Reading the Bible in Service
There are many things being done in the course of the average “high church” liturgy performed by the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox churches, Anglicans, and Lutherans, including praise, thanksgiving, confession, joy, entertainment, forgiveness, restoration, greetings, and education. The highlight of the service is the sermon, the role of which is to illuminate the meaning of the biblical readings. The pity is that in most services I have heard, readings are delivered in a monotone, with no light of understanding. It is as if the lector is reading the scripture as an announcement rather than as a reading for understanding.
I submit that the best way to approach the readings in service is to read them as if one is reading Shakespeare, the best known English dramatist. Let us assume you are reading Mark Antony’s funeral oration over Julius Caesar for the first time, and you know the background of the story. Let’s look at part of Antony’s speech from Act III, Scene II, Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare. (If you wish to see Marlon Brando’s interpretation of this speech, in full look at the clip from the 1953 film of Julius Caesar:
http://www.schooltube.com/video/53efe6c2cf1bb89f9e82/Antony’s first problem is an unruly crowd, so he needs to get their attention. He has several lines before this, where he appears to shout over the din of the crowd. Here begins the famous speech.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
Then, he needs to appear to be speaking in accord with Brutus, who spoke earlier.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
Antony is still in line with the assassins (noting that he is there with their permission), criticizing Caesar, until, all of a sudden, his emphasis changes, and he begins to speak of the conspirators. When Marlon Brando played the part and spoke this next line, he added no special emphasis… but wait …
For Brutus is an honourable man
Brando gave it no emphasis at first, because Antony’s entire speech is three times as long as this selection. Antony has lots of time to turn the crowd around to his point of view. If I were reciting just this portion, I would start with an ironic tone on the first occurrence of this fateful line.
So are they all, all honourable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
Antony silently administers a bit of poison with his first “honorable man” line above. Now, he adds a bit more venom by repeating the line.
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Antony, by subtle steps, is tearing down the notion that Caesar was only ruthlessly ambitious. At the same time, he slowly weakens, by sarcasm, the notion that Brutus “is an honorable man.”
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Drip, drip, drip. More venom Antony drips into the wound he is opening in Brutus’ reputation.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
Antony has two objectives. He needs to destroy the justifications of the assassins, and he needs to reclaim the love of the people, which once belonged to Caesar.
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
O judgement! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
Antony pauses here to grieve. In Brando’s performance, he turns away from the crowd, and listens to the murmuring that Shakespeare wrote to signify that Antony’s words are starting to work on the citizens.
This is about as long as a longish Lectionary reading, and like the Lectionary readings, Shakespeare has important actions before the speech and there are three additional speeches from Antony later in this scene that further shift the sentiments of the crowd from the Assassins to Antony. That is why an actor may not stress the repeated line in this selection. But if you are reading only a passage this long, it is incumbent to bring out as fully as possible the dramatic impact of Antony’s irony.
How does this work in a passage from the Bible?
Here is a passage from Galatians where Paul is doing something very similar to Shakespeare’s Antony. The Galatians have been swayed to follow some traditional Jewish cultic practices, and Paul sternly reminds them of what he taught them, when he was in Galatia. The first thing you must know is that very few people in the ancient world could read. And, since this letter was delivered by one of Paul’s disciples, it was probably read by that disciple who wants to stress Paul’s position as strongly as possible. The reader is Mark Antony to Paul’s Shakespeare.
4:8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. 9 Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God.
“…or rather to be known by God” is a critical phrase. It imparts the sense by being baptized, the Galatians are seen by God as part of His family, even though they seem to have backslid. That phrase needs emphasis.
How can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? 10 You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years.
You do not need to know what these elemental spirits are to sense that Paul is really angry at all this backsliding to celebrate Jewish festivals and holy days. Contrast this line with the critical passage from Amos 5:21 – 24, where the prophet criticizes the Israelites for empty celebrations of the Jewish holy days.
11 I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.
12 Friends, I beg you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong.
Paul is reminding the Galatians that he has become part of them, so why are they ripping apart that most holy bond between him and them.
13 You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you;
14 though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.
This is a recollection that Paul stayed with the Galatians because he fell ill as he was passing through that part of the world, and they nursed him back to health. In exchange, Paul preached the good news of Jesus Christ.
15 What has become of the good will you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?
Paul repeats the theme that once he and the Galatians were like family, and he, ironically, wonders if they have left his teaching because his truth was too hard to bear.
17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them. 18 It is good to be made much of for a good purpose at all times, and not only when I am present with you.
“They” are Judaizers. Not Jews, but Jewish Christians who hold by many Jewish traditions. The pronoun “they” should be spoken with a hint of a sneer. Remember, you are speaking as one of Paul’s disciples, who carried this letter through dangerous lands to deliver it. Paul preaches that one may come to God through Jesus Christ, without the Jewish traditions. The Judaizers claim you need the old traditions, which is Paul’s point in verse 21.
19 My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you
Paul ends this selection almost as Shakespeare ended Antony’s first speech. He (the messenger, which means you) is speaking for Paul, and are too choked up to speak cogently.
20 I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. 21 Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law
Traditionally, in the Catholic church and in the Eastern churches, the lector, the person who reads the scripture, is a member of the clergy, which means, among other things, that they are informed about the meaning of the text, and can read it with insight. I suggest the best way to approximate that role is to prepare to read the scripture as a director prepares to instruct an actor in how to deliver Shakespeare’s lines. The director knows the whole story, not just this or that actor’s part. Then, reader becomes the actor and puts themselves in the shoes of Paul’s disciple, prepared with Paul’s instructions on how to deliver the message.
There is no one best way to read a passage. You can compare how Charlton Heston delivers Antony’s speech at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bi1PvXCbr8. If you see more than one way to read the scripture, you may want to ask the author of the sermon in what way they would like to see it emphasized.
I’m a native of Bethlehem who studied philosophy at Lehigh University and Johns Hopkins University. I worked for 34 years in pharmaceutical research, first as a chemist, and then as an information systems professional for toxicology and for clinical trials of new drugs and indications. After retiring, I taught myself how to cook and wrote hundreds of cookbook reviews for Amazon. I earned a Masters of Theological Studies from the Moravian Theological Seminary, specializing in the New Testament and feminist theology. My heroes are Ludwig Wittgenstein, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Jonathan Edwards.