June 3, 2010

Listening and Reading

Category: Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

Some time ago, I learned from James Jordan that the sense of sight and the sense of hearing function in very different ways. With the sense of sight, who’s in control? You are. If you’re looking at a picture you don’t like, you can close your eyes or look away or turn the page or even just let your eyes go all wonky so that the “picture” you see is blurry. You’re in control.

But when it comes to the sense of hearing, someone else is in control. If I’m preaching and you don’t like what I’m saying, you can try plugging your ears with your fingers but it’s not going to work. I can talk loudly enough that you can still hear me (unless, of course, you start shouting yourself so that all you hear is your own voice saying, “La la la la la la” the way people do when someone is about to give away the ending to a movie they haven’t seen yet). If you really don’t want to hear me, you’re going to have to leave. (And if you do start shouting “La la la la la,” I suspect someone is going to make you leave.)

With sight, you’re in control. With hearing, someone else is in control. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the Bible often speaks of the eyes in connection with judgment, starting with Genesis 1 (“And God saw … and it was good”) and running through all of those passages about people doing things that are “right in their own eyes.” All through the Bible, eyes and sight have to do with judgment. But hearing has to do with submission. In fact, the word for “hear” often has the sense of “obey” in the Bible.

This distinction applies also to our reading of the Bible. When you read something, you’re using your eyes. If you don’t like what you’re reading, you can close your eyes or look away or turn the page. But we are not to sit as judges over Scripture. Rather, we are to sit under Scripture, to submit to it. And so we find that the Bible does not command us to read the Word; rather, the commandment that we frequently encounter is “Hear!” If we really want to appreciate Scripture, we ought not (just) to read it but rather we ought to hear it, even if that means reading it aloud when we’re by ourselves.

All of this, I say, I learned several years back from James Jordan. I imagine that I encountered it first in either his Reading the Bible lectures or perhaps in Reading the Bible (Again) for the First Time. Probably both, in fact. But the other day, as I was reading Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles, I came across some similar insights:

Listening and reading are not the same thing. They involve different senses. In listening we use our ears; in reading we use our eyes. We listen to the sound of a voice; we read marks on paper. These differences are significant and have profound consequences. Listening is an interpersonal act; it involves two or more people in fairly close proximity. Reading involves one person with a book written by someone who can be miles away or centuries dead, or both. The listener is required to be attentive to the speaker and is more or less at the speaker’s mercy. For the reader it is quite different, since the book is at the reader’s mercy. It may be carried around from place to place, opened or shut at whim, read or not read. When I read a book, the book does not know if I am paying attention or not; when I listen to a person the person knows very well whether I am paying attention or not. In listening, another initiates the process; when I read I initiate the process. In reading I open the book and attend to the words. I can read by myself; I cannot listen by myself. In listening the speaker is in charge; in reading the reader is in charge.

Many people much prefer reading over listening. It is less demanding emotionally and can be arranged to suit personal convenience. The stereotype is the husband buried in the morning newspaper at breakfast, preferring to read a news agency report of the latest scandal in a European government, the scores of yesterday’s athletic contests, and the opinions of a couple of columnists whom he will never meet rather than listen to the voice of the person who has just shared his bed, poured his coffee, and fried his eggs, even though listening to that live voice promises love and hope, emotional depth and intellectual exploration far in excess of what he can gather informationally from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor put together. In the voice of this living person he has access to a colorful history, an incredibly complex emotional system, and never-before-heard combinations of words that can surprise, startle, move, gladden, or anger him — any of which would seem to be more attractive to an alive human being than getting some information, none or little of which will make any impact on the living of that day. Reading does not, as such, increase our capacity to listen. In some cases it interferes with it (88-89).

What are some of the things you lose by reading (i.e., looking at) a text instead of hearing it (even if you are hearing it from your own mouth as you read aloud)?

Peterson seems to be suggesting that if you read instead of hear, you lose the sense of a relationship: you no longer have the sense that you are engaged with a person; instead you are examining an object, in this case a printed page. More than that, you do not have as strong a sense that the words you are reading are over you, precisely because with reading you are in charge.

Peterson also indicates that attentiveness may be also be lost. Perhaps. I’m well aware that minds may wander while someone else is speaking. Such things have even been known to happen during the sermon, possibly even when I’m preaching. My own mind has wandered even when people I love are talking to me. And I have paid close attention to things that I have read … though as soon as I say that, I realize that paying close attention as I read usually involves at least subvocalization. I have to slow down and savor — hear! — the words to pay attention to them.

But I suspect that Peterson is not talking so much about attention, which we can lose whether we’re reading or hearing, but about attentiveness, about an attitude. When we’re dealing with a person, when someone is speaking to us, we know we are to pay attention. But when we’re in charge, when we’re picking up a book and turning its pages, we feel free — or freer — to let our eyes drift a bit, to skip the dull parts, to look for something that grabs us, to skim over whatever seems needlessly complicated or unimportant. You can read Patrick O’Brian and skip all the nautical details and the love interest and read only the battle scenes if you want, though I don’t recommend it. But how much worse is it if we aren’t attentive to Scripture, if we dip into it here and there, if we approach it without the sense that someone is speaking to us and that everything He says — whether it’s obscure rules or genealogies or seemingly irrelevant stories or the dimensions of a building we’ll never see — is important, worth hearing, worth paying attention to?

Peterson doesn’t mention it, but it strikes me that if we read instead of hear, we also lose the musicality of Scripture, the patterns and rhythms of writing that was meant to be heard. If you’re reading, it’s easy to skim the repetition — Numbers 7, anyone? — but if you’re hearing it read out loud, it takes the same amount of time to say those words the tenth time that it does the first time. Reading can make us impatient: “What’s all this stuff here for? We’ve already heard this!” but hearing requires submission: “This must be important. God says it, and so I have to make the time to hear it.”

Posted by John Barach @ 3:30 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “Listening and Reading”

  1. John Says:


    Your comments on reading & hearing fascinate me. I wrote about this from a different perspective some years ago. I suggested that dramatization of the Bible undermines “hearing” the Word. The preached Word comes to the “auditor” with authority. The dramatize Word comes to the “viewer” as something to which you can close your eyes.

    Moreover, at an objective level all the “auditors” hear the same “preached” words. Not so in drama; the “viewers” all have their own perspective based on their sight lines and where they might be focusing their attention.

    Just some thoughts.

    John van Popta

Leave a Reply