Anna Carter Florence: 'Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God's Word in Community'

Studying Scripture in community, much like actors reading a script, can allow us to enter the text more deeply. iStock / Ferrantraite

Drawing upon the metaphor of church as theater, a homiletics professor offers a novel way to read Scripture in community -- entering the text, encountering it, and coming back with something deep and true.

To Anna Carter Florence, every church is like a repertory theater company, living in the same community and studying the same texts again and again over time.

“Faith communities, when we’re at our best, do much the same work,” she said. “When we enter texts -- Scripture -- together over time with people with whom we share a life, space and a community, we’re able to do the work better.”

In her new book, “Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community,” Florence, the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, draws on the world of theater to offer specific tools for reading and rehearsing Scripture in groups.

Studying scripts with other students in a theater class in college, Florence discovered that the work wasn’t about being the smartest or most talented or coming up with the best interpretation.

“It was about hanging in there with each other, because the text and what we were creating with it was so interesting, nobody wanted to stop,” she said. “We kept seeing where it could lead and how the questions it raised were so much bigger than we ever anticipated.”

So too with Scripture -- only more so, Florence said. “It is this text that continues to give and give and give.”

No one studies Scripture and immediately returns with “an absolutely pure idea or answer or sermon,” she said. “The rehearsal metaphor was a way to capture that this is not wasted time, this considering of possibilities, and it happens a lot better when we do it together.”

Florence has a B.A. from Yale University and an M.Div. and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

She spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about “Rehearsing Scripture.” The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You say in the book that every faith community is its own repertory theater company. What do you mean?

A repertory theater is a residential company that lives together, or at least in the same community, and puts on a number of productions over the course of a season.

Faith communities, when we’re at our best, do much the same work. When we enter texts -- Scripture -- together over time with people with whom we share a life, space and a community, we’re able to do the work better. We’re able to enter the text more deeply and ask harder questions and hang in there with each other better than we would if we entered the text just from a positional or a doctrinal standpoint.

For me, it has been a helpful metaphor, because it describes what I try to do as a teacher when I’m in a classroom or leading a workshop. It’s to create a space where, before we decide what we think a text means, all of us can gather around it as a group interested in what it might show us. Before we do that work, we have to be willing to experiment and hang in there and open doors and explore what’s possible.

That’s work that happens best over time in a community.

Q: You start the book describing a theater class you took in college, but you also have an extensive background in theater beyond the university. Tell us about that and how it shaped your ministry and how it shaped this book.

I did a lot of theater in high school and was looking for a way to do some in college, but college can be an intimidating place for theater. There are a lot of people with big personalities and lots of dramatic statements to make about life.

So when I signed up for the class, two things happened. First, there was this really dense component, with lectures that were over the top, because this was Yale. People were talking about texts all day long, and it was seriously difficult.

But in the second part of the class, we were sent into groups to work with a text and come back, as my professor said, “when you have found something true.”

Suddenly, the whole point of the work changed. It wasn’t about being smart or talented. It wasn’t about coming up with the best interpretation -- or, as we might say in a Christian community, the best sermon.

It was about hanging in there with each other, because the text and what we were creating with it was so interesting, nobody wanted to stop. We kept seeing where it could lead and how the questions it raised were so much bigger than we ever anticipated.

It kept giving and giving and giving. And Scripture, for me, is even more that way. It is this text that continues to give and give and give.

After college, I considered making theater my life but changed direction and went to seminary. But my first few weeks of seminary were like my first few times in that theater class. Everybody was doing the same positioning, but in a different way. It was in the mid-1980s, at a time when some people were threatened by the possibilities that Scripture could open up, or even that there would be, multiple interpretations.

Until we began working with texts, I thought, “I don’t know that I’m going to be able to do this.”

But when we started working with texts and talking about possibilities, I thought, “I know what this is!” Everything fell into place, and I realized that preaching and reading texts was going to be my way in.

Q: What does it mean to read and rehearse Scripture?

I use that metaphor as a way to open something up. It started for me because I noticed that when I’m reading a text with students, they become most alive when they realize how the text is reading them. It’s like they become electric. They’re electrified by the knowledge that, “Oh, my God! The text is reading my mind!”

This happens over and over when we read Scripture, but I began to think about it in the metaphor of a script. You realize how the text has been your script. You find the script in the Scripture. You find the story that you’re living or your community is living or what’s going on in the world.

It’s what preachers do every week, asking, “How does this apply to us?”

Using the “script” language is the same thing. We’re finding out how this is really our script.

That metaphor of the script came first, and the rehearsing part is just in my bones. Of course we’re going to read the text multiple times. Of course we’re going to ask a lot of questions, and of course most of them will lead nowhere, or not to the final point.

But that’s what this is. Nobody goes to Scripture and comes back the first time with an absolutely pure idea or answer or sermon. The rehearsal metaphor was a way to capture that this is not wasted time, this considering of possibilities, and it happens a lot better when we do it together.

Q: You make the point in the book that the Bible is not only a book of knowledge and wisdom; it’s art, and like any art, you get to play with it, the way actors play with a text.

I don’t mean that in a sense of belittling. Some might hear it that way. They might hear those metaphors and worry that we’re just playacting -- putting on costumes and romping around -- and that’s not it.

Students can be very nervous about getting the text right, getting Scripture right, getting the interpretation right, getting the sermon right. But that can be paralyzing.

So how can we also see the other ways in which Scripture is deep and true and operating in our lives? One is to honor the fact that it’s a work of art in the deepest, truest sense and that it wants to engage us over and over.

And of course, the incredible gift is that when you do that as a person of faith, all this other stuff, this radiance and this gift of the Spirit, becomes part of it.

Q: Like the professor in that first theater class said, “Come back when you’ve found something true.”

That, to me, is helpful in terms of a telos, the endpoint of what we’re doing. We’re not just doing this to have fun -- though it is fun. I mean, if reading Scripture isn’t fun and life-giving, then I don’t know what we’re doing.

But the point was that these texts -- in college, it was dramatic texts, plays -- have deep things to say about human existence and the questions that humans grapple with. They are constructed so that we will have to confront those and create and say something true about them. It may not be a truth everybody wants to hear or see, but that’s really what they are trying to do.

And for Scripture, of course, how much more so.

“Come back when you have found something true” also means you don’t sit there forever, rehearsing possibilities.

Scripture has wisdom. It has actual concrete things for us to find, and directives that point to places where we can really go and live. The realm of God is there, and not where we have located ourselves, so it’s a search that requires a response.

That’s what the “come back and say something true” is. Discipleship requires a response.

Q: In keeping with the metaphor of church as theater, you draw upon theater techniques that people can use in studying Scripture. Tell us about some of those.

Frankly, they’re all things I’ve come up with out of exasperation as a teacher. I adore my students, but when they start to get sidetracked or run down rabbit holes, I have to find a way to move them toward what we need to do with the text more efficiently.

For example, blocking is a technique I talk about in the book. It’s a basic theater term for putting your body where the action happens. That’s what directors do: “As you say this line, I want you to walk across the room, pick up the coffee cup, take a sip and then throw the cup at the wall.”

It’s the physical stuff that occurs. So blocking Scripture, actually putting our bodies in such a way that we’re re-creating the scene that’s happening, leads to a lot of insight.

It’s kind of mind-blowing, because it sounds like the stupidest and silliest and most obvious thing.

But I’ve got to tell you, the quickest way I know to make a script out of Scripture is to make your body and the people around you do this stuff that is going on, and you’re suddenly seeing it and not just thinking about it. In my tribe, the Presbyterian tribe, we can really go into our heads, so this particular way of reading and interpreting and rehearsing is really generative for us.

I do that a lot with students, and sometimes it shows us huge things and sometimes it doesn’t, and not everybody has the same experience. It’s not a request for people to suddenly start emoting or getting touchy-feely or whatever, but when a scene in Scripture has somebody speaking from the floor at Jesus’ feet and you actually put someone at Jesus’ feet and have them try to do that and experience the scene from that position, all kinds of stuff happens.

I’ve had texts blown open for me that were pretty firmly shut until I was able to actually block it out and see some of what might be happening.

Q: You also talk about paying attention to the verbs and the nouns.

The nouns are what you go to seminary to learn. It’s what everybody needs to look up. How do you say this? Where was that? What’s this? They are these fascinating remnants of that galaxy far, far away. But I found that my students were getting far too distracted by the nouns, so it was hard for us to have any kind of conversation.

So one day I said, “OK, we’re going to read the verbs first, and I want you to talk about them and ask questions about them, and we’ll get to the nouns later.”

I was trying to have them see that this is theirs. It’s not remote. It’s not far away. Everybody has verbs, so it gave everyone a way to enter. Then when I started doing that with groups around the country and around the world, I found that this was a really helpful way to get everybody involved.

You can be 9 years old and have insights into what a verb is, what it is doing in a text, that can shut up the Ph.D. in the corner. That was important, because a lot of times, people defer to those they think know more.

Q: All of this is about reading Scripture in community. What’s wrong with reading Scripture alone? Why’s that a problem?

If I came from a place where nobody ever did anything alone, I would probably be pressing the other end of the spectrum. But in the world in which I live and the tribes and communities in which I move, people read it alone more than they ever read it together, and that has led to a lot of isolation.

For preachers, it can be deadly, because you don’t ever have anyone else to talk to or push against, as opposed to other traditions -- midrash traditions, for example -- that really value the discussion and the argument.

For me, this was a way to say that in my experience as a teacher, pastor and scholar, when I do this in community, a lot more happens than when I do it on my own.

What if we took that seriously? What if we did more deliberate work together? What’s an efficient way to do that? What’s an inclusive way to do that? What’s an inviting way to do that?

That’s where reading verbs and all these rehearsal techniques came in. It’s a way to try to make it not only enjoyable but something that might lead somewhere, that might actually lead to encounter and then to saying something true.

Q: Who is the audience for the book? It’s not an abstract theology book but is filled with very practical advice.

I wanted my mom and my sister, who are people of faith but without formal theological education, to be able to pick it up. I wanted my friends who have no interest in church to pick it up and find something interesting.

I wanted it to be the kind of thing laypeople would be able to take and then use. But I hoped that preachers would get that this is for them, too, and anyone who has an interest in reading Scripture.

I wrote it specifically without a lot of theological technical talk, so that many people would feel invited into it.

People are like, “Well, that’s great, but how?” So I was hopeful that there would be enough structure and suggestion so that people could pick it up and see what happens.

Q: How did you come to all of this as a teacher of homiletics?

Out of very practical concern.

I found that it was really easy for my students and my colleagues and myself to read a text and continue to just talk about it and not ever encounter it.

What really brought this home to me was in my early years of teaching. We would be doing “focus and function,” which is the preacher’s version of, “What do you want the sermon to say, and what do you hope it’s going to do?” It’s like a thesis statement.

My students would read [a text] and we’d interpret it in all these different ways, and they would come up with their thesis statement and what they hoped their sermon was going to do.

And I would say, “Great. Do you actually believe that?”

“Well, not really.”

I thought, “Oh wow! This is a problem, because what this says to me is the text has not passed over your body. You are holding it at arm’s length, and you’re just saying something that could work, but not something you believe.”

For preachers, that’s killing, not only for us but for the church. People can tell when you’re just talking about something that you don’t even believe.

I began to think about specific questions to ask, and processes, but also practical stuff that we were going to do so that we couldn’t skirt those things anymore. That’s when the language of the script started to become important to me.