My doctoral mentor, Dr. Thomas E. Boomershine, has spent his career researching and writing about a radically new understanding of our sacred story based on performance criticism. His life’s work has culminated in a very exciting and provocative commentary on the passion narratives of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. This extensive work, The Messiah of Peace, is certain to re-engage the stories of Jesus from a more authentic experience of the original audiences. Additionally, Dr. Boomershine’s performance criticism reflections on the gospel narratives over the three-year lectionary cycle have been critical for informing my own hermeneutical perspective when performing the gospel story (see previous blog post). Resources from his GoTell.org website serve as the primary research material for these performances.
In a telling of the Healing of the Syro-Phoenician Woman’s Daughter (click for video) from Mark 7:24-37, I chose tones and tempos that implied it would have been shocking to the original audience that this woman would come in and fall at Jesus’ feet. And Mark helps explain why, because this woman was a Gentile. But she was not just a Gentile, she was Syro-Phoenician by birth. In his performance criticism commentary Boomershine explains, “Today we know this area on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean north of modern Israel as Lebanon. But in the ancient world it was Syria and Phoenicia, and the Jews and Syro-Phoenicians were mortal enemies. The Syro-Phoenicians at the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanies in the second century B.C. carried out the most brutal persecutions of Jews that had happened throughout the entire history of Israel. Many Jewish children were killed by the Phoenicians. For this Syro-Phoenician woman to beg Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter is, in the context of Jewish memory and experience, an utter scandal.”
It is very important to recognize that Mark and his listeners were predominantly Jews, and the memories of the persecution of Jews by Syrians would have been very present in Jesus’ day. This is what explains Jesus’ hostile response. Mark is explaining the shocking radicality of this woman who came and bowed down at Jesus’ feet—that the woman was a Gentile, a Syro-Phonecian by birth and she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter! This all has to be explained, and in telling the story it was important to convey the storyteller’s shock and even offense that she would ask this of Jesus, a Jew. Jesus’ response reflects that.
This exploration of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s story from a performance criticism perspective identified significant implications for Jesus’ ministry and has suggested probable impact on the original audiences hearing it. However, it also has implications for the contemporary audience hearing it. In the several times I have told this story, a variety of responses have been encountered. I first told this story in a progressive UCC setting with a characterization of Jesus that was intended to create distance between him and the Syro-Phoenician woman. This Jesus had a sarcastic tone and was portrayed with gestures that discounted the woman’s value, while the Syro-Phoenician woman was characterized as docile, weak, and acquiescent. Following the telling, a congregant approached me with some concerns about this portrayal. She confessed that her experience of the telling as an audience member was very negative. She was offended by the portrayal of Jesus as aloof, indignant and sarcastic. Her experience of my characterization of Jesus in this way was quite emotional.
After agreeing to be in dialogue, a discussion ensued about these emotions. The congregant then revealed memories of her own experience growing up with loud TV evangelists blaring through the television and filling her childhood home with confrontational rhetoric. She admitted how much these programs damaged her and could not imagine Jesus having the same temperament. “I do not want to experience a sarcastic Jesus. I have had too much of that in my life and I cannot bear it again.” A discussion about the emotional state of Jesus and the likelihood of a variety of emotions he expressed ensued. The portrayal of a timid Syro-Phoenician woman was also an opportunity to discuss the congregant’s own experience of such interactions. The conversation opened opportunities for pastoral care, and provided an alternative perspective for a retelling of the story.
The second telling of the story occurred in a seminary context. Students from a variety of Evangelical and Mainline traditions were in the audience. The preacher for the day was an African-American woman on staff as faculty. My portrayal of Jesus in this telling was more subdued and less provocative. Yet the characterization of the Syro-Phoenician woman was again grounded in her timidity and acquiescence to Jesus. When the professor began preaching she imagined a different response by the woman. “If I were the Syro-Phoenician woman, I would’ve stood up to Jesus and demanded his attention. The realities of her circumstance would have called for a greater emotional response.” This alternative perspective presented yet another way to envision the relationship between Jesus and the woman, and inspired me to explore an alternative characterization of her.
A third telling of the story occurred among doctoral colleagues in a workshop setting. The characterization of Jesus was that of wisdom teacher or Sage, while the Syro-Phoenician woman was portrayed as loud, outspoken and demanding. The crowd, primarily African-American men and women clergy, were fully engaged vocally in the telling. Many shouted, “Preach it, Brother!” It was a dynamic and fully engaging experience for me and the audience.
The juxtaposition of these three characterizations gave new meaning of the narratives for my storytelling. The ongoing interaction of teller and audience continued to bring out nuances in the story that would not have otherwise been considered in a reading. Herein lays the importance and impact of performance criticism for a relevant contemporary connection to the biblical narratives. For more performance criticism tools, check out www.GoTell.org and videos at www.ExperientialJesus.com.
Rev. Dr. Brice Thomas is the Director of Alumni/ae Relations and Adjunct Faculty at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is also called to bi-vocational ministry at Harmony Creek Church in Dayton, an emerging congregation.