the performance of the biblical text ends only at death

Recently I purchased a copy of "Theology on the Way to Emmaus" by the Roman Catholic writer Nicholas Lash. Over the years I have borrowed the book from the theological school library many times, finding in it a helpful interpretive lens. Out of print for a number of years, it has recently been reprinted by Wipf & Stock publishers in Oregon. It now sits by my bedside (yes, I know, how many of us consider books on theology and hermeneutics to be bedside reading?). Each night I am reminded of the reasons that I have found Lash so helpful over the past fifteen years.

It is from Lash that I discovered the language of the performance of scripture to describe the purpose of Christian life in community. As I think about the conversation we are having in the congregation this autumn about Christian practices of forgiveness I realize the conversation is primarily intended to thicken our capacity to enact forgiveness and reconciliation in our lives and life together. Our talking about forgiveness is akin to actors discussing how to interpret a script before going on stage. The discussion is necessary but it is only preparatory to the performance of the story in our lives.

In the same way, the story of the way in which we play out our mortality - and, in my case, the symptoms and treatment of multiple myeloma and amyloidosis - enacts our interpretation of the biblical story. Recurrent themes in a people whose lives are scripted by the gospel include the sharing of suffering, the embodiment of compassion, and courage rooted in a cruciform hope. When I look to the years ahead my hope is to belong to a cast who help me to live this script faithfully.

Here are some quotes from Nicholas Lash ...

"... My colleague Eamon Duffy has said that 'the theological task of every age is not simply the proclamation, but the recognition of the truth it has received'. One of the things I am trying to do in these essays is to indicate why I believe this task of 'recognition' to be much more difficult than is commonly supposed. In a catch-phrase: Christian discourse is autobiographical, and it is no easy matter to produce a truthful autobiography."

"... the fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of scripture is the life, activity and organization of the believing community."

"... the poles of Christian interpretation are not, in the last analysis, written texts (the text of the New Testament on the one hand and, on the other, whatever appears today in manuals of theology and catechetics, papal encyclicals, pastoral letters, etc.) but patterns of human action: what was said and done, and suffered, then, by Jesus and his disciples, and what is said and done and suffered, now, by those who seek to share his obedience and his hope. We talk of 'holy' scripture, and for good reason. And yet it is not, in fact, the script that is 'holy', but the people: the company who perform the script."

"... Christian living, construed as the interpretative performance of scripture is, for two reasons, necessarily a collaborative enterprise. This is so, first, because (as I have pointed out already) the performers need the help of the 'experts'. The second reason arises from the nature of the texts: it takes two to tango and rather more to perform King Lear. For even the most dedicated musician or actor, the interpretation of Beethoven or Shakespeare is a part-time activity. Off-stage, the performers relax, go shopping, dig the garden. But there are some texts the fundamental form of the interpretation of which is a full-time affair because it consists in their enactment as the social existence of an entire human community. The scriptures, I suggest, are such texts. This is what is meant by saying that the fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of scripture is the life, activity and organization of the believing community. The performance of scripture is the life of the church. It is no more possible for an isolated individual to perform these texts than it is for him to perform a Beethoven quartet or a Shakespeare tragedy."

"... to put it very simply: as the history of the meaning of the text continues, we can and must tell the story differently. But we do so under constraint: what we may not do, if it is this text which we are to continue to perform, is to tell a different story."

"... I have been suggesting that the fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of scripture is the life, activity and organization of the Christian community, construed as performance of the biblical text. The best illustration of what this might mean is, of course, the celebration of the eucharist. Here, that interpretative performance in which all our life consists - all our suffering and care, compassion, celebration, struggle and obedience - is dramatically distilled, focussed, concentrated, rendered explicit. In this context, the principal forms of discourse are 'practical': in praise, confession, petition, they seek to enact the meanings which they embody. And if, in the liturgy of the Word, the story is told, it is told not so that it may be merely relished or remembered, but that it may be performed, in the following of Christ.

At the end of a performance of Lear, the actors leave the stage, remove their costumes, 'return to life'. But, for each Christian actor, the performance of the biblical text ends only at death. The stage on which we enact our performance is that wider human history in which the church exists as the 'sacrament', or dramatic enactment, of history's ultimate meaning and hope. If the texts of the New Testament are to express that which Christian faith declares them capable of expressing, the quality of our humanity will be the criterion of the adequacy of our performance. And yet this criterion is, in the last resort, hidden from us in the mystery of God whose meaning for man we are bidden to enact."

- Nicholas Lash in "Theology on the Way to Emmaus" (Wipf & Stock), from pp. xi, 42-46.

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