In this guest post David Tatem introduces Bibliodrama and Bibliolog, two ways of engaging with biblical texts which could be used to explore texts of violence. If you are interested in finding out more, please leave a comment to that effect, and we will get back to you.
In the early 1980s an approach to exploring biblical texts began to emerge in both the US and Europe, primarily in Germany, which used an approach of spontaneous and improvised role play. The purpose was to break away from a straitjacketed and controlled approach to interpretation and allow the individual life experience of participants to influence the way in which roles were adopted and interpreted and the interaction between role players. This was done with the hope that not only fresh interpretations might emerge, but that even old interpretations might be expressed with fresh understanding or aspects.
The American approach came largely from the Jewish tradition drawing on the long-standing approach of Midrash, whilst in Europe it began in the Protestant and Catholic churches drawing together dramatists, theologians, psycho-dramatists and practitioners of other art forms in a new cooperation. (An understanding of Midrash can be obtained from the Institute of Contemporary Midrash and the examples given there.
Both countries adopted the term Bibliodrama which has been confusing because the American / Jewish form is very different to the European form so that within Europe the American form has come to be known as Bibliolog. I will use those two separate terms.
Bibliolog is the shortest and least complex form of the approach. If you have followed the link above you will see that it can be used with, for example, a congregation in a service and only those who wish to need participate, others can simply observe and gain from listening, but they might perhaps find themselves being drawn in and participating even if they had not intended to. It can be and usually is a short exercise, perhaps taking the place of a sermon.
In Bibliolog a text will be introduced by the facilitator who will then invite people to place themselves in the role of one of the characters and think themselves into how they might feel in the situation described and what they might want to say to another character or to God in response to something that has happened. In that way a conversation may gradually develop. Initially one person is likely to speak but others will hopefully join in perhaps giving another perspective, digging deeper and taking the conversation further. After a while the facilitator may stop that conversation and divide the group into two or introduce additional characters and encourage a dialogue within the group itself.
The text chosen will influence the way in which the Bibliolog is setup and managed. Although Bibliolog has its roots in Judaism it has naturally been taken up in Christian settings so a text which for example includes Jesus, disciples, Pharisees, and a leper would suggest the possibility of a gradually evolving set of dialogues exploring different facets of a story.
The session will end with some de-roling, that is to say making sure that people return from being Zacchaeus and become once again ‘John Smith’. This is especially important if exchanges have perhaps become heated. There would then be the chance for people to express how they have experienced the Bibliolog for themselves and how perceptions of views may have changed exploring the question of ‘what have we learned or seen afresh?’.
Bibliodrama sets out to achieve a similar goal but, rather like a cricket match, the process may last for several days! One single Bibliodrama session normally lasts for about three hours but over the course of say, a weekend, a theme may run through the whole time with each session using different approaches and with slightly different perhaps, evolving emphases.
The chief difference with Bibliolog is that Bibliodrama attempts to engage all the senses and consequently different forms of expression appropriate to the text or theme. It is always carried out as a group exercise, normally with a group of around 10 to 15 people, rarely more than twenty and all those participating will have either accepted an invitation to take part or asked to do so. There are therefore no ‘passengers’ in a Bibliodrama. At the same time, though, there is no compulsion to do anything which any participant may feel unable to engage with. Material may become painful, and someone may need to be able to withdraw for a while in order to be able to continue. Similarly, all participants agree at the start to respect both the text and the contributions of the others. Bibliodrama is characterised by an attitude of listening, affirmation, and appreciation rather than argument or disagreement. The exception is that, as in Bibliolog, characters in role may argue with one another and it is the job of the facilitator to manage this and if necessary, stop an argument at and use that as material for collective reflection.
Once again, the choice of the text will inform the approach taken and the methods used but there are always three components to a Bibliodrama. These are commonly called Body Work, Play and Sharing.
Because Bibliodrama is a ‘whole person’ approach, the body work at the beginning is an integral part, especially in a face-to-face group context. It might start with some simple stretching and movement, familiarising people with the space in which they are meeting and greeting one another, perhaps with a gesture or expression. Some of the body work is likely to then have some relationship to the theme of the whole session. Imagine for example a Bibliodrama on Moses meeting God on the holy ground surrounding the burning bush in the Exodus story. The body work might invite people to imagine, as they are moving around the space that they are walking on different kinds of surfaces and to express in their way of moving how they experience that and relate to it. This would help them later to be able have a deeper experience of being on holy ground.
The heart of the Bibliodrama then is the play. It’s important to get over any idea that playing with biblical texts means not taking them seriously. St Paul has something to answer for here with his comment about having put away childish things! Most of us can recognise that at whatever age we are, playing is how we can become more flexible and learn new things. It can be both fun and highly serious. The play can be done in a variety of ways. Most traditional Bibliodramas will involve setting a scene, roles being adopted and an improvised acting out of a scene being played. A large group may be subdivided into smaller groups with each of these then playing their scene for the other groups to witness with comments being invited on what has been seen. The playing of the scene is always far from any traditional idea of following the text as script. Improvisation can begin at the point of the choosing of roles. In a Bibliodrama I led once on the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, one participant took on the role of the tree and developed quite an engaged role. In another Bibliodrama someone injected a contemporary role of being a reporter from the Jerusalem Post interrupting and asking awkward questions of the people in the scene. De-rolling in Bibliodrama is, of course, even more important than in Bibliolog as participants are likely to have dug much more deeply into their roles.
The play could also involve another art form in response to the stimulus of a text, using visual art, weaving or poetry. Something done in this way is likely to involve individual expressions which are then shared with one another and lead on to a collective expression of the form, either creating something new or bringing together what has already been created. In one workshop I led group members worked towards identifying key words for their experience which were then shared, expanded on and integrated into a prayer which the whole group wrote together. The end result was something which was very meaningful for them but totally unique so that it could never have been used in any other setting because only those who had been part of the experience could have appreciated its significance.
The final part of a Bibliodrama is the sharing which really speaks for itself. What have we experienced? What have we seen, heard or learned? What does this say to us?
A session will the conclude with some ritual or act appropriate to the character of what has taken place, often with each participant offering a gesture or word.
Outcomes and uses
There can be no tightly planned outcome for Bibliodrama or Bibliolog because there is always the element of surprise and the need to be open to the unexpected as well as the wish to learn, change and be changed. A well-constructed Bibliodrama or Bibliolog will always, however, seek to lead towards the development of a positive approach to a text that is characterised by constructive openness towards one another. It also needs to be consonant with a theology that sees God as generous and inviting rather than judgemental. It is life enhancing not life diminishing. It’s one of the reasons why it is hard for someone from a particularly conservative or fundamentalist tradition to participate as there is very likely to be a fear of doing the wrong thing or thinking the wrong thoughts. There is a use, however, for Bibliodrama in particular, in working with people who are attempting to move away from such backgrounds. It’s the subject of an entirely separate piece but given the grip that fundamentalism can have on the individual at a deep emotional level that can be reflected psycho-somatically, a carefully series of Bibliodramas can be helpful in assisting someone to explore not only a different range of theological ideas but a different way of being.
Applying Bibliolog or Bibliodrama to the theme of violence offers many challenges. Using some of the violent texts of the Old Testament, for example, might lead to some painful and awkward situations within a group especially if personal material becomes merged with the material of the texts. Personal experience might emerge that had been long suppressed. This could be especially the case in a Bibliodrama. It would require particular skills not only to manage it but also to be able to draw out of the experience valuable lessons that can be taken away by participants as a positive learning experience. In that sense, Bibliolog is likely to be easier to manage and a better form to use as it is less likely to draw out very strong feelings, but even there the possibility remains.
One approach to use in this situation might be to choose texts that contain within them material which when it is played bring participants to the point of recognising the possibility of several paths forwards, only one of which being violence. Others being deeper reflection, steps towards the defusing of a situation, resolution of disagreement and reconciliation, by conversation rather than conflict. Texts would not necessarily need to be ones containing violence. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, contains at its end the potential for escalating conflict between the older and the younger son, reminiscent perhaps of Cain and Abel. I led a play on this passage once in which two groups played it for themselves and then shared their play with the other. The play of one group ended with the elder son leaving the room, slamming the door and shouting ‘I never want to see you again’. In the second play, the older and younger brothers were reconciled. Had I not already de-rolled the first group it would have been creative to have brought the two older brothers together to explore their different reactions. We learn as we go along!
In a Bibliolog approach to this particular passage we might, of course, find a similar division of reactions and again a conversation could be arranged exploring why one response might lead to violence and how the other might lead away from it.
Both Bibliolog and Bibliodrama, then, as I hope I have been able to demonstrate, can provide fruitful and for many, fresh ways of digging deep into the common ground between biblical texts and personal and communal experience.
David Tatem is a retired United Reformed Church minister trained in Germany as a Bibliodrama faciltator. He is a member of the Secretariat of the European Bibliodrama Network. He manages a website for the very small UK Bibliodrama network which is always looking for ways of expanding the awareness of Bibliodrama in the UK. www.ukbibliodrama.co.uk
As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.