Back to the Text is a class at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, offered to divinity students in all degree programs. It was created and is led by Anna Carter Florence, Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia, and culminates in a student performance of a different biblical book each year. This year, the class read the books of Samuel–and with the onset of COVID-19, pivoted from a live performance to an audio performance, that could be developed and accessed online. Here’s how it happened.
Written by Anna Carter Florence
For the past ten years at Columbia Theological Seminary, I’ve taught a class every spring called “Back to the Text.” The idea for the course is simple. I pick a book of Scripture—a different one every year, so it’s always new for me, too; we meet as a class one night a week for three hours to read through the entire book, out loud and on our feet; in between classes, we learn what biblical scholars, theologians, and artists have had to say about the themes and characters the book presents; and at the end of the semester, we perform it for the Columbia community.
The process is collaborative and organic. Every week, I think up a new setting or set of circumstances for our reading, and we never know what will happen, from one moment to the next. What we’re really doing is rehearsing Scripture: interpreting the book from every angle we can think of, to see what we’ll find. After eight weeks of this, we decide how we want to perform it. (You can read more about the process in Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community, Eerdmans 2018, which is based on my 2012 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School. Lecture 1, “The Word in the Repertory Church,” Lecture 2, “It Could Have Gone Differently: Repertory Readings of Texts of Terror,” and Lecture 3, “Old Texts, New Works: The Repertory Preacher and the Company of Grace.”)
Over the years, Back to the Text has done the gospels of Mark and John, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Esther and Daniel; the book of Job (possibly the most challenging); Luke’s parables; and 1 Timothy, which was a riot: all that telling women to be quiet. The performance is live and we do it just once, as a gift to whomever shows up, and usually there are 80-100 people who come.
I love this class. I love what it does to us as a reading community: by the end of the term, we are fiercely in love with that biblical text. It’s in our bones. We don’t memorize it; that isn’t the point. But we meet it, and try to let it meet us, where we need to be met and never knew that we did.
This year, we did Samuel. Both books, because it turned out you couldn’t do just one; you wouldn’t know how the story turns out. And it’s David’s story. (Samuel and Saul feature too, but David’s the main show.) Our class was mesmerized. There’s more going on in the books of Samuel than any place we’d seen, in the Bible: action and intrigue, love and war, rape and deceit and rebellion and song—and then it starts all over again, with a slaughter on every page. By the end of the night’s class, we’d be exhausted. But we were also excited. And we were bonded: six weeks of intense reading and rehearsing will do that to you. At the midterm mark on March 3rd, we said goodbye, promising to see other after the midterm break, when we’d begin moving toward the performance.
And then came COVID-19, and the news that now, we were a fully online class. There would be no more face-to-face gatherings or events of any kind on Columbia’s campus. That included performances of Samuel. The city shut down, the campus shut down, the country shut down, and our very incarnational class was now looking at one another on Zoom. What in the world will we do? I thought. We can’t perform live, inside or outside. We could film, from a social distance, but I don’t have the videography skills, and since the students were advised to leave campus if at all possible, some of us are in North Carolina. Not even Broadway can get past quarantine; every show in New York City is closed. Back to the Text’s annual performance will have to be cancelled.
We were all really sad about it. But in a week, we regrouped, and did what everyone else in ministry and education is doing: we changed gears. And mode, genre, paradigm—everything we’d thought was a given for our performance. This became the gift. After many years of doing one thing well, we learned—I learned—how necessity can teach you to do another thing even better. Never change a winning game until it’s time to up your game.
It was Whoopi Goldberg who set us on our way, as a class. We were looking at different forms artists have used to speak truth, in a time of crisis—parody, comedy, irony, story—and I’d collected examples for us to consider. Whoopi was the clear favorite. We all responded to her original one-woman show from 1985, Whoopi Goldberg Live on Broadway, which was her breakout performance and still one of the most brilliant comedic performances (and proclamations) I know. There were nice parallels: we learned that Whoopi Goldberg was a young woman living in Manhattan, frustrated at the lack of roles available to her, so she wrote her own show. Six months later, it was on Broadway. See?—we said to ourselves. If a door closes, make your own door. And open it yourself.
The show consists of Goldberg doing five monologues, or stand-alone performances, of five different characters: a junkie with a PhD, a Jamaican domestic worker, a teenage Valley girl, a young woman with disabilities, and an African American girl who pretends she has long blonde hair. Each of them is wrestling with a culturally-specific issue or crisis, and Goldberg lets them speak for themselves.
In our first six weeks of reading the Samuel books together, our class had been very drawn to the minor characters circulating around David. David is the central character, but you can tell his story through the people around him, moving in and out of the wings. What if we did some monologues in the manner of Whoopi Goldberg?—we asked ourselves. And since we’re all in quarantine, let’s not try to pull off a live performance. Let’s do an audio performance! We’ll record our voices as we read our monologues, and then we’ll put them together like a podcast. And we’ll still have something at the end of the year to share with the Columbia community.
By week 8, we were on our way. We divided into Zoom breakout rooms (yes, I learned to do Zoom breakout rooms) and the small groups brainstormed which characters they’d pick to tell the sweep of David’s story. We wanted to tell the truth about David, not slam him or deconstruct him into something irredeemable—although we’d read authors that did, and we understood why. We’d also read the text. We knew the biblical text does a perfectly fine job of slamming David itself, when warranted. No, we wanted to say something more nuanced, more true to what we knew about the ambiguities of life. We wanted to do what Toni Morrison does, in her writing (which we’d been reading): take all the pieces we are, and give them back, in the right order. So with that, we started writing.
As the professor, I want to tell you what I noticed as we did. The character monologues were functioning like theological first responders. They were speaking directly into the trauma of what we were experiencing, each of us, in our own very different lives; the collective trauma we all are experiencing. We can’t talk about it. Our class didn’t talk about it. But because we had the discipline of writing monologues in other’s voices, we could let the characters speak for us. We could let them take all the pieces and give them back to us, in the right order. The process of creating this group proclamation turned out to be a kind of communal trauma therapy, with Scripture. And it is helping us speak and preach our way into the new earth. (For more on reading Scripture through the lens of trauma theory, see Kathleen M. O’Connor’s brilliant Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary on Genesis; the first volume was published in 2018.)
That’s the big thing I want you to hear. If you are looking for a way to speak into the deep pain and global suffering of these days (and especially if you’re a preacher trying to do that), don’t overlook the gift of this biblical text. It has all the pieces we are. It’ll give them back to us in the right order. We just have to walk into it together, holding hands.
I like the way Yajenlemla, a member of our class, put it in the brief introduction to 1 and 2 Samuel she wrote for the audio performance: “[The Samuel books],” she writes, “are tales about betrayal, war, broken family, lust, revenge, murder, and rejection. But they are also tales about loyalty, hope, love, friendship, restoration, and God’s heart. It is neither a story about a good king versus a bad king, nor is it a tale about the rise and fall of a nation. It is the story about resilience in the midst of hopelessness. It is a story about people who are on the periphery and their journey to attain justice . . . these voices are true even today.” (You can read the rest of Yajen’s summary on the “Meet the Characters” page.)
So now, we invite you to listen to the Book of Samuel. We’ve called it an audio performance, but for us it’s more than a performance: it’s proclamation. It’s what we wanted to say to our community, right now, while we’re in shut down, quarantine, limbo, and grief. While we are unsure about everything we wish we could be sure of. While we’re still in dress rehearsal, for whatever is coming next.
The deep wisdom of our biblical text is that the Word becomes flesh, in spite of us. And it is full of grace and truth, and perhaps, a way to heal.
This is adapted from Anna Carter Florence’s lecture at the 2020 Festival of Homiletics.
The Book of Samuel: An Audio Performance was written and read for you by the 2020 Back to the Text class at Columbia Theological Seminary. The audio performance was produced by Becca Leland. Website design by Joshua Woodsmith and Becca Leland. Photographs throughout the website by Anna Carter Florence and Joshua Woodsmith.
We would like to thank the Festival of Homiletics staff — Dawn Alitz, Karoline Lewis, David Howell, Ben McDonald Coltvet, Madeline Burbank, and the always amazing Teri Temple — for allowing The Book of Samuel: An Audio Performance to be included in the 2020 Festival of Homiletics bonus materials (http://www.festivalofhomiletics.com), as an accompaniment to Anna Carter Florence’s lecture, “Notes from the Quarantine: Proclaiming the Book of Samuel in Nine Voices.” Our deep thanks, also, for granting the students in the class scholarships to the Festival, and so access to all the sermons, lectures and interviews. We’ll be listening from where we live, on all sides of the globe!
We would also like to thank our own Columbia Seminary President, Leanne Van Dyk; our Dean of Faculty, Love Sechrest; and our Dean of Students, Brandon Maxwell, for their support and enthusiasm for this class and this project, and for their care for all us, in these days. Columbia has been our home and we are grateful. (To learn more about Columbia, our degree programs and our community, please visit us at http://www.CTSnet.edu.)
Ten Years of Back to the Text | 2010: The Gospel of Mark | 2012: The Book of Esther | 2013: The First Letter to Timothy | 2014: The Book of Daniel | 2015: Luke’s Parables | 2016: The Book of Exodus | 2017: The Gospel of John | 2018: The Book of Job | 2019: The Book of Genesis | 2020: The Books of Samuel