For a couple years it was just a fascinating gadget that did amazing things.
It can store thousands of songs, pictures, and even a few movies (if you want to watch them on a miniscule screen). But I don’t need those things. I’ll admit, I was taken in by the hype and, frankly, felt like a schmuck for buying it.
Then, I had a brainwave. Why not listen to the Bible for those 20 minutes that our dog’s metabolism demands from me each morning? Finally, my iPod had a more interesting use than a paperweight.
Now I’m on my third time through the audio Bible.
At first, it was mildly disconcerting.
The pace of the reader felt incessant. The words just kept pressing on; they didn’t stop and repeat when a phrase or thought piqued my interest.
Initially, I resisted the forward pressure. But this medium is not about stopping and staring at a word until the placement of black text on white page is burned into my memory. The words spoken either settle in my mind or fade away. Instead of visual patterns of black on white, auditory patterns of intonation, rhythm, and lyrical quality either find a home or don’t. To really hear the Scriptures I had to retool my receptors.
Hearing the Scriptures has some strange effects. Normally poignant texts like John 3:16 or Romans 8:28 merge into larger contexts and don’t necessarily jump out like wall plaques. Instead they form parts of larger fabrics.
And the ground you cover. In a few minutes the reader will, without pausing, take me from the creation of the cosmos to the life of Noah. Genealogies pass by in mere moments but have a musical tone. The Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes can be missed entirely if the mind wanders. Only Psalm 119 sustains even a single run. Epistles such as Philippians and Ephesians pass like meditations, and even Romans is hardly more than a slightly long sermon.
During one of those disconcerting moments I realized that for most of history the vast majority of God’s people knew the Scriptures only through hearing them read aloud.
It was not until the arrival of the printing press that books and even literacy were part of an average household. Exposure to the Scriptures came from listening to them.
Is it possible that the Scriptures were actually designed to be heard rather than read?
And so, I began to listen to the Bible with different ears. I put myself in the place of the Israelites, standing at the base of Mount Sinai, hearing Moses read the Book of the Covenant to them (Exodus 24). I listened with the Israelites as this book was discovered in the temple nearly 1000 years later, dusted off, and read to “all the people from the least to the greatest” (2 Chronicles 34:30).
Now, when I listen, I imagine myself standing among the crowds when Ezra the priest “read it aloud from daybreak till noon…in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively” (Nehemiah 8:3).
I try to listen “attentively” the way the Galatian believers might have listened when Paul’s letter to them was read in their assemblies.
The original recipients of the written words of Scripture had no expositor parsing sentences and explaining the meaning of words. They had only a cascade of commands; or the narrated acts of prophets, priests, and kings; or a rolling argument pounding relentlessly at the heart of an issue.
For nearly 500 years now, we have been overwhelmed by our access to the written text. It is an extravagant luxury but like all luxuries, it can be misused. We have come to assume that the Scriptures are meant to be dissected like a science experiment – that this is where its deep meanings are to be found.
Science experiments tell us a great deal but they are not the only way to see the world. By limiting ourselves to them we may also have lost something.
We may have lost our ability to hear the Scriptures the way they were meant to be heard.
Unlike any generation before us, we are bombarded with messages directed into our ears. They are flooded with information from the moment we rise.
We’ve had to learn to hear to survive but are we hearing the Scriptures? Is it possible that when Jesus said, “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear,” (Mark 4:23) he also meant it literally?
I have decided I need to thank God for myiPod.
James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.