“Boredom with Language” and its Antidote
Alan Lewis said that the malaise of Western culture had been diagnosed as “boredom with language”. People have become word weary and are now somewhat immune to the vast volume of communication they are inundated with through radio, TV, cell phones, email, and print media.
For this reason it is all the more remarkable that when scripture is read aloud it still retains the power to lift speech above the din that surrounds us and can uniquely penetrate our hearts and minds.
When I began learning some Hebrew vocabulary I was struck by the fact that the word “dabar” meant both “word” and “thing”. This is partly because the word of the Lord was never simply discourse in Israel, it was visitation as well. It was a word that we encountered, a word that arrested, challenged, and changed us.
It is sad that the long-standing debate within protestant theology (going back to Luther and Calvin) has been about whether the authority of the Bible derives from what the Bible is, a text that is, in and of itself, the inspired word of God (standing alone, as it were). Or, whether the Bible becomes the Word of God through what it does (as it impacts us and addresses us in the power of the Spirit). Most of us as Evangelicals would believe the former, but many of us would not want to deny the reality of the latter. The scriptures can never be reduced to print media but always retain their power as word that arrests and transforms us, cleaving through our “boredom with language” and uniquely impacting our lives.
For this reason I must confess how much I miss the three scripture readings: Old Testament, the Gospels and the epistle that are a regular part of the Anglican Church service. In my own experience, it was frequently the unadorned reading of scripture that often touched me sometimes even more than the sermon. A sentence or phrase would often impact me with particular power and stay in my heart and mind for days. Perhaps we could do worse than reintroduce the lectionary and the public reading of scripture back into our charismatic church service as another avenue through which we can encounter the Word of the Lord.
Reading out loud was of course the norm in the ancient world. Some quotes from the archaeology magazine Odyssey humorously illustrate this:
Plutarch notes that when Alexander the Great (336–323 B.C.) stood before his troops one day and silently perused a letter from his mother, his soldiers were bewildered. They had never seen anyone read without vocalizing the words. Other stories recount how one of Julius Caesar’s aides thought that he was witnessing an epileptic seizure when he observed Caesar studying a document as his lips were moving but he was not vocalizing any words! Silent reading was still considered an oddity in 384 A.D., when Augustine, then a young professor of Latin rhetoric, marveled at the way in which Ambrose read: “His eyes scanned the
page…but his voice was silent and his tongue was still”(Confessions 6.3). In the semi-literate Mediterranean world of antiquity, reading was viewed as a public, not private process.
While we don’t want to begin reading aloud (our libraries would become rather noisy) perhaps incarnational theology needs to again inform our approach to scripture reading in our services. Perhaps there is still no substitute for a man/or woman of God, reading the word of God, in the power of God, to the people of God, as a vehicle of the revelation of God, without adornment or explanation.
We can’t demand it, but often in such a context the miracle happens, the word, the “dabar” becomes a “thing”, a visitation, a word that we encounter, a word that arrests, challenges, and most importantly, changes us.