Chapter 4: Turning Eyes Into Ears (from pages 61-73)
It is an immense irony when the very practice of our work results in abandoning our work. In the course of doing our work we leave our work. But in reading, teaching, and preaching the Scriptures it happens: we cease to listen to the Scriptures and thereby undermine the intent of having Scripture in the first place.
Reading Scripture is not the same as listening to God. To do one is not necessarily to do the other. But they are often assumed to be the same thing. Pastors who spend more of their time reading the Scriptures than most Christians do (not because of their devoutness but because of their job) make this unwarranted assumption with alarming frequency.
This happens so commonly and so insiduously that we have to be analytically alert to the ways in which listening to the word of God slides off into reading about the word of God, and then energetically recover an open ear.
The Christian's interest in Scripture has always been in hearing God speak, not in analyzing moral memos. The common practice is to nurture a listening disposition—the involving ear rather than the distancing eye—hoping to become passionate hearers of the word rather than cool readers of the page. But it is just this quality of zestful passion to listen to Scripture that diminishes, even to the point of disappearance, in the course of pastoral work. When it does, one of the essential angles that defines and gives precision to our work is gone. This does not happen because pastors repudiate or neglect Scripture: it takes place in the very act of reading Scripture. The reading itself is responsible for the deadly work.
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 and 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.
The intent in reading Scripture, among people of faith, is to extend the range of our listening to the God who reveals himself in word, to become acquainted with the ways in which he has spoken in various times and places, along with the ways in which people respond when he speaks. The Christian conviction is that God speaks reality into being—creation into shape, salvation into action. It is also a Christian conviction that we are that which is spoken into a creation shape and a salvation action. We are what happens when the word is spoken. So we listen in order to find out what is going on—in us. Ezra Pound's H. Selwyn Mauberly expresses the zest of this kind of reader/listener: "Tell it to me, all of it, I guzzle with outstretched ears!"
But what if the reading never arrives at listening? And what if the persons entrusted by these faith communities to direct its listening to the word of God in Scripture through public readings, by preaching on its texts, and in teaching its meaning are not listening to it themselves but only using it as a tool of their trade—reading the newspaper and ignoring the voice across the table? Scripture is sabotaged.
Three conditions contribute to the takeover of the heard word by the printed word. The first is a remarkable invention, the second is an unfortunate education, and the third is a faulty job description. Naming these conditions is the first step in recovering the primacy of the ear over the eye in attending to the word of God in Scripture.
The remarkable invention is movable type. In 1437 Gutenberg invented movable type and in a short time books were being printed and put in the hands of people all over Europe. Until this time all books were laboriously handwritten. Books were, therefore, expensive and rare. Holy Scripture, an especially long book, was very expensive. Copies were chained to library tables to prevent theft. Since books were rare, readers were also rare, for what good did it do to read when there was not much around to read? When Scripture was read, it was ordinarily read aloud so that nonreaders, who were in the overwhelming majority, had access to the word. The written word was restored to a living voice in these settings. Reading was an oral act and a community event.
King Ahasuerus, when he couldn't sleep at night and wanted diversion, did not get a detective story and read himself to sleep; he was read to, hearing the words. When the Christians in St. John's seven Asian congregations came together to attend to the word of God written to them out of the Patmos vision, they did not read it with their eyes, they listened to it with their ears: "Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear…" (Rev. 1:3). St. Anthony, the first Christian monk, happened to overhear Jesus' words to the rich young ruler read aloud and believed that he heard Jesus speaking directly to him.
In the pre-Gutenberg world people did not read, as we say, "to themselves." They listened, even when it was their own voice that was setting the sound waves in motion, to the revoiced words of the author. One person reads aloud, other people listen in silence.
But Gutenberg's invention changed all that. A thoroughgoing orality in which the word held people in a listening community gave way to discrete individuals silently reading books alone. Mass-produced, inexpensively published books generated a motivation to read, which developed into a widespread literacy that changed the act of reading from an oral-aural community event into a silent-private visual exercise. Through the previous centuries when virtually every act of reading revoiced the written words, the connection with the living voice was empathic. Today, when nearly all reading is silent, the connection with the living voice is remote.
That hundreds of millions of Bibles are published and distributed is often treated as an immense boon. And it is, but "this ease of access, when misused becomes a curse. When we read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music, than we can possibly absorb the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to, is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind it than yesterday's newspaper." I do not wish the withdrawal of so much as a single Gospel of John from the general distribution. All the same, Gutenberg's legacy is a mixed blessing and we must be prepared to deal with the consequences. Walter Ong has meditated long and interestingly on this phenomenon and is convinced that after six centuries of immersion in print we are
the most abject prisoners of the literate culture in which we have matured. Even with the greatest effort, contemporary man finds it exceedingly difficult, and in many instances quite impossible, to sense what the spoken word actually is. He feels it as a modification of something which normally is or ought to be written.
And the written and printed word of Scripture has become synonymous with the word of God. We assume that if we have it in print we have it, period. Bible equals word of God without discussion and without the faintest realization that to equate the bound book "Bible" with the "word of God" would not have been comprehensible to most of our Christian ancestors. There was no individualized "I" or "me" in relation to Scripture; it was always "we" or "us." There was no taking "a stand" on it as if it were a thing, for it was always the occasion of a sounding forth, a speaking out that the community sat under (lectern and pulpit are raised above the nave not only to facilitate hearing but to signal the nature of the action: the congregation does not look down on or at a book curiously but sits under its word obediently).
Still, all is not lost. There are enclaves all over the world where the Bible continues to be read aloud and listened to by people who by inclination and habit much prefer to read it in the convenience and comfort of their private homes. For among believers God is thought of always as "speaking" to human beings, not as writing to them. "The orality of the mindset in the biblical text is overwhelming" and powerful enough, even centuries after Gutenberg, to maintain itself by voice at least at the liturgical services where people present themselves before God.
The unfortunate education has come about through the displacement of learning by schooling. Learning is a highly personal activity carried out in personal interchange: master and apprentice, teacher and student, parent and child. In such relationships the mind is trained, the imagination disciplined, ideas explored, concepts tested, behavioral skills matured in a context in which everything matters, in a hierarchy in which persons form the matrix. In true learning there is no division between mind and body. Learning facilitates the integration of inside and outside, the external world and the internal spirit. The classic methods of learning are all personal: dialogue, imitation, and disputation. The apprentice observes the master as the master learns; the master observes the apprentice as the apprentice learns. The learning develops through relationships expressed in gesture, intonation, posture, rhythm, emotions, affection, admiration. And all of this takes place in a sea of orality—voices and silences.
The archetype of learning is the infant and parent relationship, in which both, parent as much as infant, mature and develop competence in living as whole persons in a large world. This model for learning is so deeply embedded in the human condition and has worked so well across the centuries that it seems unthinkable to abandon it in preference for the small segment of this complex process that can be reproduced in a laboratory. But it has been, and the laboratory is called a school. "School" is a blatant and ignorant misnaming—the Greek schole means leisure. For the Greeks it was the protected space and time provided for the cultivation of unhurried personal relationships in conversation and games, with guidance but without interference. The contemporary school with its grades and periods and subjects is light years removed from that.
Schooling is very different from learning. In schooling persons count for very little. Facts are memorized, information assimilated, examinations passed. Teachers are subjected to a supervision that attempts to insure uniform performance, which means that everyone operates as much alike as possible and is rewarded insofar as the transfer of data from book to brain is made with as little personal contamination as possible. In schooling, the personal is reduced to the minimum: standardized tests, regulated teachers, information-oriented students.
Since it is difficult to reduce children to abstractions all at once, learning maintains a precarious ascendancy over schooling for a few years. But inexorably the proportions shift until it is both possible and common for a student to graduate from a high school in which not a single teacher recognizes him or her by name, with the record of schooling summarized on a transcript in number, the most abstract of languages. Learning, a most intricately personal process, will not submit to such summarizing.
In our society there is no escaping such schooling. We are all products of it. The reading skills that we acquire under such conditions are inevitably attentive primarily to the informational: we are taught to read for the factual, the useful, the relevant. Most pastors have twenty years or so of such training. We read to pass examinations, to find out how to parse a Greek verb or to run a church office. If we read occasionally to divert ourselves on a cold winter's night it is not counted as serious reading. We are not systematically taught over these twenty years (I don't count an occasional course as "training") to pick up nuance and allusion, catching the meaning and intent of the living voice behind the words on the page. As a result we are impatient with metaphor and irritated at ambiguity. But these are the stock-in-trade of persons, the most unpredictable of creatures, using language at their most personal and best. Our schooling has narrowed our attitude toward reading: we want to know what is going on so that we can get on our way. If it is not useful to us in doing our job or getting a better one, we don't see the point.
By associating reading so thoroughly with schooling, we are habituated to looking for information when we read rather than being in relationship with a person who one spoke and then wrote so that we could listen to what was said. Language, of course, does provide information, and books are conveniently accessible containers for it. But the primary practice of language is not in giving out information but being in relationship. That primacy does not change when it is written. The primary reason for a book is to put a writer into relation with readers so that we can listen to his or her stories and find ourselves in them, listen to his or her songs and sing along with them, listen to his or her arguments and argue with them, listen to his or her answers and question them. The Scriptures are almost entirely this kind of book. If we read them impersonally with an information-gathering mind, we misread them.
The sheer proliferation of words via print devalues them and makes our task even more difficult. Schooling contributes to this devaluation by treating books as containers for information. Once they have been emptied of their contents (by getting the information out of them), they are discarded. (Maybe that is why so many Bibles are bought each year in America—on the principle of the paper bag that holds useful and holy information for baptism, confirmation, wedding, conversion, solace, anniversary, loneliness, bereavement, anxiety, or whatever. After you get your groceries home you discard the bag. When you need groceries again you get another bag. A market for paper bag Bibles would be endless—as it indeed seems to be.) The most common form of reading matter today is the newspaper, which is thrown away when it has been read. No pre-Gutenberg person would have done that. Every piece of writing was the record of a once-living voice and the means of bringing that voice to life again in the reader's ear. Written words were symbols. A symbol is not the same as the spoken word but the means for getting access to it. In ancient Greece a symbolon was a visible sign, a ticket, sometimes a broken coin or other object the matching parts of which were held separately by each of two contracting parties. Every good book is such a symbol—writer and reader coming together joining the separate but matched parts, mouth and ear, and then, incredibly, the mouth speaking, the ear listening. Holy Scripture is a symbolon, a good book in just that way.
The faulty job description has been written by customers in a consumer society. Historically, a unique thing has taken place in our society. The causes are multiple but the effect is single: everyone is a customer. We have been trained to think of ourselves and then to behave as consumers. We are known by what we buy. We measure the health of our nation and the success of our lives in terms of per capita income and gross national product. If people save what they earn instead of spend it, the nation gets sick. If we devote too much time to creating something enduring and beautiful without calculating its cost-efficiency, we damage the economy. If we look too long without buying, we retard progress. If we give away too much without counting the cost, we interfere with the market. If a politician running for office asks the question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" everyone interprets that "better off" in terms of what money they have on hand to spend. I am worth what I spend.
No pastor is exempt from this conditioning. Our educators train us superbly in the acquisition of goods. Marshall McLuhan often remarked with dismay that the advertising budget of our nation exceeded by several times the school budget, and that the people who ran the advertising agencies were, with a few exceptions, far more able than those who ran the schools: "The classroom cannot compete with the glitter and the billion dollar success and prestige of this commercial education…disguised as entertainment and which by-passes the intelligence while operating on the will and the desires."
If I receive my primary social identity as a consumer, it follows that my primary expectation of the people I meet is that I get something from them for which I am prepared to pay a price. I buy merchandise from the department store, health from the physician, legal power from the lawyer. Does it not follow that in this kind of society my parishioner will have commercialized expectations of me? None of the honored professions has escaped commercialization, why should the pastorate? This has produced in our time the opprobrious practice of pastors manipulating their so-called flocks on the same principles that managers run supermarkets.
The question operates subliminally, shaping my behavior: what do people want from me, their pastor? Something surely along the order of a better life: encouragement, insight, consolation, formulas that enable them to get along better in a difficult world, uplift them (a friend calls this "brassiere theology"). We, of course, are conditioned to comply. Why should we not please the people who pay our salaries if we can do it with good conscience? And why should not our consciences be good, ratified as they are by the vote of congregation after congregation? This consumerism shapes us without our knowing it. There is nothing in our lives that it does not touch in one way or another.
This acquisitive mode is so culturally expected and congregationally rewarding that it cannot fail to affect our approach to the Scriptures. When we sit down to read the Scriptures we already have an end product in view: we want to find something useful for people's lives, to meet their expectations of us as pastors who deliver the goods. If someone says to me, "I don't get anything out of reading Scripture" my knee-jerk response is, "I will show you how to read it so that you can get something out of it." The operative word is "get." I will help you be a better consumer. By this time the process is so far advanced that it is nearly irreversible. We have agreed, my parishioners and I, to treat the Bible as something useful for what they can use out of it. I, a pastor shaped by their expectations, help them to do it. At some point I cross over the line and am doing it myself—looking for an arresting text for a sermon, looking for the psychologically right reading in a hospital room, looking for evidence of the truth of the Trinity. The verb looking has taken over. I am no longer listening to a voice, not listening to the God to whom I will give a response in obedience and faith, becoming the person he is calling into existence. I am looking for something that I can use to do a better job for which people will give me a raise if I do it conspicuously well enough.
These three powerful, hard-to-detect influences operate quietly behind our backs and subvert the very nature of Scripture, which is to provide a means for listening to the word of God. Our immersion in these conditions is nearly total. Is it possible to "get out of the whale"?
Yes, but not easy. Analysis is a lever for prying us loose from our deaf and dumb cultural imprisonment. It is possible to see that no mere reading of Scripture has integrity as a thing in itself. It is but one element in a four-beat sequence: speaking, writing, reading, listening. The genius of the book is that it provides the means by which a speaker can be linked to a listener without being in the same room or in the same century. The two middle terms of the sequence are subordinate to the first term (speaking) and the final term (listening); the book (combining writer and reader) is in between, tissue that connects the speaker's mouth with the listener's ear, living organs both. Writing and reading, which is to say books, are activities in service of the speaking voice and listening ear. If they are not kept in that service but become things in their own right, they displace the primary reality with something less and other—dead objects instead of living organs.
Reading, as we typically practice it, disconnects the terms of the sequence by pulling out the two middle ones and valuing them for their own sake. We hardly notice that violence has been done since the elimination of the living voice at one end and the listening ear at the other in favor of the written and read book right before us serves the purpose of an impersonal, technological society so admirably. But a few people notice. Poets, parents, and spouses do, for essential aspects of their identity are called into question the moment words are no longer alive in speaking and listening. And pastors must notice, for we are involved in a way of life and a commitment to a reality that are emphatically personal and stubbornly relational. Our task is to get enough distance from our culture so that our theological conviction that God speaks has the time and space to hear the word he speaks and not just read about it.
Pastors must not only notice, they must counterattack. Given the circumstances, this is not easy. Gutenberg gave me an inexpensive book that I can own and carry with me wherever I go, encouraging the illusion that I have its contents in my pocket or purse, a possession over which I exercise control. My schooling gave me an authoritative text in which I can look up reliable information regarding the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell. My consumerism gave me a best-selling manual that I can use to make life better on gloomy nights and whip my congregation into a shape fit for eternity. I live, am educated, and make my living in a world that treats all books like this and makes no exception for a book just because it is blessed with the adjective "holy." And so the speaking voice of God and the listening ear of the human—the very things that led to the writing, reading, copying, and translating of Scripture in the first place—are given a quiet and decent burial. Paul was right: "the letter kills."
Paul was also hopeful, believing as he did that "the spirit gives life." It revives not only dead bodies and dead souls but dead letters. So besides critically evaluating Gutenberg's invention, complaining about our schooling, and damning Adam Smith for turning us into such energetically diligent consumers, something must be done about it. But something has been done about it. When we locate exactly where it took place and how it works, we can get on with it.
A brilliantly conceived metaphor in Psalm 40:6 provides a pivot on which to turn the corner: "ears thou has dug for me" ('azenayim karîtha lî). It is puzzling that no translator renders the sentence into English just that way. They all prefer to paraphrase at this point, presenting the meaning adequately but losing the metaphor: "thou hast given me an open ear" (RSV). But to lose the metaphor in this instance is not to be countenanced; the Hebrew verb is "dug."
Imagine a human head with no ears. A blockhead. Eyes, nose, and mouth, but no ears. Where ears are usually found there is only a smooth, impenetrable surface, granitic bone. God speaks. No response. The metaphor occurs in the context of a bustling religious activity deaf to the voice of God: "sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire…burnt offering and sin offering" (40:6). How did these people know about these offerings and how to make them? They had read the prescriptions in Exodus and Leviticus and followed instructions. They had become religious. Their eyes read the words on the Torah page and rituals were formed. They had read the Scripture words accurately and gotten the ritual right. How did it happen that they had missed the message "not required"? There must be something more involved than following directions for unblemished animals, a stone altar, and a sacrificial fire. There is: God is speaking and must be listened to. But what good is a speaking God without listening human ears? So God gets a pick and shovel and digs through the cranial granite, opening a passage that will give access to the interior depths, into the mind and heart. Or—maybe we are not to imagine a smooth expanse of skull but something like wells that have been stopped up with refuse: culture noise, throw-away gossip, garbage chatter. Our ears are so clogged that we cannot hear God speak. God, like Isaac who dug again the wells that the Philistines had filled, redigs the ears trashed with audio junk.
The result is a restoration of Scripture: eyes turn into ears. The Hebrew sacrificial ritual included reading from a book, but the reading had degenerated into something done and watched. The business with the scroll was just part of the show, a verbal ingredient thrown into the ritual pot because the recipe called for it. Now with ears newly dug in the head of this person, a voice is heard calling, inviting. The hearer responds: "Lo, I come; in the roll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy law is within my heart" (40:7-8). The act of reading has become an act of listening. The book is discovered to have a voice in it directed to the reader-become-listener: "it is written of me." The words on the paper that were read with the eye are now heard with the ear and invade the heart: "I delight to do thy will…thy law is within my heart." God's word (thy will), which had been objectified in a written word (thy law), now is personalized in an answering and worshiping word (my heart). The act of reading becomes an act of listening. What was written down is revoiced: "I have told the glad news…. I have not restrained my lips" (40:9). No longer is God's word merely written, it is voiced. The ear takes over from the eye and involves theheart.
Listening is back. The dynamic sequence has been restored. The psalm began with God listening: "I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined to me and heard my cry" (40:1). Now the psalmist listens. God has dug through his thick skull and opened a passage for hearing. The living voice of God is attended by the human ear. The consequence, as always when God's word works, is gospel ("glad news of deliverance," "thy saving help"; 40:9, 10). It was a medieval commonplace that the organ of conception in the Virgin Mary was the ear.
Listening to Scripture, of course, presupposes reading Scripture. We have to read before we can listen. But we can read without going on to listen. Reading Scripture accurately and understandingly is one of the most difficult tasks under the sun. Gilbert Highet, the classicist, used to say that anyone who reads the Bible and isn't puzzled at least half the time doesn't have his mind on what he is doing. When we move from reading to listening, the already formidable difficulties are compounded by the serpentine difficulties of the self. Is it any wonder that so many ventures into listening slide back into the rut of reading?
Happily, we are not left to our own devices in these difficulties. The God who wills to reveal himself to us in word also wills our listening and provides for it. St. John tells us that the word of God that brings creation into being and salvation into action became flesh in Jesus, the Christ. Jesus is the word of God. One large dimension of St. John's Gospel shows Jesus bringing men and women into conversation with God—no longer merely reading the Scriptures, at which many of them were quite adept, but listening to God, which they hardly guessed was possible. This succession of conversation was closely followed and believingly entered into—Mary at Cana, Nicodemus at night, the Samaritan woman, the Bethzatha paralytic, the disputatious Pharisees, the Jerusalem blind man, the Bethany sisters, the Greek tour group, and then all of it gathered up into the profound crucifixion-eve conversation that took a marvelous turn at the end, the Son's conversation shifting from his disciples to his Father. At no place in St. John's Gospel is the word of God simply there—carved in stone, painted on a sign, printed in a book. The word is always sound: words spoken and heard, questioned and answered, rejected and obeyed, and, finally, prayed. Christians in the early church were immersed in these conversations and it changed the way they read the Scriptures: now it was all voice. They heard Jesus speaking off of every page of the Scriptures. When they preached and taught they did not expound texts, they preached "Jesus"—a living person with a living voice. They were not "reading in" Jesus to their Scriptures, they were listening as if for the first time and hearing that word that was in the beginning with God and through whom all things were made, and whom they had seen and touched, now hearing the word of God made alive for them in the resurrection. The dead body of Jesus was alive; so was the dead letter of Moses.
St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke employ a different method than St. John's but continue his emphasis as they shift our sensory reliance from the eye to the ear. These three present Jesus as a teacher whose characteristic form of teaching is the parable. The parable is an oblique way of coming at the truth, especially useful in getting past the defenses of those who are so familiar with it that they feel superior to it. Each of these synoptic writers makes his own selection of parables, suiting the different emphases that he is developing. They all agree, though, that the first parable is the Four Soils, a parable about hearing. This is the entrance parable, standing guard over everything else that Jesus will say. This parable denies us the option of reducing the word of God to a book; the primary target of the word is the ear. Jesus is speaking the seed words of God into our ears: pavement ears in which no seed can germinate, rocky ears in which no seed can sink roots, weedy ears in which no seed can mature, and good-soil ears in which all seed bears fruit. The greatest thing going on in this history, in this earth is that God is speaking. The dominical command is Listen: "he who has ears to hear, let him hear." The command reverberates for decades through the early church communities, reappears at the outset of the Revelation, "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear," and then modulates into the seven famous repetitions of Jesus' imperative that pull every word-weary reader that ever stood in a pulpit or sat in a pew into an alive listening to the word that knows, rebukes, commends, encourages, promises, invites, and ends up, as it started out, making all things new (Rev. 1:3; 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 21:5).
Can any pastor in good conscience be content to leave the written words of Scripture on the page for the eye to read? Our business is with ears. "O learn to read what silent love hath writ. / To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit."