On September 10, 2022, Greg Howard gave a one-man performance at the Rise Church where he recited the entire book of Romans by memory. His personal exposition of the text inspired the audience, but the real impact of memorizing Romans was on Greg himself. The following is an interview with lifelong actor and performer Greg Howard and the power of hiding God’s word in the heart.
What inspired you to memorize Romans?
Years ago, I told a friend that I wanted to memorize Romans. It started when I realized that I had never devoted my full talents for God. I was inspired by St. John In Exile as performed by Dean Jones – I wanted to do a show about Paul in prison, but I am not a writer. In addition, the Biblical scholar NT Wright has called on actors and performers to draw upon the biblical text for new material and artistic works adapted for today. I wrestled with the idea of creating a piece for some time, but the Holy Spirit finally helped me realize that this one-man show was already written. I just had to do the work to get it in my head.
Originally, I wrote an introduction for my performance of Romans about how God created me to be an actor. As a child, I developed my own personal language that only my mother could understand. When I went to kindergarten, none of my classmates could understand what I was saying! My first-grade teacher planned with my mother to teach me how to speak English phonetically. The upshot of this is that while most actors must “unlearn” their dialect and learn Standard American English, God took care of that when I was only six years old! In second grade I was selected to play the troll in the story of the “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Now keep in mind I had only learned to communicate in first grade, so I was not chosen because of my great talents but only because I was one of two second graders small enough to fit under the cafeteria chairs that were used to represent the bridge. I don’t remember what I did under that chair, but my antics made my classmates laugh and I really liked it. Essentially, at the age of seven, God revealed to me that I was an actor. As I grew older, even though I was not living a life pleasing to him, God continued to put people in my life to help me and teach me as I developed my skills and honed my craft. A decade ago, I reflected on my professional life and realized that I had used my talents selfishly and I wanted to use my gifts for God’s glory. Heeding the charge of NT Wright, I wanted to use my art to bring Paul’s letters to life because these epistles were meant to be read and heard together in their entirety.
Tell me about the journey you went on learning Romans.
I needed a script, so I started reading Romans in different translations and tried to boil the message down in my mind. If I could find a verse that was ten words in one translation and yet conveyed in six words in another, I’d take the shorter passage. I looked for words that had power and expressions that sounded good and flowed well when spoken. The text worked on my heart as I shoved word after word inside my brain. As this process continued, I would have flashes of ideas, images, concepts, and sparks of reason as the text ebbed and flowed inside my head. When I would recite (rather than read) a passage like “Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God,” I could more easily grasp the power of what Paul was saying. It is hard to describe the process of getting the text of Romans into my head. It is a mystery how God worked on me.
How long did it take for you to first memorize Romans, then polish to prepare it for performance?
It took me about one year to get a script I was happy with and another two years to commit Romans to memory. At one point I put the effort aside because it was just too hard, but I came back to it sometime later and had to re-memorize the first six chapters. Every word of Romans is full of meaning so I wanted to understand it all. As I prepared this work as a theatrical piece, I had no director to help me, and I did not know what I was doing. I tried different methods to enhance it such as introducing props, wearing costumes, and so on. However, adding sets and costumes didn’t make sense and I didn’t know how to turn Romans into a performance. I didn’t know if this would even work.
A very good friend named Kari Ann Stamatoplos helped me understand that the letter was an intimate conversation that Paul was having with the Roman Christians. So, I decided to get rid of all theatricalities, leave on my modern eyeglasses, turn up the lights, get rid of the props, tear down the fourth wall, look the audience straight in the eye and speak to them directly through the words of Paul.
What kind of responses did you get from the audience when you had your first show?
I did a dress rehearsal with a select group of disciples and a full show at Rise Church in Indianapolis. A lot of people said that passages came alive to them as they were spoken. Both times, I had a tremendous number of people that said they were impacted and moved to hear the text delivered in this way. One disciple even said it was like Paul giving a TED Talk! As far as I know, no one in the audience had ever heard the entire book of Romans read in one setting. The power of speaking God’s word touches people in a special and amazing way.
What blessings have you received by memorizing Romans?
The biggest blessing I received is that I learned that I blow it and will feel guilty, but God has given me the tools in Romans to overcome my guilt and shame over sin. All the books of the Bible have an agenda when we read them. God put this dream of memorizing Romans in my heart because I have not been the best disciple and I struggle with guilt. No matter what’s happening in my life, I learned through this journey that God has given me grace and I don’t have to wallow in guilt. In his own way through this project, God said to me, “You need this.”
What’s next for you and this Romans project?
Well, I am already preparing the second letter to Timothy for performance. I like the idea of it as a prologue to the letter to the Romans. In one letter Paul is, in a way, bequeathing his gospel to Timothy, while the other sets out his gospel in detail. Who knows where else the letters of Paul will take me. I have discovered that studying scripture through performance is beneficial both for the performer(s) and their audience. I think it would be great to bring together other disciples who are actors, musicians and artists and find ways to present scripture to the church in new and inventive ways. My work on Romans has been a partnership between God and me and he wants many other skilled disciples to carry on in this partnership and encourage disciples everywhere.