Reading Texts for the Sake of Hearing the Gospel

“I am increasingly struck that much biblical interpretation occurs without the Bible ever having been read,” writes Donald Juel.1 

Of course, Juel is not talking about the kind of reading preachers do all of the time; in our church offices, maybe in bed at night, or with our morning cup of coffee. Rather, Juel laments over biblical exegesis that “is carried on without ever reading aloud” words that were meant to be heard.

What difference does it make for our interpretation of the Bible, and for our oral embodiment of those interpretations that become our sermons, when we pay attention to how texts are “residually oral?”2  A helpful reading strategy by which to access the oral/aural dimensions of texts is the phenomenon of rereading discussed in literary theory. Rereading recaptures and relives orality by attending to the various auditory features, devices, and techniques by which texts enact the necessity to reread: oral patterns of rhythm, alliteration, assonance, repetition, antinomy and antithesis, formulaic sayings, phrasing, word sounds, onomatopoeias, rhyming, puns, equivocations, and structures, in other words, the “deeper melodies and resonances” of texts because of “textualized orality.”3 

Rereading is perhaps best understood within the “larger phenomenology of repetition: of remembering, revoking, reviewing in retrospect, retracing, thinking back and rethinking, rediscovering and revisiting.”4  Rereading occurs because of the deliberate use of repetition, of words and phrases, structural redundancies, and even visual duplications, along with ambiguity, secrecy/textual concealment, and the oral elements noted above.

Listening to the entirety of the text realized in rereading allows for an intercommunication of textual features and textual moments. While we should be constantly aware that the part interprets the whole and the whole interprets the part, rereading creates the ability to hear mutual interpretive relationships that generate imaginative and creative possibilities for preaching.

One of the primary limitations of silent and solitary reading is an assumed linear mode of reading. We anticipate, and sometimes even demand, a forward moving experience, to get from beginning to end, in a timely manner and without too many obstacles. Yet, this can mean the “potential to overlook a detail, to go too quickly” or to fail to notice the “fragility of the ornament.”5 

The fact is, a real reader is content to “skip, skim, swim back and forth, are happy to have their attention caught.”6  Rereading, even interpretation, imagined “as time-bound activities, as explorations, as visitings and (perhaps nostalgic) revisitings of texts, as walks through textual places, pleasure trips, rambles, or pilgrimages”7  is perhaps much more like our sermons are meant to be.

Rereading highlights the participatory nature of reading and challenges our tendency toward striving for the main point or “heart” of the text. Rereading corrects tendencies toward reading only for the meaning of a text by slowing down the movement of reading and focusing on the process of reading, not the result. Such an ideal also speaks to the nature of preaching, that it is less about presenting an interpretation of the text and more about the process of discovery and the potential of experience. We would not only be attentive to what a text says but how a text says and perhaps come to see that meaning lies also in what a text does.

So, what does this mean in practical terms for the working preacher?

First, listen to the text. That is, have someone read it aloud to you. What do you hear? What do you imagine in that hearing when your eyes are not glued to words and are free to create pictures in your mind? Where do you hear resonances, repetitions, reverberations? Where do they take you in the larger narrative? For example, it is no accident that the Gospel of Mark uses the verb schizō only twice in his story of Jesus: once, at Jesus’ baptism when the heavens are torn apart (1:10) and then at Jesus’ crucifixion when the temple curtain is torn in two (15:38). Hearing this verb again at the very end of the story catapults the reader back to the beginning whereby a rereading and rehearing of the Gospel, now through this lens/filter, becomes necessary.

Second, what mutual interpretive relationships are created when you begin to hear two stories together? For example, Jesus’ arrest in the Gospel of John is the only one that takes place in a garden. Notice (of course, in the Greek!) the repetition of the verb erchomai in John 18:1-13a. Jesus and his disciples go into the garden. Jesus, leaving the disciples safe inside the garden, comes out (not “forward”) to confront Judas, the thief (12:6) and the mob (six hundred plus Roman soldiers to be exact). Where does my mind go? Back to chapter 10, which is the only other time the word “thief” is used in the Gospel. Jesus comes out of the fold and will not let the thief in…Jesus is indeed the good shepherd.

Third, write for the ear. Let the biblical writers be your guides as to how to go about strengthening the orality of your sermons. How do you facilitate the hearing of your sermon? Do you use devices discussed above so that your sermon is not just understood but experienced and remembered? In our task, it is not enough to bring a word from God to our congregations. That word needs to be heard so that it can resonate and reverberate in their lives.8 

1Donald Joel, “The Strange Silence of the Bible,” Interpretation 51:1 (1997): 5-19.
2Walter Ong, “Text and Interpretation: Mark and After, Semeia 39 (1987): 7-26. See Matei Calinescu, “Orality in Literacy: Some Historical Paradoxes of Reading and Rereading,” in Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading (David Galef, ed.; Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 51-74.
3Calinescu, “Orality in Literacy,” 185, 187.
4Matei Calinescu, Rereading (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), xii-xiii, 8.
5Julianna Spahr, “Gertrude Stein and Disjunctive Rereading,” in Second Thoughts, 266-293.
6Calinescu, Rereading, 273-274.
7Ibid., 16.
8For a more detailed discussion of the strategy of rereading, see Karoline M. Lewis, Rereading the “Shepherd Discourse.” Restoring the Integrity of John 9:39-10:21 (New York: Peter Lang, 2008).