Reading As Performance

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I am just back from our clergy conference, in which we were spiritually refreshed by the preaching of the Rev. Dr. Emma Ineson of Trinity, Bristol, and the teaching of Dr. Joe Mangina of Wycliffe College, Toronto.  The former brings a background in the study of linguistics to her study, and the latter developed the idea of “performance” to his reading of the Gospel of John.  What does such a term say to us?

The main idea comes from the word of the philosophy of language, and in particular a scholar named Austin, who spoke of performative speech acts.  By this he meant speech that changes something in the world.  The vicar says “I now pronounce…,” and the couple are married.  The umpire says “strike three,” and the batter returns sullen to the dugout. 

Mangina’s reflections offered answers to the question:  what does the very act of reading do, not only in how we think, but in who we are?  He suggested that the theme of sacrifice, of the Lamb of God and the Son opening a way to the Father, runs throughout John.  As we hear of Him as sacrifice, we are made into his Temple. Likewise, he spoke of the theme of the Word throughout the book from the very first verse.  The words of Jesus are themselves Word, Scripture, his utterance itself calling his friend Lazarus from the grave.  As we hear of Him as word, we become the hearer he made his creature to be in the beginning. 

Something similar happens when we truly hear preaching:  we become the place where the Spirit does the same work described in the Gospel story.  So Ineson spoke of John’s address to his flock, living as they were between love and truth, trying to see themselves as called to hospitality and sometimes capable of its opposite.  And in hearing her sermon we realize ourselves to be in the very same space as that described by John himself.  We are grateful for both, who opened our eyes to the divinely performative reality found in every election and every sermon in your own parish Sunday by Sunday.




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I have been writing an extended letter to the diocese in the context of the coming General Convention in particular, and the state of our culture in general. It is good to place the struggles of our own day in a wider framework, to rise up and survey for a moment the wider vista. In this regard I recently read an article by my friend, Ephraim Radner, about what he calls borrowing from ecologists and anthropologists, “the Anthropocene age.” By this he refers to the accumulation of changes we have grown used to and take for granted, but which together represent a paradigm shift, a seismic change.  We dominate the natural environment, often to its detriment. We are mobile, economically dynamic and rapidly changing, the patterns of marriage and birth are dramatically altered, and we would define our genders, genes, and our manner of death. technology at once remote and invasive controls the scene. Our very sense of time is altered, its pace quickened, its rhythms lost. His claim is that, taken together, the very notion of the human is changed with a considerable portion of a prior sense of being a creature occluded from our eyes. The raft of contemporary dystopic movies points to features of the change.

One defense of maintaining our present prayer book is that we need to “live into it” more than we yet have. Such an argument may be true in ways we don’t yet know, especially “respecting the dignity of every human being.” In the Anthropocene human dignity per se may require a stand for Christians together. I like Ephraim’s title, “There is Nowhere to Stand but Hope.’” In a time when the shape of the coming issues is so hard to foresee, he is right, and the true nature of existence is thereby laid bare.

What has all this got to do, if at all, with Easter? A great deal! God does not erase the creaturely theater for human life but is redeeming it. The coming of the kingdom, like the resurrection, is His sovereign act. We are in truth a vulnerable band of witnesses to what He has done. 



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