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Listening to God in Worship

Before Scripture is read in private, it is heard in public - Rowan Williams

At first impression, reading certainly seems a higher order of communication than listening.  After all, children listen.  Adults read.  Listening requires no particular skill.  Reading, however, comes as the result of  years of intentional education.  Reading takes focus.  Listening is seemingly easy and natural.

I say seemingly because, just like reading, listening takes effort.  
It is true that both reading or listening can be done with reduced attention.  We've all had that experience of getting to the bottom of a page and realizing we don't know what we just read.  But, real listening also takes effort.  This phenomenon creates some memorable moments in marriage enrichment:  You are listening to your spouse but were sort of momentarily distracted.  You thought you were listening (oh, the mind fools itself so easily), only to realize she (or he) has stopped talking and is staring at you.  And, to make matters worse, she apparently stopped because she asked you something.  You kind of vaguely remember whatever she was saying ended with the upward inflection of a question.

Let me pause here to offer a quick word of advice.  I have tried a variety of ways out of this giant hole.  Nodding yes. Looking thoughtful and waiting for her to say something else.  Or, smiling and saying, "Yes."  "Uh huh."  "Sure."  Or even, "Whatever you say.  You know that sounds good to me."  Rest assured, none of these ever works.  Face it.  You're hosed.  I suggest something more akin to groveling and begging for mercy.

Now, let's continue thinking about reading and listening.  Think about a time when you got absolutely absorbed in something you were reading.  When you are totally focused on reading your brain more or less turns your ears off.  For lack of a better descriptive, you phase out.  You only sort of hear things around you because your brain devotes a larger portion of its resources to reading and processing what you are reading.

Interestingly, the reverse is also true.  Here's an experiment you can do.  I made an MP3 of a reading of the last half of Matthew 7.   I asked a group (in this case, the students in our college chapel service) to raise their hands when they could understand what was being said.  The recording starting entirely muted and then, ever so slowly, raised the volume over a period of more than a minute.  Some hands went up early (Oh, those memories of youthful hearing!).  Others a bit later.  Finally, although still soft, everyone present except the hearing impaired could hear it.

The real impact comes as you watch several hundred people fully engaged in listening.  It is amazing how similar it looks with everyone.  The eyes look downward and de-focus.  The head bends slightly downward.  Most people lean a little forward.  A few even close their eyes.  You can stand there are watch it all happen.  People actually turn off their vision and physically bend toward the sound.  That is fully focused listening.  But, that is not how our churches look when scripture is read aloud in worship.

In spite of all of us knowing the ancient church did not have printed Bibles or projected words, we insist on thrusting the written word in front of our eyes at the same time we are supposed to be listening to the spoken word.  These two processes actually engage different (and somewhat competing) parts of our brains.  We simply cannot fully focus on reading and listening at the same time.

For many of us, in fact, reading trumps listening.  We do not "hear the Word of the Lord." Instead, we read and study the Bible.  Reading the Bible is a good thing.  Don't stop.  But, it is simply not the same as listening.  The ancient church experienced Scripture as living language experienced in communal listening to spoken language.  The teachings of Jesus recorded in Matthew, for example, would have always come incarnationally (through a human voice) and with the cadence and inflection of human interpretation.  This sentence is a question.  This is to be said gently.  This is spoken with a commanding voice.

Our insistence on thinking of the Bible primarily as printed text, complete with numbered verses and study notes and cross references, invites us to wrench phrases out of connecting thoughts and string disconnected sentences together as ammunition for proving dogmas.  Believing slow ponderous detailed exegesis always reveals truth is like a man gluing a microscope to his eyes to see better.  He is confident that because he is looking at so much detail, he will be more certain where he is walking.  Only, he keeps running into walls.

It might be natural to assume that combining listening with reading captures the best of both worlds.  Sure, we might be giving listening a little less of our brain's resources. But, that has to be more than balanced by all that great visual input from reading printed text.  

However, a study that appears in The Journal of Memory and Cognition in 2000 (1406-1418) compares reading a printed lecture with listening to the lecture with listening while looking at the printed text.  Afterward, people were tested on recalling both words and concepts.  Reading alone scored the lowest.  Listening while reading scored second.  But, listening alone scored measurably higher in all tested areas.  In other words, engaging vision and reading printed text interfered with listening.  And, whatever was gained by reading did not offset what was lost in less attention to listening.

Listening to scripture read aloud in a community of faith is a connecting act of worship directly linking us to the earliest days of the church and to the synagogue before it.  Listening with eyes turned off, heads bent forward, fully focused as though God Himself were speaking is the First Word of worship.  Prayer and praise are the answering words.  Rowan Williams tells us that the church is a called-out community because central to our identity is the knowledge that it is none other than God who is calling us. 

I'd encourage you to take the time to read and reflect on the text of Williams' lecture at Trinity College (Toronto) on "The Bible: Reading and Hearing."

Protestants, especially evangelicals, need to recover and restore the practice of extended readings from scripture as an essential component of worship.  Gathering to hear the "Word of God" proclaimed cannot be fulfilled by a handful of verses and a forty-five minute sermon.  As important as preaching is and must remain, it is not at the same level as listening to several extended readings of scripture in worship.

If you're interested, here's a sermon I shared on the same subject (undergrad audience, so don't expect slow measured thoughtful academics):


Kirra said...

I listened to this sermon while I was at work today. Possibly even as you were preparing to post this, from looking at your time stamp.

The sermon and this post are excellent reminders that the Bible is not simply the textbook we treat it as sometimes, especially in Bible college, and we need to do more than just read it to ourselves.

Tom Lawson said...

Thanks, Kirra. Eugene Peterson first opened these issues up to me years ago in a book called (oddly, I think) "Working the Angles." You guys might want to see if you can grab a cheap used copy. Worth reading.

Kirra said...

I'll look into it. Thanks!