Bible reading in Church master class: delivery of narratives

Presumptions

I’m presuming you are a mature Christian and have some experience and confidence reading in church. I’m also presuming you know how to prepare a Bible text for public reading. That is, you have worked through the text and understand its overall meaning and how each sentence contributes to this meaning, and you have also clarified pronunciations of odd names, and have made good sense of any long sentences. This is no small work in and of itself, however, once you have done all this, it’s time to work on your delivery. 

Not too monochrome, but not too colourful

What we are aiming for in the delivery is to 1) let the text shine (not the reader) 2) help the congregation to get caught up in the text. Unfortunately these immediately feel at odds with each other. In wanting the text to shine, readers can often read in monochrome, and every aspect of the passage gets the same flat tone. You don’t notice the reader (which is good) but there is little drama or interest in the text itself… in other words it’s boring. No one is getting caught up in anything. On the other end, some readers put too much colour into the text. Parts of scripture that were obviously intended as background information become pensive, but pointless explorations - the attention of the congregation gets drawn unnecessarily to some aspect of the text.  Or some word or phrase gets emphasised to the point that the congregation stops listening to the text and instead notices that the reader thinks that this particular aspect of the text is important.

I want to suggest a way forward that navigates between these two. The following applies particularly to narratives. 

Narrator voice vs character voice(s)

In your delivery, it is particularly important to distinguish between quotations from characters within the text and narration of background material. And by distinguish between them, I mean being able to flip effortlessly from one to the other. And by distinguish between them, I also mean that everything except what is in quotations marks and attributed to direct speech from a character is background material.

The narrator voice is the grounding of any narrative text and should be the default of the reader. Getting the voice right is critical. The narrator voice should be fundamentally neutral. It is low and slow paced but normal sounding, and importantly, colours the text with pauses and slight shifts rather than stress and tone. The narrator does not get over-excited, but remains controlled and deliberate at all times. The narrator is a master of the silence between words and phrases, and consciously manages the congregation’s attention by giving or limiting processing time - the longer the pause afterwards, the stronger the content is highlighted by the narrator. 

Choose a voice for each character, but *keep it subtle*

Character quotations is your straight, run-of-the-mill acting / voice characterisation. The key to letting the text shine without being distracting is keeping the characterisation complex and the delivery a little understated. I know that we clarified at the beginning of this post that it was presumed that the passage was already prepared and the meaning understood. Well, this next step might change things. We need to go through the text again carefully and try to understand the character and their motivations to the point where we can choose an appropriately matching tone and emphasis to give to the reading. As a side note, in keeping with our desire not to claim the limelight from the text itself  its vital that our characterisations of the Biblical characters are subtle and consistent. If we add just a little bit of gravel for one character, a slightly higher pitch for someone else, falling intonation at the end of sentences for a dominant/alpha/confident character; rising intonation for  - it doesn’t have to be more than this, nor should it be. Moreover if you give your listeners just a hint, they will do the rest. To them it won’t be just your reading, they will think you have turned into a whole host of characters even though you aren’t doing much different for each voice. Even more than that, if you do this with a little subtlety, they won’t even notice that you are doing it.

Think through each character’s motives at each point

With that said, a good reader will try to make every text a tragedy - if the underlying motives of each character are credible (however mislaid in some cases), then both the reader and the listener will feel a sense of sympathy towards them. Characters are not written off simply as sinners, and remain remote (and irrelevant). Instead so-called evil characters are shown as characters with tragically mislaid desires and motives, all the more real and relevant to us who often have similar motives from time to time. This deeper understanding of the biblical characters leads to deeper and richer interpretations. The result is that the Bible readings provide a strong catalyst for growth in and of themselves outside of the sermon. 

Conclusion

Reading the text in this way does help the listener prioritise the text over the reader and yet it still keeps the text exciting and gives the strongest likelihood that listeners will get carried away with the story. Reading the text this way is also quite difficult to do well and requires strong voice control and restraint. 

An exercise for those interested

I considered recording and including an audio file of myself reading a Bible text, however those who are interested and/or passionate about this will happily spend time working it out on their own or, ideally, with others. 
As an exercise, try reading John 18-19. As a passage it’s very important and it has many dramatic features to test your skills:

  • lots of flipping between narrative and character
  • many different characters including individuals (Jesus, Pilate, guards, etc.,) and groups (lynchmob in Gethsemane, crowds at the palace, Chief priests). This means the reader has to choose ‘voices’ for each character and come up with a voice to imply groupspeak. Currently my preferred group voice is slow and a little lower pitch hinting at unison in a primary-school-class-greeting kind of drone “Goood mor-ning Mi-sus Bun-ting”. A similar speed and articulation (with less drone & more demand) can be used in the group quote in John 19:6 “Cru-ci-fy! Cru-ci-fy!”.
  • dozens and dozens of portrayal choices: for example how does Pilate deliver his famous “what is truth?” line in John 18:38. Is he dismissive of Jesus, or is he curious? Or is this just an annoying piece of philosophy distracting him from getting on with business? You are the reader. You get to choose. Any of these will work and if done well, the congregation will stop listening to your voice. Instead they will hear Pilate himself, and they will listen with sympathy and dread as he delivers his line to Jesus Christ Almighty and teeters on the precipice between salvation and condemnation.