The Bible as Literary Construct and Art

This post was originally a discussion paper for my Feminist Theology 2 class in my PhD work.

The Bible has long been called “The Word of God”. Often included in the discussion are descriptors such as as “infallible”, “divinely inspired”, “perfect” and “only”. But for Christian Feminists, accepting the Bible as the only word of God, or the infallible record of those divinely inspired causes pain and exclusion, and raises more questions.

The Bible has often been used to oppress women. Ranging from exclusion from church leadership to domestic abuse, certain selections are held up in defense of androcentric and even evil choices of the human patriarchy and tradition in the place of power. We have, in our churches, decided that the passages dealing with multiple wives and slavery are clearly no longer applicable in today’s society. However, these same churches struggle to deal relevantly with homosexuality, violence, and the role of women. The Church must stop assigning cultural acceptance or dismissal to only certain parts of the Bible. Either we interpret it all through the lens of what is freeing, loving and life-giving, or we do not. Either we state that all of the Bible is the product of the world that it reflects, which is not the world we live in, or we do not. Many modern Christians are trying to pick and choose the passages that defend their positions, as un-Christlike as they may be, while dismissing others on the basis of history. This double-standard of Biblical reading and interpretation cannot be allowed to continue in our churches.

Sandra Schneiders reminds us in her essay that language is a “human phenomenon” (38). And as such, the Bible is inherently human. She writes “Because the text is human language giving voice to human experience of God in Christ, as well as to the experience of the early community in all its weakness and sinfulness, the text, even though it is inspired….is as capable of error distortion, and even sinfulness as the church itself” (49). The modern Church’s and modern Christians’ inability to recognize the above leads to harmful teachings and beliefs on women in leadership (in the church and civic lives), the gender (or lack thereof) of God, and the inferiority of women. This continues into oppression of other groups, including homosexual men and women and minority races.

As a language construct, Word of God is a metaphor. Much of what happens in the Bible is a metaphor, or a parable. That is, words or stories spoken to impart meaning and message, rather than to be taken a literal truth. Many Evangelical Christians hold that the Bible is literally, rather than metaphorically, true. Schneiders writes “The idolatrous result of this literalization can be traced through church history in the patriarchalization of Christian faith” (39). She reminds us that “Obviously, God does not literally speak, but the metaphor word of God certainly intends meaning. Its referent, what it points to is the entire domain of reality that we call divine revelation that is, the self-disclosure of God as it is perceived and received by human beings” (39). Revelation requires interaction between God and people. It is again this human element that cannot be considered untainted or infallible.

All language must also be interpreted. We interpret, as I often tell my students in choreography, based on what we bring with us. The audience’s own past experiences and biases influence what they see and hear. Even what they ate or didn’t eat, and the events of the day, before coming into the theatre influence what they view and, ultimately, what they interpret. Every audience member sees a slightly different dance, a slightly different play. It is tied up in their own personal, embodied experiences. No playwright or choreographer can ever fully know how their work will be received, a point that Schneiders makes about Biblical texts (48).

Schneiders writes, “Essentially, interpretation is a dialectical process that takes place between a reader and a text and culminates in an event of meaning” (47). It is this evanescence that I love about live art. No performance is ever the same. It is why actors and dancers can continue to “do the same thing” for 8 shows a week- it is never the same, because the energy shared between audience and performers is always different. In the same way, we encounter texts differently. We can reread the same passage at different points in our lives and discover different meanings, based on personal experiences and experiencing it with the people around us. Schneiders reminds us that this is important because “ implies that a text does not have one right meaning…”  and that “...meaning is not ‘in’ the text, but occurs in the interaction between text and reader…” (47). Importantly, “the reader makes a genuine contribution to the meaning rather than being simply a passive consumer of prefabricated meaning” (48). It is this act of interpretation that gives hope to me as a Christian feminist. The meaning of the texts lie with us. We are responsible for researching, communicating and embodying meaning from the Scriptures that is inclusive, life-giving and freeing. We can accept the Bible as a human construct of communication with the Divine. In it we can see other human interpretations, and bring our own. And we can, ultimately, determine its meaning in our lives.

Schneiders, Sandra M. (1993) "The Bible and Feminism: Biblical Theology" in Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed. Freeing Theology. New York: HarperCollins.

Art Education: Process v. Product. Originally published 5.2012

April was full of events. Actually, most of them occurred all in 1 week! My high school students presented A Midsummer Night’s Dream and their semester dance performance. My students at Hedgerow performed for a fundraiser. Through it all, I was coaching, correcting, writing program notes, performing as well, and just generally hoping for the best. 

Weeks like that are the best and the worst. We celebrate as all of our hard work, scolds, suggestions and teaching become a beautiful final product. And, we worry that it won’t. Somehow, it always seems to “come together”. Yet, I’m concerned that miracle of adrenaline is something we take for granted. Do we, as teachers and directors, just trust it will “come together”, and then not instill in our students the importance of discipline, rehearsing as you would perform, and taking pride in one’s work, as much in the process as the product? 

If we do not encourage our students to be disciplined- prepared, on time, respectful of the process, their peers and their authorities- we miss a chance to prepare them for college and jobs, where they will not have us there to remind them. 

If we do not have them rehearse as they perform, we do not teach them that the arts, and most things in life, are group efforts. That the actions (or lack thereof) of one person has a ripple affect on the group, with consequences s/he may not foresee when focused on him/herself.

If we do not encourage our students to take as much pride in the process as in the finished product, we do not actually encourage learning. We are telling them that the end is all that matters. We do not take mistakes and failures as learning opportunities, rather we just focus on the happy ending (see chapter 1 of Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine). And in that, we don’t encourage creativity. If we cannot teach our students to try, to fail, to try again, to seek ways to improve we are not educating them. We are not creating a generation of resilient, innovative thinkers and doers, who operate with perspective and insight. We are simply teaching them to get to the end. By whatever means necessary. 

The arts in education should not be about just getting to the end- the performance, the final piece, the presentation. The arts in education should be a time to teach the value of exploration, to embrace learning and process as just as important as the finished product. If you never start, you can never finish. If you do not learn as you go, you will not end up in any place different than where you started. 

Dancing Together v. Dancing at the Same Time. Originally published 8.21.17

One of my freelance gigs is coaching a competitive salsa team. Not in salsa, mind you. That is not my forte. But I use my Laban work and my theatre experience to coach them in performance quality and characterization. For this coming season, I have another goal for them- ensemble. 

In the salsa scene, teams compete and they perform at Socials (events that include social dancing and performances). I recently attended a social, and I found I had a HUGE problem with many of the performances. These "teams" of dancers looked like anything but. They were all dancing the same choreography, at the same time. But they were not dancing together. There was a serious lack of ensemble. 

Ensemble is a tricky thing to teach. It is also difficult to maintain in a high pressure setting. So I do understand that it is difficult to get students or those new to performing to grasp it. But it is part of the "it factor" that sets apart a performance. You can feel it when it's there, and you can feel it when it's not.

When a team is dancing together, they draw the audience in. We see connections and we want to be a part of that. When a team is dancing at the same time, they alienate their audience. The audience is constantly reminded that this is a group of people doing choreography, not dancing together. They are constantly confronted with faces and body language that says "look at me, doing this cool thing!" Every member is out for his/herself. The audience feels overwhelmed because they are trying to watch 12 soloists, rather than 1 team. Visually and emotionally, it's way too much. Each member of the audience ends up watching only 1 person, or worse, stops watching altogether and is checking Facebook on her phone. 

When we dance together, we are part of a movement. We are part of tribe that rises, or falls, together. I can only look good, or do well, if I give you what you need to look good or do well. When we dance at the same time, I'm worried only about me, what I need to do or where I need to go next. And god help you if you are in my way. 

There is no loyalty, or true teamwork, in dancing at the same time. It is simply an individual feat of memorization and execution. Dancing together, now, that is a different matter. I must still have my individual part, but I must be willing to sacrifice it at any time to the rest of the whole. Otherwise, the team ceases to exist. 

Dancing, particularly social dancing, is about being together. It is about connection, and what connects us-- our bodies. We mediate this world in our bodies. In the world of dance this is very visibly true. When I dance simply at the same time as someone else, my body is not a means of connection. At best, it is a request to be seen. And that request is valid, don't get me wrong. Everyone wants to be seen, and validated, for who she is. But what is the good of being seen, if we don't see anyone else there to share the space with? At worst, it's a tool of self-indulgence. And there's a time and place for that, too. But it's not in partner dancing, where someone is trying desperately to connect to you. And definitely not on a team of partnerships. 

Creating an ensemble is creating connection. I can feel your energy, find your path, use your momentum-- all without using my eyes. So my eyes are free to find yours, to solidify our connections. My eyes are free to look out for my team. Or to invite the audience to join the dance. 

Lessons from my Time in Theatre. Originally published 3.17.18.

2010. Hedgerow Theatre. Rose Valley, PA.

I had choreographed the carol dances for A Christmas Carol. I researched on English country dances (think: Jane Austen), and set one for the Fezziwig ball and one for the end of the show. I had only been at Hedgerow a few months, being brought in to choreograph the world premiere of An American Tragedy. Penelope and I hit it off, she liked my work, and I agreed to do the season: Oliver!, A Christmas Carol, Godspell, and something else I’ve forgotten.

I fell in love with the theatre- with the people, the life, the stories. I found people who understood my love of literature, my desire to make art, my need to connect. I went to rehearsals when I wasn’t needed just to be a part of that world. In doing so, I learned the art of directing from watching Pen, the art of acting from watching my friends and young students, the art of connecting from watching a company put all of the elements together for a receptive community. One day, I realized just how much I had learned- on Christmas Eve, an actor didn’t come to the show. It was a small role, a solicitor, visiting Scrooge. And I was confident I had absorbed the lines, if not the character. I volunteered to go on. At first, the others laughed. I convinced them I was serious; I believed I could do it. I was a performer, after all. How hard was talking on stage, when I could dance en pointe?! So, I did. I did just fine. And, from that moment, I was an actor as well as a dancer. I knew it, Penelope knew it, and so did the rest of the company. 

My start in theatre came through dance, as a member of the creative team. I loved watching something I created take a life beyond my vision and my teaching and become a part of something bigger. My start as an actor came through necessity and urgency.

2018. Curtain Call Playhouse. Pompano Beach, FL.

This past weekend I was reminded of this beginning. I got a phone call while I was drinking my coffee on Sunday morning. A hit-and-run accident the night before had left an actress in the company I am a part of with a concussion. It was a role I had read before; could I please read in for the matinee performance?

I was honored to be asked. To be asked to read in, one must have certain characteristics:

  • Capable of making good, instinctual choices- like those displayed in a cold read at an audition. This was the case for me. I had read the role in an audition, but then withdrew myself from consideration because of a conflict with the show dates. My audition read was memorable, and enough of what the director wanted, that she trusted it, and me, in performance.  

  • Works well others- cooperative and supportive. A cast that has rehearsed together ideally becomes a family. If a member of that family is injured, or has to leave for some reason, it is traumatic. The rest of the cast is worried about their friend and worried about their show. Someone who comes in must compassionate and competent. She should help to ease their worries, at least about the show, not add to them. Because her focus is on the show, and supporting the cast, she isn’t caught up in her own ego.

  • Deals with stress well- Reading in to a show is stressful for the new actor and the rest of the cast and crew. Cracking under pressure is not advised.

  • Has a reputation for responsibility- There is a saying in professional theatre that getting work is a combination of inspiration, perspiration, and reputation. A reputation for being on time, prepared, and the above points will keep you busy in theatre.

As I reflect on these things I’ve learned and lived over the past nearly 10 years, I know that theatre has given me so much.

Not every job is glamorous. Sometimes a job is that- a job. But, I do every job to the best of my ability, because it is my job, and I take pride in it. Below is a picture of me in Act 1 and Act 2 of the show I read in- great dressing rooms, great playing space. And, following, is a picture of the “dressing room” for the show I’m currently cast in (I had to bring my own mirror!). 

 Helga in  Kindertransport.  Left, Act 1. Right, Act 2.

Helga in Kindertransport. Left, Act 1. Right, Act 2.

 My dressing room… :/

My dressing room… :/

Wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, do your best job. It will only reflect well on you. Be the actor with the good reputation, known for not only your skills onstage, but your reliability, responsibility and care for others. You’ll be glad for it.