The Living Voice of the Word

Let us reclaim the power of reading the Bible aloud.

People today access the words of Scripture differently from our ancestors in the ancient and medieval worlds. Books then were copied by hand. As a result, books were rare and expensive. Reading was an elitist skill. So most people absorbed the words of Scripture through their ears, by hearing the Bible read out loud in a church or synagogue service, in the monastic dining hall, or in the university lecture room.

All that changed with the invention of printing. Books became a mass medium; reading a skill possessed by the masses. We largely access the words of Scripture today through the eye, as we open the printed book and read it silently to ourselves.

What is lost is that oral dimension when the Bible is read aloud. The pitches, the modulations, the pauses of the human voice all give a power to the reading of the Bible that a silent reading cannot deliver. Oral reading more easily engages the emotions and moves the spirit.

As an example of power of the spoken word, take Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Read silently, the speech will impress us with the depth and breadth of King’s vision. But listen to a recording of the speech. You begin to realize why his oral delivery so moved the audience that heard it back in August 1963. His voice adds a dimension that the printed page cannot capture.

A Prophet Declaims

I began to think about this as I was reading the Old Testament prophet Joel recently. In the first two chapters, the prophet declaims to Judah the impending disaster that God’s judgment is about to bring upon the land. An immense army will sweep down from the north and strip the land bare.

What fascinated me was how the prophet uses poetic expression to deliver his message. For example, here is how he describes the onslaught of that army:

Like warriors they charge,
like soldiers they scale the wall.
Each keeps to its own course,
they do not swerve from their paths.
They do not jostle one another,
each keeps to its own track;
they burst through the weapons
and are not halted.
They leap upon the city,
they run upon the walls;
they climb up into the houses,
they enter through the windows like a thief.
(Joel 2:7-9, NRSV)

As I read this passage, the image that immediately popped into my mind was some battle scenes in George Lucas’ Star Wars series. In these battles the empire marshals vast armies of androids to attack the rebels. The androids come marching across the desert sands in lock-step order, line upon line. They crush whatever falls into their path.

Joel is evoking the same kind of effect, but with words rather than moving images. Of course, poetry (especially epic poetry) served in the ancient world the same effect that the cinema does in ours. It sought to tell a dramatic story and engage us in the story by stirring up our emotions. What we expect from a good movie, the Greeks would have experienced in a superb recitation of Homer.

This led me to wonder how Joel’s proclamation must have sounded when he delivered it orally in person. We don’t know where that happened. But I suspect his oral delivery was one reason why people remembered and recorded what he said for future generations.

Revitalizing the Public Reading of Scripture

I also wonder if we cannot experience something of that same power when we hear the Bible read aloud with a sensitivity to the sound and rhythms of the words. That’s why I would suggest that a monotone reading of Scripture in our worship services does a disservice to the holy text. Our official readers should be encouraged to bring the fullness of their voices’ capabilities to that reading.

Let’s also be honest. The oral reading is an interpretation of the text. What we choose to emphasize by our voice suggests how we hear the text we are reading. In that sense a good oral reading is as much an interpretation as the sermon.

In some recent online articles, British poet Paul Gittens analyzes why poetry has declined in popularity so much in the 20th and 21st centuries compared to previous centuries. One reason, he believes, is the decline in the public recitation of poetry. Historically, poetry’s impact has depended in large part on its verbal music, its sounds and rhythms, its meters and rhyme.

He cities research by the Poetry and Memory Project at Cambridge University. In its online mission statement, it contends: “If, as most poets and scholars argue, poems communicate meaning fundamentally through sound, it would seem that to wholly replace performance of a poem with talk about that poem must be to lose something vital.”

I would like to suggest that something similar can be said about the public reading of Scripture. The oral reading of Scripture has always held an important place in the life of the church and in the life of Christian families. Maybe we need to make sure it retains that important place.

Hearing the Bible

Last summer about this time I was reading Ken Follett’s massive novel The Pillars of the Earth. It is a gripping historical novel. It tells the convoluted story of the construction of a gothic cathedral against the backdrop of civil war in 12th century England.

Follett captures the atmosphere of medieval life vividly. You feel you are living it. But in one small detail, he gets medieval life badly wrong.

In one scene, a young noblewoman named Aliena and her brother visit their father in a prison dungeon. Their father, an earl, has been imprisoned for treason. Aliena asks her father what they can do to alleviate his misery. “Can we bring you a Bible to read,” she asks.

I winced when I read that. No such thing would have ever happened in the Middle Ages. For one, most medieval people could not read. Only an elite could. An earl might have been literate, but most likely not.

But more importantly, books were rare and expensive, and therefore precious possessions indeed. The production of books was labor intensive. All books were duplicated by handwriting, a slow and laborious process. Books were also published on animal skins. It might take the skins of several hundred sheep to complete a whole New Testament.

So the Scriptures were largely the possessions of churches and monasteries who could afford them. Few individuals would have owned a Bible. And certainly no one would have thought of bringing a bulky and expensive manuscript into the grime and dirt of a dungeon to a chained man to read.

So how did believers access the Bible for Christianity’s first 1,500 years? By hearing it read aloud in church. This contrasts dramatically with today, when most people enter the world of the Bible by opening the pages of a printed book and reading silently to themselves the words printed there.

We access the Bible through our eyes. But early and medieval Christians accessed it through their ears. And they retained it by memorizing it.

When medieval monks chanted the psalms, most did not have an individual prayer book in front of them in their prayer stall. They had memorized all 150 psalms and recited them by memory.

I wonder if this fact of Bible reading accounts in part for the phenomenon that the words of Scripture seemed to sink deep into their consciousness.

When I teach the New Testament, I like to point out how deeply infused New Testament writers are with the stories, images, and the very words of the Old Testament. Students are amazed at how much these writers were steeped in the Old Testament. How could they be so?, students will often ask me.

Well, one answer is that they heard the Bible always read aloud, not silently. The rhythms and cadences of Scripture were entering their minds and even bodies along with the stories and the concepts. Memorization imbedded the word even deeper into their consciousness.

We get a taste of this experience as we today hear Scripture read aloud in church services. But it is easy for our minds to wander in such readings because we know we can always turn to the printed text if we missed something. But what difference might it make if we had to listen intently to the reading, because that oral reading would be our only opportunity to access the text?

Future generations may in fact find out. There is some evidence that the skill of literacy is slowly declining in many segments of the population, as people rely more and more on TV, cell phones, and other electronic media for communication. We may be slowly migrating towards a world where the tools of oral communication, rather than written, are the preferred form for transmitting the faith.