Friday, August 14, 2009

playing the gospels

Over the last couple years I've been trying to think about the gospels less like written books and more like musical scores. I was led in this direction, I'm sure, by John Miles Foley (especially Imminent Art [1991], The Singer of Tales in Performance [1995] and How to Read an Oral Poem [2002]), who uses the term libretto to refer to the written manifestations of oral tradition. Questions still abound: Does the libretto embody an oral performance (transcript)? Does the libretto enable oral performance (script)? Does the libretto function as part of oral performance (prop)? Etc. But these are fundamentally different questions than traditional gospels scholarship has learned to ask.

For me, the biggest gain that comes from thinking of the gospels as scores rather than books derives from the cultural function of both in our own milieu. We read books directly; they are their own "things." Not so with sheet music. Even accomplished musicians, who can "read" a musical score, are acutely aware that looking at the lines and notes on the page is only the first step of interpretation. We haven't read the music until we've heard the music, no matter how long, how closely, and how carefully we've looked at the page. But here's the point: The marks on the page were meant to be performed! A musical score doesn't give you the option to just look at it and analyze it; you're already misunderstanding the text if you don't play the music. Important as sheet music is, it doesn't exist for itself. It pleads with us to look beyond the page and to hear the music.

So also, I think, with the gospels. We have printed synopses that help us see the patterns of similarities and differences between the four gospels (and especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke). We have commentaries that discuss every word and phrase found in the text. We have even stratified the texts, attributing this layer to Mark, this to Q, this to the evangelist, and so on. We've inspected not only every note of the libretti in front of us but also every jot and tittle. But New Testament scholarship has largely missed the music and refused to hear the text. I'm beginning to wonder if the gospels, like sheet music, don't exist for themselves. We have to move beyond reading the gospels. We have to get to the Jesus tradition to which the gospels point.

My thoughts here are very preliminary, and I need to work them out still. But Richard Horsley has found himself asking the same question, as I found out this morning as I started chapter 3 of Jesus in Context (2008). Horsley remembers a conversation with some of his students:
One of the students, a performing musician, responded by drawing an analogy from music. It seemed to her like Gospel scholars tend to focus on one or two measures of a score at a time, but never realize that the notes on that score are merely symbols for parts of larger melodies, fugues, and movements or of whole choruses and arias, cantatas, and operas. They have not yet discovered the work as a whole, much less considered what it would be like in performance. (2008: 56)

Horsley is talking about context, primarily, and preparing to talk about performance. And he's right on both counts: We need to account for the story as a whole rather than merely its parts in isolation, and we need to account for the medium (or media) in which most people accessed that story. But I'm not concerned, primarily, with either context or performance. Both of these issues, for me, raise larger questions about tradition. If the early Christians spoke more broadly about Jesus than the simple reading of four (or more) texts, if the early Christians lived in the shadow of that broader speech rather than of a written canon, if the Jesus tradition manifested itself in symbols, art, song, behavior, images, rituals, longings, and so on, then how can we read the gospels and hear the tradition to which they point, of which they are embodiments, and in which they find their resonance? These questions, I think, are much more important than the standard, source-, form-, and redaction-critical analyses that have dominated the field.

[N.B. Let me be clear about what type of questions I'm asking. I ask these questions first as a historian and only secondarily as a Christian, though of course this second identity is the more fundamental one for me. But you don't have to worship at the altar of Bach or Mendelssohn to recognize that their score point to their music. Horsley does not write from a perspective of faith; I do. But I'm raising historical and literary questions, not theological ones. Even if a person doubts that the texts enable us to hear Jesus they should still recognize that the texts were meant to make us hear something.]

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