Monday, February 18, 2008

Performative Interpretations of the Jesus Story and Inter-religious Dialogue

Regular readers of this blog are no strangers to the fact that I support and practice inter-religious dialogue, particularly between Christianity and new religious movements. I also attempt to approach this subject from a variety of perspectives, and a source that I interacted with previously on another issue provided an unexpected source for reflection and application on dialogue.

Not long ago I interviewed Max Harris on the topics of festival and folk performance which I had previously applied to my research and graduate thesis on Burning Man Festival. As follow up to my interview, Harris contacted me and suggested that I look at his book The Dialogical Theatre: Dramatization of the Conquest of Mexico and the Question of the Other (St. Martin’s Press, 1993). In Dialogical Theatre Harris explores “indigenous dramatizations of the theme of conquest in Mexico” and is surprised to find that it contains “signs of dialogue between Catholic and Indian on the morality of colonization.” Harris examines the dialogical nature of such drama by exploring the work of Bakhtin and Tzvetan Todorov, and then moves to a consideration of the application of dialogical drama in folk performance to cross-cultural encounters with “the other” in Christian mission.

I especially enjoyed the third section of Harris’s book, “The Question of the Other. This is comprised of three chapters including Chapter 9 “Barbarians and Other Neighbors,” Chapter 10 “Performing the Scriptures,” and Chapter 11 “Incarnation and Other Dialogues.”

Chapter 9 traces the Greek classicist view of Aristotle of the other as barbarian contrasted with “the biblical injunction to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’.” Harris rightly notes the constant struggle in cultures between conceptions of of the cultural other as of equal value with the cultural insider and the opposing view which sees them as inferior. This trouble has plagued the Christian church as well, and here Harris notes that [w]hile the biblical narrative may be said to endorse pluriformity within the Christian community, its attitude towards the external other is arguably more ambivalent.” This phenomenon has further complicated Christian attitudes toward cultural and religious others in general, and particularly in evangelism where Harris states that it can “appear to preclude love for the neighbour in her or his otherness and to demand instead that the neighbour become as oneself in order to be loved.”

Chapter 10 builds on the discussion from the previous chapter which recognizes the legitimacy of the cultural other and the need for a “dialogical mode of encounter and communication.” It addresses the issue of dialogue with other faiths and suggests how this might be “enriched by the language of the theatre.” One of the ways Harris explores this topic is through interaction with an essay by Nicholas Lash titled “Performing the Scriptures.” It's important to understand what Lash and Harris mean by "performing the Scriptures." A musical score may be said to be "interpreted" when a group of experts discuss its origins, its composition, and how it might sound. But it is also "interpreted" when a group of musicians perform the music. The latter is the interpretation for which the music was written. The church has tended to regard the interpretation of Scripture as an intellectual exercise, something like discussing a musical score. But the mode of interpretation for which the Scriptures were written is their performance by individual Christians and by the Christian community. The Scriptures were written to be lived; study may help toward the right living of the Scriptures, but it is not an end in itself. It follows from this that there is not just one possible faithful performance of a musical score or theatrical script. There are performances that arguably have little or nothing to do with the score or script they claim to be interpreting, but there are necessarily many possible differing performances that can claim fidelity. The Scriptures, simply because they are texts for performance, do not aim at uniformity of performance but at a diversity of faithful performances.

Lash believes that the New Testament is also the kind of text that is to be performed in that it tells the story of Jesus and the first Christian community. Such an approach to the New Testament results in a “performative interpretation” of the biblical text. From this suggestion that the Christian community perform the Jesus story, Lash draws several conclusions, including the idea that the church engage in a reciprocal form of performative interpretation where not only does the Christian community perform its text for and hopefully with the external other as audience, but Lash also suggests that it is appropriate fort the Christian community to engage in a reciprocal relationship wherein they perform the other’s text as well. But Harris notes, “This is something that the Christian community, it its fear of contamination by ‘paganism’ or ‘syncretism’ or of participation in ‘idolatrous worship’, has often been reluctant to attempt.” But Harris reminds us that the incarnation of God into the human story in Jesus provides a model for us to emulate in this regard in that,

“To put this in theatrical terms, God began by playing the other’s part. Rather than approach humanity as a divine outsider wielding a prescriptive text, or even as an understanding dramatist offering the human race a script for its communal performance, he became human, offering his own performance within the human community as a model for subsequent human mimesis (Ephesians 5:1).”

In Chapter 11 Harris considers additional ramifications for the idea of the incarnation as a form of dialogical theater. Here he suggests that, “If the incarnation is to be the model for the Christian’s encounter with others, then the church’s cross-cultural mission will start with the Christian’s ‘living entry’ into the other’s world.” He then discusses examples of such attempts in the history of Christian mission in Matteo Ricci in China, Roberto de Nobili in India, and Pedro Paez in Ethiopia. In each case the result was a successful Christian interpretation of each culture as well as the corresponding interpretation of Christianity in each culture thereby resulting in differing cultural forms of the faith. With this as background, and as Harris draws this chapter and this book to a close, he states that for the Christian interested in communicating across cultural boundaries,

“She is called to perform, at one and the same time, the text of her faith and that of her culture. If she then decides to engage in cross-cultural evangelism, she is faced with the choice of exporting the gospel as it is performed in her own culture or of living into another culture as a Christian. In either case, the gospel will be embedded in cultural forms. The incarnation models the latter move. For according to the biblical narrative, God chose to enter the other’s world and there to perform, dialogically (and therefore simultaneously), his own holy text and a fully human script.”

As we consider the performance of one’s own sacred script and entering into performance of another, Harris reminds us that it is important to understand Bakhtin's concept of vzhivanie (live entering), especially as he applies it to the Incarnation. Vzhivanie means fully retaining one's own perspective while, at the same time, fully entering into the other's perspective. It is a dialogical engagement. Christ entered fully into the human experience, while remaining fully divine. It is this "live entering" that enabled him to be fully human, yet without sin. So, the Christian's "live entering" into another's cultural world does not mean that the Christian abandons his or her Christian identity. Rather, it means that the Christian lives a Christian life (performs the Scriptures) within the cultural forms of the other. Our performance of the Scriptures is always within some set of cultural forms. Our mistake is to assume that "our" cultural forms are somehow more Christian than "their" cultural forms. All cultural forms are tainted by human sin (individual and structural). Our call is to live fully Christian lives within the particular culture that God places us, either by birth or by sending (missionary).

In my view dialogical theater provides important considerations for Christian reflection in relation to inter-religious dialogue, particularly the relatively recent expressions of dialogue with new religious movements. The missionary offer of the Christian scriptures for performance by another culture is not only an opportunity for others to learn about God but also an opportunity for the members of the missionary community to learn things about the Scriptures that they cannot see from their own cultural perspective. Where another group's faithful performance differs from the familiar performance of my own group is just where I need to probe a little to see what it is about the Scriptural text to which I have been blind.

Surely there are several aspects of theatrical dialogue that will cause evangelicals concern, such as the notion of reciprocal performance of sacred texts, but perhaps we can be thinking about how we might increasingly and authentically live and perform the Christian story and spirituality in other religious or spiritual cultures. Dialogical theater provides us with important considerations that might add new elements to our dialogical efforts.


nic paton said...

I really like this direction, John. I have just ordered 2 of Max's books.

A performance used to mean (as suggested in the picture) a passive experience between an expert (musician, lecturer, preacher) and the onlookers. But you and Max are defining it in much more participatory ways.

The idea that spirituality consists primarily of the discussion of ideas and texts, or that the doing aspect is devoid of imagination, is increasingly foreign to me.

By revisioning the notion of performance as "doing" rather than consuming, we are called to enter into our own genius as well as the narrative of our community.

John W. Morehead said...

Thank you for your comments, Nic. I'm surprised that this post hasn't received more commentary, but I suppose it's because the idea of performing your own faith and Scriptures, let alone those of someone else, is a foreign concept, especially to my evangelical readers. Nevertheless, I think this represents an important and neglected aspect of interreligious dialogue.