I’d like to highlight three barriers to our being able to properly hear God’s words. I found these barriers as I read through Peter Adam’s book, “Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality.” These three barriers include our personalities, our cultural conditionings, and our unintentional illiteracy.
1) Our Personalities:
In discussing the parable of the soils, Peter Adam examines how our unique personalities can hinder our capability to fully hear the life-giving message of the Gospel. This, because:
- Emotional people can easily deflect the Word by turning the hearing of it into an emotional experience. They test the word (or its preaching) by its emotional impact, and then focus their response on that emotional experience. But once the emotion has passed, so has the Word.
- Cerebral people can easily deflect the Word by turning the hearing of it into an intellectual exercise. They substitute understanding it for responding to it, fitting it into their theological grid so that it does not impact their lives.
- Ministry people can easily deflect the Word by receiving it as a message to be passed on to others. They can always see the application to others, but not to themselves.
- Practical people can easily deflect the impact of the Word by reducing it to something easy to understand and then, to do. They will have no time for anything not immediately relevant. They reduce the Bible to a set of instructions for daily living, and develop a legalism that blunts the power of God’s Word
- Superficial people will pay as much attention to God’s Words as they would to anything else, and thus will never be able to receive the Words that can change them.
- Reactionary people are those who always want to contradict what anyone has asserted about anything. They too will find that their habit of life makes it very difficult for them to receive the Word of God and let it bear fruit in their lives.
2) Our Cultural Conditionings:
It is difficult to fully hear God’s Word in our current cultural climate because of what Jacques Ellul calls the “humiliation of the word.” James Diane writes of the common view of words today, “Words are puffs of air, mere sounds that die on the wind, lacking inherent power…mere symbols, meaning whatever their user wants them to mean.” Os Guinness writes of this phenomenon as follows:
“We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of the anti-word and which potentially is the age of the lie.” (Quoted on page 139)
Guinness points to the three main maxims that underlie advertising, which itself expresses the trends in communication in our society. They are to:
- Simplify thought
- intensify emotions
- magnify symbols
The author makes an apt argument. While there are simple thoughts, intense emotions and important symbols in the Bible, the prevalence of this mode of communication makes it difficult for modern people to grapple with the whole message of the Bible since the form of Scripture is words. We do not have an authentic Jesus DVD, nor have we personally seen the visions of John recorded in Revelation. We have the words of the Bible. So, the form of Scripture is a form we are not used to digesting and thus, “the move away from listening to words to looking at signs explains much of the religious appetites of our generation.” We have lost sight of a true understanding of Scripture because we have forgotten how to maintain a sustained concentration to words. This is a problem. I like how Susan Sontag says it when writing on photography:
Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy. Only that which narrates can make us understand. (Quoted on page 141)
Perhaps this is why Walter Brueggemann describes the kind of preaching that works in our modern age as NOT patriarchal, hierarchical, authoritarian, monologic, flat or universal, but [should be] marked by ambiguity, playfulness, openness, irony and contradiction. He writes of the need for a rhetoric that conveys a counter-truth subversive of dominant, commonly accepted givens, and which has a different style or mode of articulation. This rhetoric will be “Not excessively solemn or rationalistic or final or given with too much sobriety. Rather it is an utterance that is playful, open, teasing, inviting, and capable of voicing the kind of unsure tentativeness and ambiguity that [the people of God] must also maintain.”
For whatever else reasons we should preach this way, I can see at least one additional benefit: It may help us pay more attention to the Word of God – which is full of words – again, a mode of learning we aren’t used to digesting all that much any more.
3) Our Unintentional Illiteracy:
I’m sure this point is somehow related to point #2. Essentially, our frequent and unintentional misinterpretations of Scripture inhibit us from truly hearing Scripture. This happens when we read and interpret Scripture out-of-context. Unfortunately, I see this happen on an almost weekly basis in the church (oftentimes the perpetrator being, myself). This is devastating because whenever we hear Scripture out of context, we aren’t actually hearing what Scripture is saying about itself, and thus, we aren’t really hearing God’s Word as God’s Word.
We do this in lots of ways. As Peter Adam states, we often “hold to the shadow and miss the substance” (101). As Revelation 22:18-19 makes clear,
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophet, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
What matters to God is our response to THE WORDS, adding to or taking from the words is the opposite of KEEPING the words (cf. Revelation 1:3; 22:7). Nothing is more important than the exact hearing and keeping of the Word as we know it.
One of the reasons I love the series of which this book is a part (New Studies in Biblical Theology) is because each book in the series models a careful reading of entire books and themes of Scripture. Allen models this principle masterfully on pages 81-86 where he exegetes Luke Chapter 24. It is remarkable. He shows how typically this chapter is used for three purposes:
- As proof of the empty tomb (based on history)
- To show what it’s like to encounter the risen Christ (based on experience); and
- To establish a model of meeting Christ in the breaking of bread (based on the Last Supper)
Yet, none of these three aspects of the chapter speak to its’ main reason for existing. Each misses the main point. Actually, the main point of the chapter is not the resurrection of Christ, but that the resurrection of Christ is a part of the whole Gospel story. And actually, the basis for faith is not the empty tomb, an experience of the risen Christ or even the breaking of bread, but the trustworthiness of both the Old Testament AND Jesus’ teaching. I shouldn’t need to map out the full argument for the reader to see my own main point which is to agree with Adam that if we don’t read Scripture in context – we will miss out on the fullness of its message. If we don’t hear Scripture in its proper context, we won’t actually hear what Scripture is trying to tell us.