By Heather Abraham
Last week, my husband Teo and I attended a birthday party for our very dear friend Jena. It was her fiftieth and the day before she celebrated this milestone by jumping out of an airplane three miles above a Georgia plain. As part of her celebration, her lovely partner Karen arranged a surprise performer of the spoken word to entertain the birthday girl and her friends. Kween Shantey was more than a surprise; she was a force of nature whose gift of poetry moved the intimate gathering to laughter, tears, and cheers. Her voice moved our souls and I was not the only one who felt as if her words were coming from within. Kween is a poet who recites her craft in an art form called the spoken word which you can yourself experience in this video captured by Teo using his iphone. Although the quality is not as I would have wished, I believe you will catch a glimpse of the power of Kween’s voice and words. I must relay that Kween, in person, can really rock your world. Take a few minutes and watch Kween’s performance of her poem Judge Me Not which begins one minute into this video.
I bring this delightful and unexpected experience to Religion Nerd readers because I believe we often overlook this powerful art form which was once the prominent form of entertainment, communication, and the recorder of human histories. Watching Kween perform I was reminded of another poet and his epic poem so steeped in legend and history. Homer’s Iliad, that epic poem which so often catches our imagination on the big screen, was originally created to be orally transmitted to an audience by a professional and specialized performer or rhapsodist. Throughout my long university career, I was assigned the Iliad for many classes in literature, ancient history, and religious studies. Each time I read the book I struggled, not quite able to find that intimate connection that usually comes so easily. I mentioned this to one of my professors, Lou Ruprecht, who was the first to point out to me that the Iliad was not meant to be read but was meant to be heard by an audience.
Several months after I graduated from Georgia State, I came across the Iliad on tape at a neighborhood yard sale. Taking home my prize, I popped the first cassette into my ancient tape player, put on the earphones, and hit play. To say the least, I was enchanted and profoundly moved; finally finding that intimate connection for which I had been longing. Hearing the Iliad in the form of the spoken word was a transforming experience. I found myself deeply connected to the events and characters of this ancient and revealing epic. I found myself at times, laughing out loud, recoiling from the devastation of war, and lamenting the death of characters to which I had become so attached. The Iliad is just one of many ancient texts we read without comprehending their original oral history and method of transmission.
Like the Iliad and the Odyssey, the New Testament was also meant to be performed for an audience. Today, we often experience the sacred books of the Christian Bible in small portions and not as narratives meant to be transmitted in the whole. The cherry-picking of biblical verses has become the norm and many of us have never experienced any book of the Christian Bible as a narrative wholly performed. Once upon a time, the New Testament Gospels were performed by the few and heard by the many. As most early Christians were illiterate, performing the Gospels was the most efficient way to relate the Jesus stories found in Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and the many non-canonical gospels. More than three decades ago, a Shakespearean actor, Alec McCowen, opened on Broadway with his one man show entitled The Gospel According to Saint Mark. McCowen’s performance of Mark’s Gospel astounded and enthralled many as he packed the house each night for almost two years. Take as an example this modern performance of the Gospel of Luke, by Bruce Kuhn, which gives us a glimpse into how the Gospels were once transmitted by word, voice, and body language; all of which are lost in the reading of scripture.
Many of the world’s great sacred texts were for centuries upon centuries kept alive by professional performers schooled in the cadence of their sacred art form. The Jewish Tanakh, the Hindu Vedas and sacred epics, the Quran, and the Christian Bible are but just a few examples of scriptures that, in days of old, were recited to or performed for an audience. In this modern era of multiple media forms and an expectation of entertainment, it is easy to overlook the power of the spoken word or to remember that it was through the instrument of the human voice that the message of many emerging religious movements found an audience.
- A more formal version of Kween Shantey’s “Judge Me Not” performed at an Atlanta Church http://www.facebook.com/#!/video/video.php?v=1141048665554&ref=mf