A gospel storyteller

Actor Frank Runyeon brings biblical texts to life
November 30, 2003

Imagine, says Frank Runyeon, that you're in a house church 2,000 years ago in Antioch, waiting to hear the "tax-collector disciple" address your community for the first time. Striding up and down the candle-lit nave, Runyeon introduces members of the congregation -- the businessmen too busy suing one another to help the poor; the grieving mother of a martyred son; the Jewish scribe and former friend, spying on the Jesus-sect.

And then, laying a stole around his neck, Runyeon then becomes Matthew, who delivers a sermon he once heard Jesus preach: "... Set no limits on your love, as your heavenly father, who is perfect, sets no limits on his. Don't judge. Why are you looking at the speck in your sister's eye?"

With a few props and evocative lighting, Runyeon recently transformed an audience at Calvary Episcopal Church in Summit, N.J., into first-generation Christians, hearing the Sermon on the Mount adapted to their circumstances. The Pennsylvania-born actor travels the country making such transformations as he performs biblical texts in a series of one-man shows: "Sermon on the Mount," "AFRAID! -- The Gospel of Mark," "What Are You Doing? -- The Letter of James" and "The 3 1/2 Stories of Christmas." He's also developing a production of John's Gospel.

"It amazes me how little it takes to suggest a setting and a time and a place," he comments. "It just opens up a part of people that they don't usually bring to church, unfortunately." While a Sunday-morning worshipper may spend time evaluating the sermon and music, he says, those entering the world of story tend to remember where that story transported them.

An Episcopalian, Runyeon performs the gospel story at churches of various denominations, for Confirmation classes, at the Episcopal Youth Event. But he perhaps is best known for secular acting endeavors: starring in soap operas, including opposite Meg Ryan in As the World Turns; guest-starring on shows such as Falcon Crest and LA Law.

The religious performances began more as a serious "hobby" but grew to full-time work. "You give God an inch..." Runyeon says. He didn't intend to become an actor."I always wanted to be a writer," he says. "I just wrote so poorly that I thought I needed to understand what it was like to be an actor."

Runyeon began acting on soaps. His career progressed. And then two events propelled him to examine, and live out, his faith more deeply. His roommate jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. And his third child, born five weeks early, nearly died. "It's scary how much we love our children," he says. Nearly losing his son let him feel "just the tiniest bit of the pain God must have felt when his son was dying. "After that, the other stories [I performed] just weren't that interesting."

Runyeon began searching for an audience-grabbing way to perform the gospel. Simply memorizing Mark didn't work, so he decided to learn to read it in Greek. "When I did, I discovered all sorts of amazing and interesting things." The actor, a pianist who briefly attended Juilliard, decided to translate the text "not as meaning, but music. It leapt to life."

Finding the music and rhythms of the words brought the text's points to life. In some cases, Runyeon discovered more power in the original Greek: It's a "moron" who builds his house on sand, not a "fool." In others, he finds a new phrase more meaningful to modern listeners: "gentiles" become "those who don't know God." "You have to have an ear like a playwright: How do people talk today?" he says. Thus he translates "heavens torn asunder" as "the sky being ripped open."

Runyeon's translation of the Gospel of Mark became his thesis at General Theological Seminary, where he earned a Master of Arts. He had entered the ordination process in Connecticut, but withdrew. At the deepest level of his prayer life, he feels called to this ministry that gives him joy: performing the word of God.

"Not one word of the Bible was written to be read," Runyeon told his Summit audience. In Jesus' time, "even if you could read, even if you were alone, you read out loud because they didn't think you'd understand it properly any other way. To read the Bible silently was like sitting at a piano and saying you were practicing because you could hear the music in your head."

"The cool thing," says the Rev. Marshall Shelly, is that Runyeon "works very hard to bring people to the places where the story was told to make it real beyond something that we just see or read." Shelly, who calls Runyeon a "gospel storyteller," attended seminary with the actor and now is interim vicar at St. Andrew's, New Providence, N.J. Runyeon lets the words speak for themselves, he says. "He calls on you to draw your own conclusions."

Runyeon compares God's use of his talents to the multiplying of the loaves and fishes. "I'm always sort of amazed that it's of any value at all," he says. "My experience is that the Spirit breathes in these words." Runyeon concludes. "I'm very happy to just speak these words and see what happens from five loaves and two fishes."

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