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Christopher Bryan’s Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Interpretation grapples with an issue which has produced a number of books over the last couple of decades: where is the Bible to be best interpreted?  The theoretical ferment of the late twentieth century provided a range of answers to how it should be read, but in the contemporary “post-theory” situation the argument has often focused around where: which institutions and sites provide the correct context for Scriptural interpretation.  (If only because the hermeneutic proliferation of that period both demonstrated that institutional values and priorities were so often involved in the reading process, and presented a range of strategies which could all validate themselves on their own terms but which clearly required an outside principle or authority to distinguish between them.)  The two most prominent contenders are the church and the academy, and volumes like Reclaiming the Bible for the Church (eds. Jenson and Braaten), Whose Bible is it Anyway? (Davies), Faithful Interpretation (Adam) and Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (eds. Ford and Stanton) engage in various ways with this question, variously replaying Tertullian’s opposition between Athens and Jerusalem and variously seeking to solve it.

bryan listening to the bible

Bryan’s position is summed up by the working title of this volume – Interpreting Scripture in the Service of the Church – and like many on that side of the discussion, he feels that the Bible has been treated incorrectly or unproductively by much of the last hundred and fifty years of academic work (104).  It is not simply a matter of choosing to place the Bible within its correct institutional context, but of releasing it from previous frameworks which have failed to do it justice.  Listening to the Bible seeks to bring Biblical Studies and the preached Bible into a conversation with each other, but a conversation whose topics and direction is guided by the needs and priorities of the “ordinary faithful people” of the church (2).  The opening section of the book asks “How did we get here?”, tracing the arc of modern historical criticism via Jowett, Dilthey and Schweitzer, arriving at Crossan and the other members of the Jesus Seminar, before dealing with the hermeneutics of suspicion and referring to its exemplary forms in Nietzsche, Marx and Freud.  The essential charges which Bryan levels at this scholarship are familiar: it risks solipsism, producing an endless series of portraits of the scholars undertaking it decked out in vaguely Jesus-looking accessories; it assumes too simple a relationship between the conceptual and cultural worlds of past and present; and it imports its own presuppositions under the cover of revealing those of previous interpreters.

In its place, Bryan offers a more attentive critical style which is careful not to read the text “against itself”, takes place within a tradition of interpretation and faith which recognises the texts as telling a story which interpolates the reader and their community, and includes more humility than he has detected in academic criticism (he quotes a passage from The Five Gospels and remarks that “it is probably difficult for anyone who is not a professional academic to imagine that such breath-taking arrogance is intended seriously” (31).  The tasks of criticism, as he frames them, are three-fold:

to listen so far as possible to the individual voices of Scripture and to try to understand them

to consider the individual voices in relation to the whole of Scripture, asking how far an overall witness, a consensus, arises from Scripture, and if so what it is

and finally to ask how all that relates to the continuing life and witness of the Church up to and including our own day                                                     (45.)

The “listening” which precedes analytic or synthetic work in this scheme involves a stress on genre as a determining principle in reading.  Bryan compares the tendency of much historical-critical work with two books he recently read on Shakespeare and Austen: Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age and Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen Cookbook.  They are both interesting and enlightening for fans of those authors, he suggests, but

I would insist that if one really wants to get to grips with Shakespeare’s work,then at some point one has to take it for what it is and was clearly intended to be, poetry and drama.  One must finally make the effort to treat his plays as plays, as texts whose home is in the theater and whose true life is in performance.  Similarly, if one really wants to get to grips with Austen, one must be willing to read her novels as novels: which means opening oneself to entering the world of her characters, to living with Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse as they experience their lives, growing and changing in that experience.

The insistence on genre echoes arguments which have been deployed from a rather different quarter of this discussion, by John Barton in his repeated defences on the historical-critical approach (or the collection of techniques, assumptions and approaches which have come to be identified with that label.)  In his essay on the premature “death” of historical-critical work in The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, and then at greater length in The Nature of Biblical Criticism, Barton has argued that genre and form are in fact the essential aspects of that tendency, and provide a powerful lens through which to approach the “plain sense” of Biblical texts.  Though they have radically different senses of the last hundred years of scholarship, its results, assumptions and philosophical underpinnings, Bryan and Barton both advance genre as a governing system which can adjudicate between the welter of readings available in a post-theoretical (if not post-critical) context.

However, the Shakespeare metaphor Bryan employs is much more than accidental, or an analogy to emphasize the importance of genre.  Shakespeare analogies work through the book to construct a concept of “performance” which can go beyond genre.  Prospero’s speech at the end of The Tempest “steps out of the imagined past into a present and future hope that are also our present and future hope: we leave the theater imaginatively aware that we are linked with him in a common destiny that points to all our futures”, Bryan remarks that a good actor “does not undertake a role in an Elizabethan drama without learning what can be learned of Elizabethan theater, Elizabethan vocabulary and idiom, and the peculiar workings of Elizabethan dramatic verse”, and advises that “with Shakespeare we must go to the theatre” and with the Scriptures we must go to the synagogue or church”  (99, 122, 124).  Unless “we are prepared to be serious” about the public performance of the texts, “we can claim to be no more than partially serious in our desire to encounter Scripture” (124).

The use of “performance” to theorize approaches to the Bible has been increasingly popular over the last couple of decades, from the account of speech act theory given in Briggs’ Words in Action, to Frances Young’s The Art of Performance or Henry Wansbrough’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible.  Bryan takes this a stage further by insisting on the literal performance of Biblical texts as the locus of interpretation, or at least experience which can then provide the basis for interpretation, via the “listening” of his title.  Performance for Bryan is not a metaphor to explain the shifting understandings of Scripture across time, or a category to elucidate specific passages. It is an activity in space and time, a practice which can enable the faithful community to attend to what is important about the Bible.  This is the real strength of his book, which blends a concern for the continuous tradition of interpretation (in a way which sets him against Krister Stendhal and alongside A.K.M. Adam), with a stress on the Bible as a document of community belief and practice (in James Barr’s term) and the necessity for physical realization of religious meanings which harmonizes with the work of Meredith B. McGuire.  “Performance” is taken refreshingly literally here, especially for a critical concept which foregrounds the demands of the physical and the immediate.  Indeed the long appendix by the theatre academic David Landon offers instruction in the ways in which Scriptural passages might be “performed” by the kind of lectors Bryan envisages.

The major problem, which derails much of Bryan’s argument at this point, and undermines some of the book’s undoubted virtues, is the notion of performance which is advanced.  The model of Shakespearean performance which informs Bryan’s account is roughly that of J.L. Styan and the wave of “stage-centred criticism” which reached its height in the 1970s.  It envisages an unproblematic and transhistorical model of theatrical meaning which can  be “released” by placing the text within the correct performance context.  This approach paid enormous dividends in both scholarly and theatrical practice in the years between William Poel’s work with the Elizabethan Stage Society in the late nineteenth century and the end of the Hall-Barton management at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the building of Shakespeare’s Globe in the 1990s was the realization of its dreams and aspirations, allowing Shakespeare’s plays to be performed in conditions which more closely approximated those of the Early Modern period.  By the time that theatre was built, however, stage-centred criticism had given way to (or at least been dramatically challenged by) performance studies, as recounted in Sarah Werner’s opening essay in New Perspectives in Renaissance Performance Studies, or Jeremy Lopez’s parallel review of Acts of Criticism and Companion to Shakespeare and Performance.

Performance studies, exemplified by the work of scholars such as Richard Schechner, Roberta Barker, Carol Chillington Rutter and William B. Worthen, casts doubt on the assumptions that “the stage” could reliably reproduce the meanings of the text.  It drew attention to the huge historical contingencies involved in the performance event, of the way audiences contribute to the production of meaning, of the ideologies of the body, the self, gender, race and nation which structured and directed the meanings which emerged in performance.  When Bryan cites Patsy Rodenburg to the effect that “Language fully owned…has the power to transform.  There is a summoning power in words it is sometimes dangerous to say what we mean because it will occur.  Powerful words and ideas create the thing itself”, he refers to her as “recognized as one of the world’s leading voice and drama coaches”, which is absolutely true (119).  However it overlooks the comprehensive critique of Rodenburg’s work by William Worthen in the 1990s, which did not discount her ideas but demonstrated the way the actor and voice training she developed involved reproducing ideological assumptions which were then “found” to be located in Shakespeare and “human nature”.  Shakespeare’s Globe itself, an institutional testament to the power and potential of stage-centred criticism, has provided insights which drastically call into question that style of criticism, and certainly reveal its historical and cultural contingency.  Bryan suggests that “with Shakespeare we must go to the theater”, but Shakespeare’s Globe has shown us for the last twenty years that we cannot.

Even more damaging is the thinness of the notion of “performance” put forward.  Bryan calls valuable attention to the need for the text to be viewed as a bridge between moments of oral performance, an encoding of signs which can allow realizations to take place (but which does not constitute them itself), drawing most obviously on the work of Walter Ong.  There are parallels here with the “enfleshing of the Word” which George Pattison finds in N.F.S Grundtvig and more dimly with various accounts of revelation which employ the language and categories of performance.  The key description of performance in the book comes when he suggests that:

 This is the problem of written text.  But is it also the opportunity for performers for by allowing written words to be again “formed through” them (which is essentially what “performance” means, performers can restore to past words some – perhaps all – of that participatory quality which is natural to words in their original oral state, and which being confined to writing denies them.  Words from the past, which have been bereft of much of their power through disembodiment, are re-embodied, made incarnate, through the person of the performer.  And that re-embodiment can enable those words to live again and involve us as much as if we were now hearing them for the first time, or even as if they were being said for the first time.  Every actor worth his or her salt knows this, and every actor worth his or her salt seeks to achieve it in performance.

As an account of how a good performance can feel this is persuasive, but as a concept of performance it is two-dimensional and ignores the mainstream of thinking done on performance since the 1960s.  The classic works by Richard Schechner, Marvin Carlson, Erving Goffman, J.L. Austin and Judith Butler insist on the tension between the performer and the words or the role they are performing.  Performance as the annihilation of distance and difference does not make sense, either for the performer or the watchers/ listeners.  The performative power of a Scripture reading stems not from being fooled for a moment into not understanding that these things happened in the past, but from the shocking awareness of the dual presence of both the human voice (whose owner we may know) speaking in front of us and the past voice which does not belong to them.  Performance and its effects depend for their power and function upon a recognition that what is taking place is a ­re-­hearsal, a re-telling, a invocation of something from elsewhere.  Crucial concepts such as “citation” in Butler’s work, “liveness” in Auslander’s and “ghosting” in Carlson’s, which provide the underpinnings of areas of performance studies, all allow us different ways of approaching this.  Without it the very notion of “performance” becomes incoherent and pointless, and certainly unable to bear the weight which Bryan puts upon it as a solution to the problem of modern Biblical scholarship.

Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation provides an engaging and erudite account of the situation in which Biblical Studies finds itself in relation to the faith community, and makes intriguing suggestions as to how that situation could be resolved.  Whilst it leaves major theoretical questions begged, it opens up avenues of discussion which will surely provoke fruitful debate and – perhaps more importantly – fruitful practice.



Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation.  Christopher Bryant (with an appendix by David Landon)  (Oxford University Press: 2014) £18.99  I am grateful to Oxford University Press for providing a copy of the volume for review.