For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the Jewish concept of haverim. While it has more than one meaning, a haverim often refers to a group of friends who study Scripture and then discuss it together, earnest in their desire to know it more deeply. It’s not a new idea but it is a rich one.
There is something formative about learning together—telling the Story back to one another in ways that help us better understand our place within it. In Ephesians 4: 11-16, Paul talks about the impact of Christian community. As we help one another to better know God, all that we are and all that we do becomes shaped by the truth of who He is and who we are in Him.
We’d love you to join us as we read, study, and discuss the book of Ephesians over the next couple of months. Each week we’ll focus on one particular chapter, sharing the challenges and encouragements we find within it. (Note: If you are nervously picturing heated online debate, you can rest easy. This is not intended as a forum for theological wrangling and we’ll be encouraging people to remember that. It’s important to wrestle with hard passages of Scripture but, particularly when those passages are controversial, we believe that is best done face to face over open bibles and good coffee.) As a community rich with artists, musicians, readers and writers who are committed to God’s Word, we have the opportunity to share not only the impact of the text itself, but also the ways in which art and community have helped illuminate or apply it in our lives.
Next week, before we dig into the body of the letter, Michael Card will be sharing some background to Ephesians. Then, for the following six weeks, a different Rabbit Room contributor will share their own challenges and encouragements from each chapter in turn. Our hope is that you will not only study along, either alone or with friends, but also that you will share what you have learned.
One of the highlights of Hutchmoot 2018 was Stephen Trafton’s Living Letters performance of the book of Ephesians. For me, the impact of listening to Paul’s words—in much the same way as the original audience—engaged my imagination in a new way. In preparation for this series of posts, I caught up with Stephen Trafton and asked him a few questions about Living Letters and his passion for the Bible.
HJ: For the benefit of those who are not familiar with your work, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do now.
ST: My training is in musical theatre and I’ve performed on Broadway in Les Miserables, on the National Tour of Phantom of the Opera, and around the country at regional theatres. I’m currently the Youth Director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church West Side in NYC. My wife (Juliette) and I also lead a ministry called Living Letters, bringing Scripture to life in churches, colleges, and conferences around the country.
HJ: One of the first things that struck me about you was your passion for the Bible. In fact, several of my favourite Bible study resources came straight from your Instagram recommendations! Has Bible study always been important to you?
ST: I’m glad you’ve found some of the resources I’ve mentioned helpful! To answer your question, Bible Study has not always been important to me. Although I grew up as a Christian, I never had too much interest in reading the Bible. I think I always found it difficult to be focused on Scripture itself—I preferred to read people who talked about the Bible. It seemed like there was a real distance between my life and the text and I had a hard time getting into it. There was a lot I didn’t understand and, honestly, I found it intimidating and a little boring. It wasn’t until I really studied the Bible about seven or eight years ago and was connected with its contextual background that it started to come alive to me.
HJ: How did the idea for Living Letters come about?
ST: Juliette and I had been part of a community group with our church led by Max McLean (Fellowship for the Performing Arts). The group was for Broadway actors and met in Times Square on Wednesdays so that we could attend between shows. When the leader left, he asked me to take over. For some reason I can’t remember, I landed on the book of Philippians. Being the son of a New Testament Scholar, I reached out to my father to help me understand, teach, and apply the book to Broadway performers.
If this is what God's Word through Paul was saying to them then, how does that same eternal Word speak to us now, in a new context?Stephen Trafton
As I spoke with my Dad and explored the commentaries, I was thrust into the circumstances of the letter. I learned what the Philippians were feeling—their hopes and fears and the challenges they faced. I discovered that the letter wasn’t just full of timeless truths, principles and verses in isolation. God’s Word through Paul was inspired to speak to this particular audience, in their particular situation. It was written to them, not directly to me, and it was meant to be both read and understood as a whole letter. That realisation was liberating. Rather than reading the text through my 21st century lens (and potentially making it mean anything I wanted), I began to understand what it meant to that original audience. Here’s the key: once I understood what God’s Word meant to them, it illuminated and clarified what it meant to me and to our group at that time.
This process made me realize how crucial it was to set up the context and to hear and interpret the letter as the Philippians would have heard it. I began to think, how could my training in acting and my love of storytelling bring all of this to life? Rather than tell people what the original audience felt, through a lecture or a sermon or a book, how can I set up the necessary context so that my audience feels and experiences the letter as it was first received? What if the imagination of my audience became engaged in a way that was theatrical, embodied, and physical?
With the help of my Dad and sister (Jennifer Trafton) on the background and storytelling concept, and my wife’s eye as a Director/Actor/Improvisor, we created a way to interactively and imaginatively bring the context of Philippians to life. After that I performed the entire letter, with the audience “becoming” the Philippian church and encountering the letter as it may have been originally received.
HJ: How do you prepare to step into Paul’s shoes?
ST: One way I was trained as an actor was with the Uta Hagen Acting method. In preparation for the role you ask lots of questions of the script: Who am I? Where am I? What are my relationships? What do I want? What’s in my way? How will I get what I want? I usually revisit those questions in whichever letter I’m performing, asking myself about Paul’s given circumstances: what he’s thinking, feeling, and seeing: what he’s worried about, hoping for, and looking to accomplish. Also crucial to this process is revisiting what that particular church was going through at the time, such as disunity, suffering, worry, and so on. It’s exciting for me to reflect and study Paul’s intention and explore the variety of ways his intention could be communicated to the recipients of the letter.
From the audience’s perspective, this helps them see that Paul’s words are meant to move us in some way—whether to remind us who we are, to comprehend the love of Christ more deeply, or to spur us on to particular actions. This is where “application” comes in. What did Paul want the church to walk away knowing, feeling, doing, and so on? Once we understand that, we can then ask: if this is what God’s Word through Paul was saying to them then, how does that same eternal Word speak to us now, in a new context? Or, as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer conveys in some of his writings: how do we “re-stage the drama” today?
HJ: How much has understanding the original audience influenced your reading of the text?
ST: I believe that understanding and experiencing the Word in context really clarifies the text and helps audiences reflect on how to apply and live it out in fresh contexts today. Since Paul’s letters were written in the first century to specific groups of people that he names in those letters, there are many features we miss about the cultural contexts. Particular words and phrases that were clear to the original audience can be lost on us today. The body of Christ is made up of many members with different gifts and I am grateful that God has given us gifted scholars and historians who have researched and know much about the first century. If I didn’t know the context, I could take many passages to mean things that might “feel” right to me, but are not at all what Paul was originally communicating.
The Spirit may give new applications today but they won’t be less than what they originally were, nor can they ever contradict the original inspiration. I find this both exciting and liberating. In a culture where so many take Scripture out of context, I sense a calling to present the Word and encourage people to study and engage with it—inviting the audience to imagine the context, encounter the Word, and reflect on how that Word is to be lived out today.
HJ: If you had the chance to sit down with Paul, what would you ask him?
ST: Several questions come to mind. What happened with you and Barnabas? What happened when you confronted Peter about his hypocrisy (Galatians)? I think I’d most like him to tell me—again and again and again—what it was like to hear and see Jesus raised from the dead.
HJ: How has learning entire books of the Bible impacted your day- to-day life?
ST: Before I have memorized any of the letters, I’ve really studied and meditated on the words, considering what Paul originally meant by them. The meaning was absorbed in my heart and mind and was formed within me. While memorization is challenging, this made it much easier and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to memorize Scripture. Instead of attempting to learn something that is foreign to you, the words you are memorizing have already become part of you and are rich with meaning.
For me, this process of meditating, memorizing, and ultimately performing Scripture means that the Spirit can often bring the words and theology to my mind in unexpected places in order to minister to someone. I’ll find myself saying something like, “This reminds me of the Philippians and what they were facing, and this is what Paul said to them…” Sometimes I’m wrestling with something and I will think back to the books I’ve memorized, trying to recall how my situation has potential parallels to what Paul was going through, or what one of his communities was facing.
HJ: As we begin studying Ephesians together, do you have any tips for us? Are there any particular themes we should look out for?
ST: These are some things I have found helpful:
1. Read the whole letter in one sitting. Read it again and again. See how the book gets bigger and deeper with each reading.
2. Read the letter out loud and see how that gives a different feel and experience.
3. Take notes on Paul’s circumstances and the circumstances of the church. Try to imagine the given circumstances.
4. Try to identify Paul’s objective and intended effect on the audience. Notice not just what he says, but how he says it. Look for the flow of his thought as he seeks his intended effects. Put yourself in the church’s shoes: how is Paul forming you through the letter?
5. Don’t just read it with a personal perspective. Notice how much Paul focuses on the church and life together.
6. Remember Paul is in prison writing all of these words and put yourself in his shoes—get inside his worldview.
HJ: Are there any resources in particular that you have found helpful?
ST: Here are a few:
The Bible Project Videos (Their video summarising Ephesians is included below)
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible by Keener & Walton
Ephesians Commentary by Stephen Fowl
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.