by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“Jesus answered, ‘Let us move on to the neighboring towns and villages so I may proclaim the message in them also. That is what I have come to do.’” — Mark 1:38
I have often made statements here in this pulpit about my involvement in professional theater. While I have mentioned what I am about to say to individuals in private concerning that work, I don’t think I have ever mentioned what I am about to say from the pulpit. So, here goes. (Slight pause.)
Fairly early on I knew I wanted to write for the theater. Both in elementary school and in high school I had acted in plays. But I also knew what I learned doing school productions was, in comparison to working in professional theater, somewhat rudimentary.
So, when I came of age, I marched myself down to 120 Madison Avenue, New York, New York, and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Among the famous alumni this school claims are Robert Redford, Anne Bancroft, Danny DeVito and Lauren Bacall. And as I indicated, to the best of my memory, I have never admitted from the pulpit that I actually attended the American Academy.
But the fact that I enrolled asks the obvious question: why? After all, writing and acting are not the same craft. (Slight pause.) Well, since I knew I wanted to write for theater. I therefore thought it wise to find out what professional actors know, discover something about how they learn, what they learn, how actors are taught to think.
To put it differently, as a writer I needed to know about actors because if you are not writing something for actors to say, don’t make the claim that you’re a playwright. You are not. You’re a novelist.
In any case, at the American Academy I found out a couple of very important things. While the famous playwright and actor Noël Coward said the first job of an actor is find out where the furniture is placed on stage so you won’t bump into it and to recite your lines clearly— both of which sound like really simple, easy instructions— the first thing I learned about acting is that it is not at all simple, easy. Indeed, it is very hard.
What makes acting hard? I think the prime thing that makes acting hard is what theater people call the sub-text. And what an actor has to do is to play not the text of a play, not the words that are written, but the sub-text. So, what is sub-text?
The sub-text is what the writer has not written down on the page but something which lurks beneath the words of a play. To be clear, I am saying this as a writer. Words on paper are simply words on paper.
Words do not live until an actor turns them from mere words into action and emotions. In short, what any playwright wants is an actor who can not only make words come alive but who has the talent to dig beneath the words and explore that sub-text.
Let me see if I can illustrate what sub-text is with a story. (Slight pause.) Having grown up in New York City and being involved in theater, I had the privilege of seeing many great actors at work.
I once saw George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft, two of the finest actors of the last fifty years, directed by Mike Nichols, one of the great directors of the last fifty years, in a production of Little Foxes. I don’t know if Little Foxes is a great play. But it gets produced often and actors in those productions are invariably nominated for Tony awards.
In any case, Mike Nichols staged one scene this way. The character played by Anne Bancroft sat in a chair upstage and gave a severe tongue lashing to the character played by George C. Scott. Scott stood downstage, back to the audience and said not a word throughout Bancroft’s dialogue.
Please note: the words the audience heard consisted solely of the verbally abusive monologue administered by Bancroft’s character. But believe me the words are not what the audience remembered. The audience remembered the back of George C. Scott. [Still amplified so people could hear, the pastor moves from the pulpit to the center of the platform and, with back turned to the Congregation says the following and illustrates the words by doing what Scott did.]
Scott started out with amazingly erect posture. And as line after line after line was delivered, as Bancroft hammered away at Scott, you could see his back slowly weaken and bend. Again, Scott did not say one line, one word for over a minute. He simply reacted. [The pastor returns to the pulpit.] As I sat there and watched, the only thought that come to my mind was— oh, my: this man is acting with his back.
Further and equally, what Bancroft said, the words in the script, were less important than how she said them. She made it clear her character was not only saying abusive things to the character Scott played. Her character was enjoying it, really having fun being abusive.
That is sub-text. Which is to say you can never simply read a play. Mere words don’t tell the full story, do not carry the full meaning.
You always need to pay attention not to what the words say but to what they mean, pay attention what other things are going on, pay attention the places to which the words point. That’s sub-text. (Slight pause.)
We find this passage in the Gospel commonly called Mark: “Jesus answered, ‘Let us move on to the neighboring towns and villages so I may proclaim the message in them also. That is what I have come to do.’” (Slight pause.)
When we simply read Scripture and pay too much attention to what the words say it’s more than likely we miss will what’s vital, what’s important. Why? Scholars make a fairly sound argument that a vast majority of Scripture is based in an oral tradition. In short, Scripture was spoken before it was written.
There is clear internal evidence in the Epistles that even Paul, perhaps the most literary of writers in Scripture, the one most married to words, dictated to a scribe. Paul spoke and it was written down. Paul’s written words start as oral testimony. (Slight pause.)
There is no question about this: once writing is committed to the page— writing that had been verbal— something of its vibrance, its ability to live, can be lost unless we read that writing with care and with the thought in mind that its origins are oral. And what is it that we most often lose because we fail to recognize that? The sub-text.
This is also to say Scripture is more oral and more theatrical than we realize. Our tendency, you see, is to treat it as text and forget there is more to it than that.
Therefore, when we read Scripture, we always need to pay attention to the sub-text because the oral is always there, in the background. More than what the words say, we need to focus on what the words mean and the places to which the words point.
I have an example of how sub-text works in this passage. Many people get caught up in the stories about healing found here. And I understand that. These are very appealing stories.
But to reiterate, it is a mistake to not ask the obvious question: to what place do these stories point? And to what place do the stories of healing words point?
I think the place to which they point is fairly clear. The stories about healing point to the work of the itinerant preacher we know as Jesus. And this Jesus preaches a very specific message, so they also point to that message.
What is that message? You’ve heard me say this before: the Dominion of God is here, is now, is with us. And in fact, the stories about healing are meant to be taken not as stories simply about healing. They are meant to be taken as a sign that the Dominion of God is here, and is now, and is with us.
Which is also to say a question often asked is this: ‘Are these stories about healing real?’ ‘Did healing happen?’ These kinds of questions miss the point of what’s going on and what’s being said.
Whether or not healing happened is moot. The stories are not about healing. The stories are meant to be yet another sign that the Dominion of God is here, is now, is with us. (Slight pause.)
Now, there is something else I need to mention. None of what I just said negates who Jesus is, diminishes Jesus in any way. Jesus is the Messiah, the Second Person of the Trinity. To say that it’s a moot point as to wether or not the healings are real in fact affirms that Jesus is the Messiah.
Indeed, once you understand that the message of the itinerant preacher known as Jesus, this message that the Dominion of God is with us, it is then impossible to draw any other conclusion about the identity of Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah.
And last, if you do pay attention to the sub-text, you also come to an understanding that the love of God expressed for all humanity is expressed in Jesus. Indeed, here’s another bit of sub-text: Jesus, the Messiah, as the Second Person of the Trinity, is the One through Whom God shows us the possibility, the reality, that the world might be healed— that the world might be healed. That is the reality of the healing and the idea that the Dominion is here, the Dominion is now, the Dominion is with us. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I hope I’ve made one thing clear about Scripture. You can never simply just read it. You need to study it and thereby make it your own. Simply reading it and expecting to get something vital out of it is to treat Scripture like a magic lamp. Rub it and your wish will come true. That’s not how it works.”
BENEDICTION: Surely God will empower our ministry; surely God will supply for our needs when we are about the work of God; may this God, the God who formed the universe, bless us with the courage, the knowledge, the wisdom and the fortitude to serve the Gospel of Christ, empowered by the Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.