“Reading in silence is the source of half the misconceptions that have caused the public to distrust poetry.”
— Basil Bunting
What the poet Basil Bunting says of poetry is true of Christian Scriptures. The silent reading of Scriptures has spawned misuses and the subsequent distrust of Scripture. I do not have in mind merely the strident atheist who considers it to be old wives’ tales. I refer to ardent Christians who fight tooth and nail for divine inspiration, lifting Scripture to a lofty pedestal beyond the dirty human hands of historical criticism and make Scripture the fourth person of the “Quaternity.“ For the Bible-lover and the Bible-hater both approach the book in the same manner — as an essay, with statements to be analyzed and distilled. The doubter hunts for contradictions. The believer scans for the main idea and then goes to work vigorously translating the concept into a system of doctrine. And nothing embodies this attitude of analytic study better than the cold, silent reading of Scripture. This tends to draw in readers with eyes wide open, but their mouths and ears shut.
When you take in Scripture through the eyes alone, you default to analysis; analysis kills communication. My wife fumes when I am analyzing her words, because when I’m analyzing, I’m not listening.
Analysis, even from the friendliest of hands, shreds the words into forms they were never intended to take. Analysis begins from a place of suspicion. It assumes that one cannot understand it except through inquisition, and inquisition usually doesn’t end well. (The regrettable history of the Great Inquisition warns us that in inquisitions, one often gets what one wants and not the truth.)
Scripture through the eyes remain dead and even leads to death. As Paul says, “the letter kills.“
In contrast, hearing starts from a place of trust.
When you are reading, your mode of understanding is analysis because you can go back repeatedly, demanding that the first sentence makes logical connections with the third sentence, and so on. Hearing is not analytic because it cannot be held to such inquisition. Speech does not give you the luxury to go back, to test all the connections. The listener must trust that the speaker is bringing the listener home with every succeeding and receding sound of the sentences. The importance of being present in hearing requires receptiveness. The act of hearing is an open gesture of trust.
Reading out loud is the closest recreation of the origin of most of Scripture. Most biblical books were first received through the ears — whether they started as oral traditions that eventually made its way to the parchment, or they were written under dictation, as in Paul‘s epistles. They were meant to be read out loud.
If Scripture is oral speech, then its real thrust and meaning is in the sound, the experience of meaning over the analysis of its argument. Trying to understand Scripture through silent reading is to believe you can hear the fullness of Mozart‘s “Symphony no. 40 in G Major” by looking at the notations. The notations can never be the music, though the music depends on the notation for continuous recreation.
In Scripture, the words are notations. They are helpful in transmitting the music, but they do not bring it alive. Speech breathes life back into them.
The way to biblical literacy, to new trusting and loving of Scripture is to read aloud whole chunks of the Bible, as stories, and with practiced drama that reflects the emotions already pulsing in the stories. Though practice is required, the skill is not foreign to any of us. The most boring reader will become a dramatic one when reading a children’s story to her wide-eyed son. That is how we are to read Scripture: like we are reading it out loud to our dearest children.
SAMUEL SON is co-pastor at New Life Triangle, a new multi-ethnic church/1001 new worshipping community of New Hope Presbytery in Raleigh, North Carolina.