a flat meaning, but it is important to be careful not to present interpretations as the only possibility.
Rehearsing Scripture‘s use of chapter 5 of Mark is quite helpful, though. Other examples presented by Rehearsing Scripture are also useful, including Tamar’s story.
Overall, Rehearsing Scripture is a thought-provoking read for those who want to draw as much as they can from reading the Bible, and I recommend it. It is useful even for “solo readers,” as one can form a mini-repertory in one’s head, using the verbs and acting it out. Of course, it would be much better with others, challenging one another, staying in the scene, and coming back to “say something true.”
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Sources and Notes
The picture is of my copy of Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2018).
Update: Fixed typos in the form of “rehearing,” adding the s to correct them to “rehearsing.”