‘Embracing the Subjective’: A Review of Sarah Agnew’s Embodied Performance: Mutuality, Embrace, and the Letter to Rome

Sarah Agnew, Embodied Performance: Mutuality, Embrace, and the Letter to Rome (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2020). 298 pages. ISBN: 9781725257849.

‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, making scholars the world over profoundly uncomfortable’ (John 1.14, Mossfield paraphrase).

At first glance, Sarah Agnew’s new book Embodied Performance: Mutuality, Embrace, and the Letter to Rome (2020) has a relatively straightforward goal: to develop a methodology by which contemporary biblical storytellers might share in a scholarly fashion the insights they gain into a text through performance. Indeed, the need for a such a methodology may appear self-evident and the reader might rightly wonder why no such method already exists. Yet, this absence in the field of biblical criticism reveals the deeper and more important project which Agnew undertakes in this book: challenging modern biblical scholars to take seriously the reality of embodiment and incarnation which lies at the heart of the Christian story.

Like in other academic fields, the watchwords of modern biblical criticism include objectivity and reason. As a performer-interpreter of biblical texts, however, Agnew became increasingly aware of intuitive, subjective insights that the act of performance gave her into Scripture. Noting increasing interdisciplinary evidence of ‘embodied cognition’ (that is, knowledge gained through the body), and building on the growing field of Biblical Performance Criticism (BPC), Agnew consequently developed her Embodied Performance Analysis (EPA) to allow the subjective to speak into contemporary scholarship. In her own words, ‘EPA invites the physical, emotional, and relational aspects of human meaning-making to contribute to conversations generally dominated by rational objectivity’ (142). Here, Agnew seeks to transcend the limits of BPC (with its focus on how a text was historically performed) and embrace the subjective, contemporary performance as a realm for authentic interpretation and meaning making.

Yet, Agnew’s EPA method does not seek to supplant traditional, objective scholarship. Rather, through a three-stage process of preparation, performance, and critical reflection, Agnew hopes to create a dialogue between reason and embodied knowledge. In the EPA framework, therefore, ‘the performer-interpreter employs tools of the body, emotion, and audience, integrated [my emphasis] with a range of pertinent exegetical approaches, to discern meaning in a biblical composition, presented in an Analysis comprised of Performance Interpretation and Critical Reflection’ (132). It is this interaction between Agnew’s observation of her embodiment of the Word (through movement, tone, hesitation, voice, and gesture), and preexisting scholarly debates over the meaning of a text, that makes Embodied Performance most compelling to read. For, as a preacher, I am conscious of the ways studying a text with the goal of proclaiming good news to my congregation presents unique understandings that I could not have gained in the seminary library. Likewise, Agnew’s insight into the text through her performance of it, offers another rich lens of meaning to me as both a preacher and a disciple. Agnew, however, seeks to go a step further – not just naming insights in an interesting way, but enabling them to participate in ongoing academic debate.

What Agnew demonstrates in Embodied Performance is that, when given voice, performance may indeed contribute significant value to biblical criticism. For example, in preparing to perform Paul’s letter to the Romans, Agnew noted the way she would step intuitively to one side or another as she embodied different voices or personas in Paul’s argument. Agnew was surprised, however, to find herself stepping in a new direction when speaking the words at Romans 7.15, ‘I do not understand my own actions’ (NRSV). In engaging with preexisting commentaries, Agnew discovered an ongoing dialogue between scholars over the meaning of the ‘I’ in this discourse at the end of the chapter. While some argued that Paul was referring to himself, others suggested that the ‘I’ was a rhetorical device with which Paul sought to include his audience in the narrative of sin. For Agnew, however, her body’s movement revealed ‘instinctively this felt like a discrete, new, voice’ (166). Consequently, Agnew concluded, along with the second group of scholars, that the ‘I’ of Romans 7 was ‘an “every-person” caught up in the cosmic battle of good and evil’ (167). While Agnew’s conclusion may not be unique (indeed, it is well within the bounds of the existing debate), her embodied insights offer a new interpretative lens that helps ‘tip the argument’ where traditional scholarship had reached an impassable stalemate. Embodied Performance Analysis then may indeed offer meaning to biblical scholars in a way that alone studying words on a page may not.

Of course, as with any new methodology, Agnew’s Embodied Performance has some limitations. Agnew herself highlights the omission of some difficult passages (such as those dealing with the place of Israel in Romans 9–11) from the performance for lack of an appropriate way to parse their meaning with sufficient nuance; the need for other performer-interpreters to also use and test the method; and the risk that the performer may impart too much of their own theology into the meaning-making process. In addition, I note that Agnew’s critical reflection on the performance at times blurs the line between performance insights (that is, meaning derived from the act of performance and contributed to scholarly debates), and performance choices (that is, those places where Agnew chooses to perform a passage in a certain way because of the scholarly position, without necessarily offering any new insights toward it). In Embodied Performance, Agnew does begin to take steps towards addressing some of these limitations (such as using omission as a source for exegetical discussion, or noting audience reactions against those places where she intentionally imparted too much of her own theology). Nevertheless, none of these issues prevents Agnew from demonstrating her key point: performance does indeed have important insights to contribute to biblical scholarship.

But what of the average preacher or congregant? As a Minister in a local congregation, I had some mixed reaction to the utility of Agnew’s book in my context. As a preacher, I noted the encouragement to engage with my subjective insights into a biblical text as part of the interpretative task. Throughout my reading of the text, however, I was also conscious that I am not a biblical storyteller and wondered if I should ever have occasion to practice Agnew’s EPA methodology myself. Yet, this is not what Agnew asks of either the biblical scholar or the local church leader. Instead, Agnew encourages us to hear the insights gained by biblical storytellers as a key part of the ‘fullness of human epistemology’ (191) and to be open to the knowledge of embodied existence for understanding the meaning of any biblical text. And so, if the only outcome of my reading this book is that I begin to include EPA scholars in my weekly reading in preparing the sermon, then it seems to me this shall have been a book worth reading. For Agnew’s Embodied Performance challenges both the Church and academia to embrace the embodied Word. The question that remains is: will we?

℘℘℘℘

Daniel Mossfield is a Minister of the Word of the Uniting Church in Australia. He serves in rural NSW, working at the intersection of traditional and emerging forms of church, and is passionate about the sacramental nature of preaching and what it means to be the church in a secular age. He lives and works on Gundungurra and Wiradjuri land. 

3 thoughts on “‘Embracing the Subjective’: A Review of Sarah Agnew’s Embodied Performance: Mutuality, Embrace, and the Letter to Rome

  1. Thank you for your insightful review. I am really enjoying Sarah’s book. Her work makes me wonder why biblical storytelling in worship services (and training in biblical storytelling) is not the norm. Public reading from scripture seems to be enacted so often in such a way as to reinforce the illusionary notion of the text as static and the hearers as disembodied minds. The final two words of your review are so compelling. With decades of developments in cognitive neuroscience revealing that thought and meaning are embodied (rooted in bodily processes), I find myself increasingly bewildered that, in many church services, we persist with a model in which teaching/preaching dominates in time and emphasis. (I am very fascinated by your passion for the sacramental nature of preaching.)

    1. Thank you for the feedback Jennifer.

      I too pondered on the question of how we might bring storytelling into our congregational settings. It struck me that as part of my studies to be a congregational minister, I received certain training into exegesis and biblical criticism. Of course, this was not to the same degree as someone who pursues biblical criticism as their expertise in academia – yet it was sufficient to help inform my practice and preaching. I wonder if there is a similar opportunity in regard to story telling – without having to be professional storytellers, how might we get some introductory training so it is a ‘tool in our belt’ so to speak.

      It also occurs to me that quite apart from the question of storytelling, we don’t train people how to read Scripture in worship very well (compared say to our siblings in the Eastern Orthodox tradition). Perhaps an opportunity for further exploration to help people discover the embodiment of the Word.

      As you note, I’m not quite willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater either. Preaching to me remains a central act of the Church, especially as a sacramental act – a means by which Christ is made present and addresses the gathered people. I see no reason for this address not to include bodies as well as minds. Yet, in a secular age I suspect this notion feels a tad too irrational to us, so we resort instead to teaching and moralizing. Indeed, perhaps we have too many sermons and not enough preaching?

      Daniel

  2. Hi again, Daniel. Yes, that seems like a wonderful distinction to make – between ‘sermons’, and ‘preaching’ which is truly sacramental. I love it. The other day, it struck me how wonderful it could be to walk away from a worship service feeling as though the line, “Look, the Lamb of God!”, summed up our entire worship service experience (including the preaching).

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