Shiell, William D. 2011. Delivering from memory: The effect of performance on the early Christian audience. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

“This book attempts to study early Christian texts from the perspective of ancient delivery and memory for reader and listener. The delivery comes from the memory of the performer and the audience” (ix).

The book has five chapters dealing with delivery and memory, a bibliography, and indices of subject, modern author and ancient documents. The abbreviations for the latter are broad, comprising four and a half pages.

Throughout the book Shiell quotes extensively from the ancient documents, drawing on and defining the Greek or Latin terms that were used to describe performances. He looks, for example, at the Hellenistic rhetorical categories (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) that were used by early Christian writers. He notes that “[t]his book takes up the Greco-Roman convention of memory as a significant component for the performer and the audience” (5). In other words, the audience came prepared for the production and responded accordingly in the story. This was possible because, in ancient delivery, the story audience was involved in “analysis, visualization, recall, practice, paraphrase, audience preparation, performance, and response” (9).

Delivery and memory are taken up in chapter two of the book by describing how the audience and performer worked together by means of recitation, retention and response.

The performer used gestures, facial expressions and voice modulations to express emotions. He or she also used rhetorical figures, such as lists (especially names and numbers), riddles, fables, visualization, and characterization as part of the story. And, of course, memory was involved in the planning and delivery of the story so that it could be retained and the audience could make adjustments during its telling. The roles of the audience were thus to listen and respond, by applause, filling in gaps, and reacting, so that it could remember and, if necessary, correct the story.

The performance of a story was related closely to character formation, so that a “trained orator is a model citizen and a good example for society” (29) and could be expected to give divine-like explanations to problems like suffering. Audiences in the ancient world would gather into circles or philosophical groups to validate the people as moral examples. The rewards of the effective delivery and remembering the story was that “something happened. Stories were told, memories were shaped and formed, and [the] individuals changed” (37). Early Christian audiences “reshaped their performance around the activities of Jesus and saw the performance as his part of the work of memory” (38).

“Delivery and Memory in Early Christian Performances” (the title of chapter three), is reflected in several ancient conventions: gesture, recitation, and remembrance. Shiell provides Scripture references throughout his discussion showing how the lectors (readers) performed. Examples are where the stories were told at meals (Acts 2 and 4; Romans 15 and 1 Corinthians 10:21) and of particular importance were gestures, facial expressions, voice control, and sorites (chain-link effects to connect items or events). The lector used allegories and riddles, particular venues to enhance visualization and imagination, as well as the impersonation of Christian figures.

The role of the audience was crucial, providing feedback as they listened, responded, interrupted, interacted, remembered, and corrected. (This is reminiscent of the roles of the audience that I saw enacted in Papua New Guinea Highland societies, where it was common to interrupt, fill in gaps and correct the speaker.)

Interaction of the lector and audience enhanced their memories by arousing and binding them together through the shared experience. This process helped to overcome forgetfulness. It was the first hand experience of the lector that was so important: For example, Timothy (in laying on hands) visualizes and remembers his own training and empowerment and connects the teacher and the community (53).

Because of this, the lector had to be credible and faithful—he expected the same from the audience, for, in the ancient world, “[t]he individual progresses morally because of the divine attributes embedded in the person” (56). Such was the case that performances in “[e]arly Christian writings suggest that performance changes how memories are affected” (58). The audience believed that the wisdom imparted by the lector was associated with his own memory. In this way, “[t]he audience learns how to recall, remember, and retell their traditions and their lives of faithfulness and challenge” (64).

On page 66, Shiell provides a detailed chart that illustrates the use of paideia (instruction), performance, memory, rhetorical figures and effects in eight ancient texts (including  five from the Bible). For example, in 1 Timothy 4:13-16 we find teaching, the public reading of scriptures, gesture, sorites and the interaction of Timothy and the hearers. “Knowing that the performances matter and the early Christian communities orient their lives around Jesus, the audience are shaped by gestures, figures, and memories in the performance” (67).

In chapter four, “Delivering Jesus from Memory”, we learn that in these early Christian communities “lectors performed letters, biographies, apocalypses and sermons for the community; and the audience responded in ways that shaped who they were and how they lived” (69).

Shiell provides a basic set of questions to ask about the performance that will help shape the imagination. He queries the following: the lists, gestures, emotions, participation, text or story, and what changes are expected in the audience.

Matthew 6:5-23, on prayer, fasting, riches, and the eyes as the light of the body, would have anticipated some humor on the part of the audience as they imagined (and had seen) the public religious practices of people whose character was quite opposite of Jesus’ teachings. This is because “[h]umorous speeches employ stock themes of braggarts, the pompous, the thieving, the conniving, and the greedy” (80). The hyperbole is designed to reveal character—such as the hypocrites that used phylacteries and strapped them to their foreheads and forearms.

Shiell also examines Jesus’ anger toward the Pharisees and demonstrates that Mark used a range of emotions to characterize it, such as a clenched hand or altering his voice, which draw “on the sense of injustice from the audience and builds confidence in the character who shares their anger” (86).

Hidden meanings had a special power in the teachings of Jesus. They were common to the ancient world and encouraged the hearers to discover meanings for themselves. Allegories and parables draw the audience into the story. As Shiell notes, “The performer needs the audience…. The parable with the allegory is an exercise in performance criticism because of the importance for the audience within the Gospel as well as those watching the Gospel being performed” (89). We see how Jesus, as the lector, is gazed upon by the people and He becomes a mirror for themselves.

The visualization process is illustrated by Shiell in the Emmaus scene in Luke 24:13-35. It also demonstrates “recognition, memories, and divine contact” (95). The Emmaus disciples depict forgetfulness and fatigue. Jesus provides them with teaching (the recollection of OT stories), visual contact (blessing the bread) and their eyes are opened—audience response!

The final chapter of the book (5) is called “Interpreting in Performance” and, in it, Shiell comments on the importance of the performer’s own character. If it is questionable, so is the value of the story. The community not only listens to the lector, but they must trust him. The performer must therefore not only be virtuous, but also prepared to tell and remember the story, with suitable emotions and gestures, even discussing beforehand with the audience what is expected of them.

The performer will change the memory of the audience and expect them to respond appropriately. They will gaze at him to see the character of Jesus, link the story to each other, even as they agree or disagree with one another, and, most important, should receive grace and instruction from the story.

In summary, Shiell’s book and his analysis of ancient Christian lectors and their audiences is instructive and helpful. If I were teaching “storytelling” again (as I have in the past), I would definitely incorporate many of his ideas and contributions into the curriculum. The audience (students) would play a more important role than they did in my mainly-lecture-and-listen classes.

As I reflected on the book, I also attempted to apply dome of it to the Papua New Guinea Highland audiences with which I was familiar: I noted that they expected me to show anger when something was stolen, be loud when giving instructions, cry in sympathy when someone died, use hidden meanings to allow them to form their own conclusions, not be annoyed at their interruptions, allow gaps to be filled, encourage unexpected questions, and so on.

The text of Shiell is an excellent addition for any ethnography or anthropology class as well. It could also enhance our sociolinguistic questionnaire approach by encouraging language community participation in all aspects of our fieldwork.

In short: I recommend that you buy and apply information from the book, regardless of your area of expertise.

Karl Franklin
July, 2016