Read Like An Artist: Emotion & Drama

Based on how the Bible is often preached and taught, you could easily come to the conclusion that it is a story with surprisingly little interest in creating drama for the audience. More often than not, pastors and teachers focus almost exclusively on explaining, defending, and applying the ideas of the Bible and give hardly any thought to helping people experience the emotional force that the biblical stories are meant to have.


Image from: https://www.amazon.com/Heart-Biblical-Narrative-Rediscovering-Emotions/dp/0800663381

I bring this up, not because I want to nitpick the aesthetics of preaching but rather because the drama in a biblical narrative is an important aspect of how God's Word is meant to work. In The Heart of Biblical Narrative Karl Allen Kuhn notes that "Just as our beliefs can be cultivated and nurtured so that they more clearly reflect what God is revealing to us, so, too, can our proclivities of the heart" (loc. 346).

As there are different ways to move through an environment - walking, running, skipping, crawling - and each of these creates a unique experience, so too are there different ways to move through a narrative, and each of these creates its own unique experience...

Kuhn goes on to explain several specific strategies that biblical narratives use to shape the emotions of the audience, including techniques like extended threshold moments, anti-climax, and narrative inversion. For the artist trying to engage the biblical stories from a well-informed and thoughtful perspective, these insights are extremely helpful and so I commend The Heart of Biblical Narrative and similar works seeking to engage the Bible from an emotional angle.

Often we think of artists as solitary individuals, creating their work out of their own isolated genius. But Bible Artists should never be isolated in their process of reading and adaptation.

Instead of replicating Kuhn's insights into narratology, however, I want to take a moment to think about concrete practices that artists can use to engage the Bible at an emotional & dramatic level. Reading well is not just a matter of asking the right questions, after all. As there are different ways to move through an environment - walking, running, skipping, crawling - and each of these creates a unique experience, so too are there different ways to move through a narrative, and each of these creates its own unique experience, some of which are more conducive to catching the emotional and dramatic sense of a text.


Reading Practices for Emotional & Dramatic Engagement


Read Imaginatively

If you're going to try to turn a biblical story into Bible Art, you shouldn't wait until you're actually making something to turn on your imagination. Dramatic visualization is a process that you should be engaging while you are reading the story itself. Oftentimes, it is by trying to picture the specific details of a story that we begin to see cracks or surprising aspects of what is going on that we might not have recognized through a more prosaic analysis of the words and their meaning. Meaning or potential avenues for adaptive exploration can be found in this process and so it's important to not delay it until the more active stage of adaptation.


Read Out Loud

Any decent teacher will insist that students should read poems aloud. Unlike most modern writers, poets write for the ear and not just the eye. As a result, any attempt to engage a poet's work without the use of sound will miss out on the full intended experience. It's almost akin to watching a movie on mute or reading lyrics without listening to the song. Doing so on occasion may be an appropriate way to focus in on aspects of the work in order to dissect what the creator is doing, but it would be a shame to only encounter artistic works in such a limited fashion.

There was no such thing as quiet time for the original readers of the Bible. The Bible was written for a listening ear and not for a silent and solitary eye.

Like poetry (but unlike most modern narratives), biblical stories are meant to be read aloud. There was no such thing as quiet time for the original readers of the Bible. The Bible was written for a listening ear and not for a silent and solitary eye. This is more obvious to those who can read the Bible in the original language and pick up on the word and sound play that modern translations have difficulty replicating. But even in translation, particularly if the translation is attentive to the form and flow of biblical language and not just its meaning, the experience of reading a biblical narrative out loud is unique. Those who listen to the Bible will be much more attuned to the pace and intensity of a story than those who can sit for several minutes pondering a single sentence. It's the difference between attending a poetry slam and close reading the same 3 minute poems over the course of an hour.


If you're a Bible Artist seeking to adapt a biblical story into another medium, the need to read aloud is even greater. Unlike an academic or a pastor, you aren't simply aiming to explain the ideas or meaning of the text. Even if you're creating your own idiosyncratic, innovative version of the story, you should still seeking to be aware of the aesthetic and dramatic experience that the original story created. With this in mind, a few suggestions to make your out loud Bible reading experience better:

  • Read passages aloud several times, experimenting with different speeds, tones, and points of emphasis.

  • Pay attention to the syntax of a passage. A long string of paratactic sentences (short sentences that roll one after another, connected simply by "and" rather than subordinating conjunctions like "although", "since", or "because") will naturally increase the pace of reading. This usually correlates with parts of narrative that are filled with action and drama. Conversely, sentences that contain numerous subordinate clauses or other complicated structures will naturally decrease the pace of reading. This usually correlates with parts of the narrative that are more descriptive and leisurely.

  • Don't stop. Unless you reach a point in the narrative that suggests a hard transition, you should keep on going like the story was meant to be read. And don't read the section headings - they aren't an original component of the oral experience.

  • Treat the characters within the story as people. Whether or not you want to create specific voices for each of them, you should at least try the capture the emotion and intonation suggested by what they say and what they've experienced.


Read Out Loud in Community

The reason why ancient books were written for the ear is that they were meant be experienced in community. They were a form of popular, public storytelling before the movie theater. Although this may seem strange to modern people who usually associate books with private, solitary entertainment, Brian J. Wright's Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus has demonstrated how wide-spread public reading events were in the ancient world on the basis of numerous Greco-Roman and the Jewish sources, including the Bible itself.

Image from: https://www.amazon.com/Communal-Reading-Time-Jesus-Christian/dp/1506432506

Initially, it may not feel as though reading out loud in community would add that much to the experience of the story when compared to reading out loud individually. But there is also an important difference between reading a story out loud and getting to listen to the story out loud. It's harder to comprehend and follow a story when you're caught up in the activity of sound creation. When reading a biblical story by yourself, the best you can do to recreate the experience of listening is to use an audio Bible. Yet even here there is something lacking: the personal presence and force of the reader that engages you as a listener, and the personal presence of other listeners that provide a context for your experience.

There's something intangibly powerful about experiencing a story with others, and the biblical writers intended for their stories to make use of that power.

I think movies serve as a helpful analogy. Why do we pay so much in order to attend a movie theater when we can watch the same film at home for a fraction of the cost? To be sure, it's in part because of the superior technological capabilities of the theater. But I imagine that most of us, if given the choice between watching a movie in a completely empty theater and watching it in a theater full of excited fans would end up leaning toward the more communal experience. There's something intangibly powerful about experiencing a story with others, and the biblical writers intended for their stories to make use of that power.


Often we think of artists as solitary individuals, creating their work out of their own isolated genius. But Bible Artists should never be isolated in their process of reading and adaptation. Before creating Bible Art out of a particular story, they should first seek to enjoy that story in the context that it was meant to be enjoyed: in a community and not in isolation. Doing so will allow them to more fully enter into and appreciate the kind of emotional and dramatic force that the original authors intended.

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