The Drama of Ephesians: A Review
This is an exciting book, and there are so many angles that one could take in a review. Since I am not an expert in New Testament studies, however, I will not spend time evaluating Gombis’s particular way of reading Ephesians as structured by the theme of divine warfare. Perhaps those more familiar with this theme in biblical studies will be able to add their comments to this post. But as someone researching theatre and Christian ethics at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, I am most interested in the use of the dramatic model in this book, and the extent to which it enriches this exploration of Ephesians.
In chapter one, Gombis describes his rationale for utilizing a dramatic model instead of another model such as story: 1) drama is more accurate than viewing Ephesians as a doctrinal treatise, 2) drama emphasizes the need to perform this script, 3) drama involves our imagination, 4) drama engages the whole person and community, and 5) drama requires improvisation when actors encounter a different context. In what follows, I want to engage briefly with each of these reasons Gombis articulates for utilizing drama as a model.
First, Gombis is right to be wary about approaching Ephesians merely to extract theological truths. Paul is definitely doing more than commenting on doctrinal issues; he is offering a breathtaking vision of the “reality-altering, cosmos-transforming act of God in Christ” (15). But in doing so, Paul is also commenting on doctrinal issues, and we would be remiss not to follow his lead. Predestination may be an unpopular topic, but Paul addressed it directly, and so should we. The key is, of course, to recognize as Dorothy Sayers did that “the dogma is the drama.”
Second, it is absolutely essential not just to understand Scripture, but to participate in the reality it presents. Gombis follows the most popular way of articulating this in a dramatic model, that is, using the metaphor of script. In my opinion, however, there are several problems with this metaphor, the most obvious one being that Scripture does not tell us exactly how to act out our roles. I am glad to see that Gombis emphasizes improvisation, but then it is confusing to insist that “actors need a script” (85).
Third, taking Ephesians as a drama certainly engages our imaginations, but does it really do so in the same way as contemporary advertising that battles for the control of our imaginations? In his conclusion to chapter three, Gombis begins to explain how practices and symbols need to be “harnessed to reinforce our Christian identity,” by which I think he means to say that practices and symbols have incredible power to shape our imaginations. The text of Ephesians can capture our imaginations, but it does so all the more when Christians embody its vision through concrete practices and creative acts.
Fourth, the previous point reinforces the importance of the whole person and community in understanding and participating in the biblical drama. In short, we need to see this drama being acted out before our eyes if it is going to capture our imaginations and sweep us along in its trajectory. Gombis rightly mentions the importance of models—preeminently in Jesus but also in Paul—for what it looks like for the biblical drama to be performed. What could have been emphasized more, however, is the power of Christian performances throughout history, and the ways in which everyday saints in different parts of the world have modeled what it looks like to participate in the triumph of God. We certainly improvise off Jesus and Paul, but we improvise off every other performance of God’s people as well.
Speaking of improvisation, I loved this emphasis throughout the book, and agree that improvisation is necessary if we are to perform the biblical drama in new situations (172). I realize that this is intended for a more popular audience, but I was a bit surprised that Gombis made no reference to other scholars employing improvisation as a model for Christian ethics, particularly Sam Wells and his Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. Even a cursory interaction with Wells would have helped Gombis clarify what is involved in developing the skill of improvisation.
So, did it pay off for Gombis to utilize a dramatic model throughout his book? In my opinion, I think it did enrich the way in which Ephesians engages our imaginations and invites our performance of its vision. But I also believe that a dramatic model has more potential power than it actually wielded for Gombis, partly because drama remained a convenient metaphor instead of a comprehensive model, entering into conversation with theatre so that it provides heuristic insights. Nevertheless, Gombis makes a convincing case that Ephesians is calling us to commit to cruciform and subversive performances, and for this powerful point alone, this book is a valuable read.