12 November 2006

"Performing" Scripture -- The Lord's Supper

In a comment on an earlier post, I wrote:

Do we "perform" Scripture in a way when we read it into our lives and re-enact it in worship? Are we the actors/musicians, and our pastors and biblical theologians the directors/conductors? Can there be multiple different valid "performances" Scripture? And the big question: who (or should I say Who) is the audience?
I probably tipped my hand a bit too much by that parenthetical comment. Yes, I do believe God is the audience when we "perform" Scripture in our lives and worship. Not that the text of Scripture is some kind of script that we follow blindly as if our lives are completely choreographed in advance. But the stories of the biblical narrative are played out again and again in our families and communities, the psalms and anthems are sung in our worship services, and when we celebrate communion we are re-enacting the Lord's Last Supper (Catholic theologians would go so far as to say we are re-enacting the sacrifice of Christ).

As to whether there can be multiple different valid "performances" of Scripture, I think there can. Let me just take the eucharist as one small example to show how. Until I was in my 20's I had rarely experienced a communion service that had differed in substance from any of the others. They were all simply a matter of going through the motions, passing around the same little trays of individual cups of grape juice and broken bits of crackers, hearing the same words of institution from the man behind the communion table, doing in unison with everyone in the congregation an act which had practically no meaning to me other than as a simple reminder of what Jesus had done. Only once in my young life do I recall anything other which I was allowed to participate in. It was an Episcopal or ecumenical service where there was a common cup served at the front, and everyone filed up to receive it. That made an impression on me. More because I was grossed out about the possibility of picking up someone's germs, but that's just the mind of a kid at work. The point was, it was the first time I'd experienced something substantially different -- and thus ultimately memorable -- in a celebration of the Lord's Supper. It was to be the first of many. The next one I remember was at a Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, WA, which I visited with a friend. They had a special Maundy Thursday communion service one year. There were several stations set up around the sanctuary with tablecloths and baskets of bread and a common cup at each table. The room was in darkness except for some candle light. People gathered around the tables in groups and served the bread and the cup to each other. That communal aspect of it was very significant to me.

At Regent, the introduction of real wine instead of grape juice was a welcome change from my prior experiences of communion. We always have the option of grape juice at one of the stations, for people who are constitutionally incapable of having wine or prefer not to. But I almost always choose the wine (unless that line is too long), because there is something more powerful to me in the symbolism of real wine. I believe any liquid can work, and of course one has to use what is available given cultural limitations and all. I heard about one church in Africa that uses Kool-Aid for communion because wine and grape juice are not available. They cannot drink the water without boiling it, and even then it has a funny flavor, so they use Kool-Aid it to cover that. One time there was no Kool-Aid mix to be had, so someone had bought Jell-O powder, thinking it would do the same trick. But of course once you boil water and add Jell-O mix and then add ice cubes to cool it down, it turns into Jell-O, so it was an interesting communion service, to say the least. "This is my blood of the new covenant., slurp ye all of it."

I have experienced so many memorable communion services with the Regent community. There was the one which took place on a weekend class retreat. About 60-80 of us sat for our final meal at picnic-style tables that had been arranged in the shape of a cross. The Lord's Supper was celebrated as part of the meal, with bread and wine that we would finish consuming with our meat and salad, just as Jesus and his disciples would have done with the wine and bread he used as symbols on that night 2000 years ago. I loved that very down-to-earth aspect to it. Another memorable communion service was the time when the words of institution were given by someone who had grown up in a church where guilt was the motivating factor: you had to repent before approaching the table because otherwise you were not worthy to receive the elements. But of course none of us is ever "worthy" to receive the elements, and Donna told us, with tears in her eyes, that it wasn't until she got to Regent that she realized communion was a gift to us, an invitation from Jesus to the unworthy, Jesus who loved us while we were still sinners. She had never experienced communion as God's grace before.

While I agree with Sorina's comments below mine in that aforementioned post, that there can be productions that are so far away from the text that they are no longer valid (for example the controversial "milk and honey" feminist communion service at the "Reimagining Conference" in 1993), I think there is lots of room for variation in how we interpret Scripture in our "performances" of it in worship and in living. And it is such a rich text, that we will never exhaust all the possibilities. I think God, as the Audience of One, enjoys the creative ways we seek to be true to his Word while injecting newness and memorable qualities into our worship.


Iambic Admonit said...

I suppose, though, that were we to talk to, say Shakespeare, and ask him about valid ways to perform Hamlet, he would have definite opinions. There might be some points at which he would say, "Oh, I don't care, stage that however you want," or, "I'm not too particular about costumes," or "Go ahead and write a death speech" (as Garrick, I think it was, was eager to do). [Only he'd say it in iambic pentameter & exquisite 17th-century diction, right?] He seems to have been quite open, perhaps of necessity, to changes on the page & stage during his lifetime. But then you'd come to some points, and he'd rather die than give in. OK, he's already dead, but you know what I mean. Perhaps he'd run screaming from the room to search for a rapier if you suggested the Oedipal reading. Anyway, I think he would not give up all authority over his work.

And with the Lord, that authority is even more important. I believe that one day we'll find out what the proper, or allowable, or accurate "performances" of the Lord's Supper were. There may be more than someone like myself thinks are acceptable, but there may be fewer than some others think. And it behooves us--or, more particularly, pastors or denominational leaders--to search the Scriptures diligently to try to present the elements only in such ways as do not offend against its purpose and nature. Anything else is a very serious sin against Christ's body & blood & sacrifice. Yes?

Rosie Perera said...

I think if the intent is not to offend but to honor and grow closer to Christ by getting to know him more (which an exploration of his Word through art can do), then we won't offend against the purpose and nature of his Supper. I believe it is rather difficult for someone who loves the Lord to accidentally sin in some way we are unaware of without diligently searching the Scriptures for that one dot or tittle that we might have missed. I don't think God's law works that way. It's about relationship, it's not about trying to trip us up unawares. When we sin, we know we are sinning, in general. Or at least if we were not paying attention at the time, we are convicted of it by the Holy Spirit shortly thereafter. Those for whom that is not the case are the type of people who don't care whether they are sinning or not anyway, and this discussion does not apply to them.

I used to live under the fear of accidentally committing the "unpardonable sin" because I didn't really know what it was. Once I'd grown up, my mother once thought she'd committed it and lost her salvation. That did it for me. I realized she'd been mistaken and had misled me as a girl. The "unpardonable sin" is not something God hides from us as some trap that we might accidentally fall into when we really intended to live our lives for him. It's lifestyle of wilful disobedience, and refusal to repent of it and accept Christ's sacrifice as the path to forgiveness. Nobody who doesn't want to can possibly commit it. So I stopped worrying about it. For similar reasons, I've also stopped being terrified about accidentally and unknowingly committing the sin of "eating and drinking judgment on myself" when partaking in the Lord's Supper. It wasn't instituted for that reason (Christ came not into the world to condemn the world), though Paul's comments in 1 Cor 11 are often taken in that light. Yes, it is right to be sober and take communion seriously, with reflection on our own sins and repentence of same. But I don't think we need worry about unintentionally committing a "very serious sin against Christ's body & blood & sacrifice" by unintentionally doing something "improper" in the mode of celebrating the eucharist, e.g. if we use an artist's hand-quilted communion table cloth or use grapes instead of wine/juice one day, just to be creative. If you read the context, the things Paul was concerned about in 1 Cor 11 were issues of unity of the body. He was upset that people were coming together to worship and celebrate the Lord's Supper while having divisions amongst them, and without making sure their brothers and sisters had enough to eat at home. We are missing the point if we get all tied up in knots about whether we've got the mode right. I think the same goes for baptism, by the way.