Posted on: April 12th, 2008 Performing the Text (of Scripture)

Recently I had the opportunity to participate, as a part of the “altar party,” in a week of chapel services at ETSS. In one service I read the prayers of the people in Spanish, in one service I was a “torch bearer” (one who carries one of the candles during the processions to and from the altar, including as a part of the “tabernacle of the Gospel,” when the Gospel lesson is read, usually from within the middle of the congregation), and in another service I was the “server,” whose role is to help the presider prepare and then clear the table (handling the “gifts” and “oblations”) during Eucharist.

As server, it was important that I listen and watch for certain “cues” which would signal when I was to perform various actions. One of these cues was the Offortory Sentences, which basically begin the transition into that portion of the service which is designated in the Book of Common Prayer as “Holy Communion.”

On the day when I was to perform as server, as I was quietly preparing to perform my duties, I was meditating on these offertory sentences (called out by the presider), which in the BCP are:

“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High” (Ps 50:15); “Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name: bring offerings and come into his courts.” (Ps 96:8); “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering of sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:2); “I appeal to you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1); “If you are offering your gifts at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23,24); “Through Christ let us continually offer to God the sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his Name. But do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hb 13:15-16); O Lord our God, you are worthy to receive glory and honor and power; because you have created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (Rev 4:11); “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. For everything in heaven and on earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom, and you are exalted as head over all.” (1 Ch 29:11); “Let us with gladness present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord.” (bidding)

And then it struck me in a new way: “Oh, wow, this is what it means to perform the text of Scripture.” You see, the text of the Bible, the words we have printed in our Bibles, are first and foremost words to be performed in the liturgy, at least that is how I am coming (and have been coming, for many years now) to see it. Let me say a few more things about this.

First, this implies that the Bible is, first and foremost, a liturgical thing. Its primary “use” is to be read and heard in the liturgical worship of the church. Certainly Cranmer saw it this way, which is why he placed so much emphasis on the Daily Office, a service which is organically connected to the (Eucharistic) worship of the whole people of God. Anglican priests, by the way, are not really required or perhaps even expected to have “personal quiet times” when they read their Bibles and pray and meditate in the solace of their study or prayer closet. But what they are actually required to do is to pray the Daily Office in public. This means that they are to try to gather around them members of their parish (even if only members of their nuclear family) and pray the Daily Office together. (A good example of this is George Herbert.)

Second, the Bible’s proper use is associated more with a dynamic action that takes place through time than it is with a static spatialization of words on a page. I have neither the time nor the energy to develop this idea, but it is directly related to Catherine Pickstock’s After Wrting: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, a book which shows up on my blog in various contexts. In particular, her treatment (and devastating critique) of Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus is relevant here.

Third, the words of Scripture, as performed in the liturgy, including the offortory sentences above, actually accomplish something. They do, or perform something. They bring about what they say. They are not just speech (certainly not just propositional speech), but are in a sense “ecstatic.” They are “speech acts.” In the language of James Jordan and Jeff Meyers, they are “command performance.”

In this way, they are truly symbolic (in a post-Heideggarian way which keeps the res [“thing signified”] and the signifier bound together in unity), like a kiss or a handshake or the use of the bread and the wine in the Eucharist (all of which actually deliver, or actually all of which just are, what they signify).

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