Embraced: my PhD at Biblical Studies Seminar

This reflection on my recent experience of presenting my PhD work at the New College School of Divinity Biblical Studies Seminar first appeared in my monthly newsletter. Read more behind the scenes stories from the PhD experience, and from the further adventures of storytelling and poetry for free! Sign up over there on the right. 

'Your translation of aspazomai was excellent.' So said Prof Tim Lim, and the expressions on the faces of friends and my supervisor indicated the value of that affirmation from a well respected scholar. It's one of the pieces of work I've done in the performance interpretation of Romans with which I, too, am most pleased.

The word appears many times in Rom 16, and is translated in the NRSV as 'greet', but as I embodied and performed the letter, 'greet' in current English usage felt inadequate for expressing the meaning I and my audiences found in these imperatives to reach out towards members perhaps less readily welcomed in the churches in Rome. Returning to the Greek, I found that the range of meaning for translation into English included 'embrace'. The responses to the repeated imperative to 'embrace' have been profound over the past year of performances. I am really pleased with this concrete example of the outcome of an embodied performance interpretation of a biblical composition.

Prof Lim's comment came after I had presented at our Biblical Studies Seminar at New College, an opportunity offered to final year PhD students. I had been rehearsing and writing and rehearsing the presentation since Christmas. I had talked the script over with my supervisor. I had run through the presentation, handout and slides and all, with several colleagues the day before. I was ready. With the content of the slides printed and cut into small paper 'cards', with some further notes where necessary, I spoke material I knew well, in content and form. After I had set the scene of Biblical Performance Criticism for an audience not familiar with the field, and then introduced my particular project and method of embodied performance interpretation, I asked the audience if they would like to see it in practice. Enthusiastic nods of 'yes, please'!

I stepped out from behind the table - from which I had removed the wooden script holder, rather placing my notes on the table as I finished with them, beside water bottle and note book - and performed Romans 16. Applause after the performance. Stepping back behind the table - this movement distinguished the performance from the presentation, which I had talked over with colleagues the day before as a helpful visual marker for the audience - I talked through critical reflections on interpretive decisions, including the translation change from 'greet' to 'embrace'.

Comments from the audience indicated a high level of engagement, a positive reception of the ideas and the project, even if there was not necessarily agreement about the suitability of this approach for scholarship as much as for the practical arena of preaching and worship leading.

I've received further comments since then, from people who were there and people who weren't, but who heard from others a positive and enthusiastic report. I achieved my goal: I communicated effectively, introduced my field and my project, and modelled good practice for presenting in a scholarly environment (something we see rarely, with most presenters reading from the page to the point of disconnection from their audience, and speaking words crafted not for the ears of their listeners, but for the eyes of readers).

Since the seminar, I have finished a first draft of Chapter Two and begun work on Chapter Three, the momentum continuing to build with each passing goal ticked off.


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