by Stephen H. Webb. Brazos Press, 2004. ISBN 1-58743-078-9. Pb., 239 pp. $24.99.
Why do we think of Scripture in terms of texts to be interpreted rather than a voice to be heard? Why has preaching become either so theory-laden and academic in its teaching or so anecdotal and visual in its practice that no demands at all are made on our ears or our voices, or on the obedience of our hearts? Why is the act of “listening to a sermon” so difficult for us today, an event that for many almost defines boredom and can only make sense to others if it yields an experience of personal “uplift”? Why is modernity (and even more, post-modernity) both so noisy and so silent, and why does it seek so relentlessly to render us deaf to the human voice while celebrating the visual, the loud, and the universalizing illumination of critical reason? And finally, what does it mean that God speaks, that the heart of Israel’s faith begins with a summons not to read or think or see but to hear (“Hear, O Israel…”)–that the gospel understands itself as a word to be heard and proclaimed, a word that is rooted in the being of the triune God (“In the beginning was the Word”) who creates by speaking, and who loves by including us in the grace of the divine conversation, giving us ears to hear and words to speak?
These are just a few of the questions Stephen Webb’s provocative book, The Divine Voice, raises. And the remarkable thing is that beyond these questions are deeper and more subtle ones. They reveal the breadth and depth of Webb’s own powers of listening and his passion for the church that lives as it hears the voice of God and dares by God’s grace to speak God’s word.
Webb believes that our current dilemma can best be described in terms of the church losing its voice. This does not mean merely that our preaching has become timid or uncertain, but more that we have lost our hearing and so can make no sense of the event in which God engages us through speaking the Word enfleshed in Jesus Christ and witnessed in Scripture. Preferring texts that we can read to a voice that can only be heard, we soon grow silent ourselves, unable to perform the daring task of proclamation. Webb thinks that the church knows only that which it is able to proclaim, that giving responsive voice to God’s word of grace is, in fact, the surest sign that the church understands the message it has been given to speak.
But speaking and hearing are not highly valued gifts in a world that sets greater store by what we can see and conceive. Following Walter Ong, Webb thinks that modernity is not so much a place of “disenchantment” as it is of “devocalization.” It is a place in which the human voice has been devalued or silenced in favor of the idea or theory or image. Concluding that Scripture is a silent text that must be defended, fundamentalists offer theories of inspiration while liberals busy themselves with “hermeneutical keys” that will enable the text to make sense. Webb offers instead what he calls a “theology of sound” that seeks to take seriously the way in which the gospel makes itself heard within the human limitations of space and time. Of particular interest to him is Karl Barth’s “theology of the Word,” which insists that the miracle (and mystery) of the Word becoming flesh is precisely that this Word becomes “hearable.” We become Jesus’ disciples, Webb suggests, as we hear and become articulate in speaking this Word.
In one sense Webb’s book is simply (!) a careful exegesis of the work of the Holy Spirit as it relates to preaching; but, in truth, he has more on his mind than surveying currently available theological options or even offering an analysis of cultural obstacles to the Spirit’s work. For example, he has listened closely to Kristin Linklater, a teacher of voice for actors, who argues that for those performing a text on stage, speaking is the ultimate act of embodiment, the word made flesh. Making Linklater’s insight fruitful for theology, Webb proposes that we think of Jesus Christ “as the natural voice of God,” the one in whom, so to speak, God finds the divine voice.
There is much more in this marvelously rich book that cannot be touched on here. Webb invites us to re-think the importance of reading Scripture out loud as an act of interpreting it, particularly when reading a text for worship. He notes the un-Gnostic humility of a faith proclaimed by a voice that precisely cannot be heard everywhere and at all times, but only in one place and over a short distance. Best of all, he recognizes the extent to which the crucifixion of Jesus represents an effort to silence God once and for all, making God captive to the “dumbness of death.” Correspondingly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is, above all, God’s victory over such terrible silence, rendering life articulate and capable of praise. “Silence,” he notes, “does not have the last word.”
This is a book for preachers and for those who are concerned for the future of the preaching task of the church. It is an ambitious work and in this reader’s judgment, a bit too ambitious in what it seeks to explain. Nevertheless, Webb is on to something important and his erudition, scholarship, and clarity of thought and expression make it a pleasure to learn and share the excitement of what he has found.
Thomas W. Currie is Dean of Union Theological Seminary-PSCE at Charlotte (N.C.)