|OralityThe oral nature of poetry is
particularly important. We must hear it even if we read silently. Note the following
faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of
What is interesting about these passages is that they each make a
vital assumption; namely, that "to hear" a matter is to be convinced of it, even
to obedience. Sound is intriguing, because unlike the other senses, it has an
immediateness to it. Sound is more present than perhaps even sight. All it takes to block
out a picture is to close your eyes. To stop hearing a symphony takes more than simply
shutting your ears. You'll need earplugs or a sound-chamber. To hear a matter is to be
more accountable to it, because it is more fully alive to us. Perhaps this is why Jesus
says that "the one who belongs to God hears what God says." Faith requires a
full awareness, an involvement, a rapt attention to the nuances of a matter. Obedience is
a result of being fully grasped by the immediateness of the command.
Most of us learn as children how to speak fluidly and effortlessly, yet most
of us have to work hard to learn to read and write. And even then, what we can easily pick
up from hearing a voice, takes practice "to hear" as we read. To really
understand a work of literature, we have to learn to hear the voice captured in the print
before us, and when we read aloud, we discover new things about a work we might otherwise
have missed reading silently. This is especially the case with tone. Notice the way
repetition enforces the speakers grief in J. Bottoms "Dirge":
- Deuteronomy 31:13: "Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and
learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land . . . ."
- Matthew 11:15: "He who has ears, let him hear."
- John 8:47: "He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear
is that you do not belong to God."
I should have deadened the street with straw,
I should have stopped the bedroom clock
and stilled the doorbell chimes with crepe,
I should have brought him quinine bark,
exotic simples packed in teak,
I should have had Te Deums sung
with banks of candles, cloistered nuns
to say their beads before he died. (1-8)
To read this poem aloud poorly is rob it of important aspects of its meaning: the
worrying, returning doubt of regret, the stilted hesitancy of loss. Listen, as well, to
the humor in Marilyn Nelsons "Abba Jacob and the Businessman."
A businessman heard about Abba Jacob
and went to see him
about his difficulties
with mental prayer.
was planting trees.
When the businessman saw him
he said, Boy,
tell me where the cell
of Abba Jacob is.
Abba Jacob said:
What do you want with him?
The man is a fool.
Oh, said the businessman,
I heard he
Not only do we have to see the scene visuallyimagining the monk at work and the
ground and the proud businessman standing above him, we also need to hear the scorn and
sense of power in the businessmans voice, as well as the sly discernment in Abba
Jacobs. The oral nature of literature reminds us that texts are about more than
expressing themselves; they are about making claims on us. Hearing a human, artistic voice
asks us to faithfully consider what we have encountered. Unlike God's voice that we hear
and follow, we should not automatically obey the voice we hear in a literary text, but
neither should we at first blush shut our ears to it, refusing to give it a reception.
Rather we should practice an open discernment.
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