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~ Tone Deaf to the Scriptures ~

A person dreamed of sitting in a worship service. A weird silence reigned. He saw the lips of the minister move, the people’s mouths moving in song, the organist’s fingers pressing the keyboard and no sound at all, except for the giggling of a child. The dreamer asked God what was going on here. He heard Him reply, “If I heard only the genuine, heart-emanating sounds of worship in this place, this is all I would hear.”

“From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise” (Psalm 8:2a). “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me; their worship is useless, for they teach their own philosophies as though they were absolute truths...the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such worshippers. God is Spirit; they that worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (Matthew 15:8-9; John 4:23-24).

Reading the first paragraph above may well have been a visual and audio experience for you. There is a “tone” to it, especially if it is read to you aloud by another. If that was your experience, you may also have noticed how the tone of the first paragraph spilled into the second one of Scripture quotes, giving them a color and flavor that enhances their meaning. If you linger on the words of those Scriptures, reading them slowly and aloud, you may feel the cadence of Jesus’ voice along with His words.

Psalm 34 begins, “I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.” As you read that, did you picture yourself in some way with imagery of what praise would look and sound like on your lips? How your soul would appear as it boasts in the Lord? Can you imagine afflicted, suffering and despairing people hearing your praise and boasting and can you hear them rejoicing in response? How about a vision in your mind and heart of them and you exalting “his name together”?

Take your pen and poke a piece of paper three times, leaving three dots not too far apart. If you were educated in the schools of a first world country, you would most likely “see” a triangle. Of course, that is only a hallucination, since three random dots on a piece of paper does not constitute a triangle by any verbal or mathematical definition. But your mind is trained to “connect the dots” and you “see” a triangle and probably could not stop seeing it despite the exertion of your will.

In addition to connecting the dots where there is no reason to connect them other than to create our own sense of order to the exclusion of other ways of seeing, we are also taught to be tone deaf to printed words. Most people completely miss the tone of the Sermon on the Mount...oblivious to the combination of wonderful sarcasm, wit, exaggeration, teasing, playfulness, admonishment, and humor throughout Jesus’ words to the overhearing crowd as He taught His disciples. And, to tease a little myself, if you are questioning “what sarcasm, what humor...?” you may be one of those people.

St. Paul ushered the Gospel into the Gentile world, virtually synonymous with the Grecian nations. Like Paul, the early church fathers were extremely steeped in the Greek culture, philosophy and education. They knew Homer’s writings as well as the Scriptures. The ancient writings, both scriptural and secular, had no punctuation, not even spaces between words. We can’t fathom that today. The Internet language even created symbols to express nuances of emotion we use in our emails to express meaning, such as :) or <g> for a smile or good natured tease.

This ancient writing structure required people to read aloud, and slowly, deliberately entering into the text with their hearts and discernment. Speed-reading was not possible. Readingthosetextsrequiredpayingverycloseattentioneventothepointofdeepcontemplation. (You will probably remember the previous sentence above all others in this essay.) One needed to slow down and enter into the world of the writer, re-creating the story or teaching in one’s own heart and mind, living it with the author. As such, the writings carried their own tone, which resounded in different ways with the reader. The reader was very conscious of this tone, of this cadence, and so ancient students and scholars would typically read aloud, even when alone. This is why we hear of their great memory feats, and are impressed with how commonplace it was for literate people to have memorized entire books of the Scriptures or entire works of Homer and the philosophers. Today we need “memory techniques” but they did not, since people remember easily their experiences, and reading was truly an experience involving sight, sound and the touch of one’s tongue against the teeth as words were read. “Reading” was a sensory-rich experience of inculcating and incarnating one’s culture and teachings. That’s why children still love being “read to” and are entranced by storytellers, a dying art form in this overly literate and cerebral culture.

People speak in awe of the “musical ear” of the musician who can play an instrumental piece after one hearing. Chances are, however, you can identify an entire song or score of music after hearing just one or two seconds of notes. (Game shows use this fairly common ability in their contests.) You may not have the piece memorized, but you know it in your heart and recognize it instantly from just a few notes.

Our brothers and sisters of centuries ago typically had an “ear” for Scripture. Utter part of one quote from Jesus, a prophet, or a writer, and their minds and hearts would immediately recognize it. Not only could they finish the quote and continue explaining its context, but would also have streaming through their minds many other related Scriptures from diverse books, creating one grand musical score! The Jewish people chanted their prayers, sang their lamentations, without hymnals, with one voice, from the memory of mind and heart. While Protestants don’t chant their prayers or Scripture readings and many wouldn’t know who or what a “cantor” is, those of the Greek, Russian, Coptic, Eastern and Catholic Orthodox traditions still do, as Jesus and His disciples and all Jews did.

Scripture beholds a wondrous cadence and tonal experience. During this self-reflective Lenten season, let us become conscious of whatever degree of tone deafness we may have when reading Scripture and praying its psalms. Jesus’ voice is musically stunning, entertaining and edifying in His Sermon on the Mount. The cadence of His love reverberates so majestically through His pre-arrest prayers recorded in John’s account of the Gospel. His voice in Gethsamane and on Calvary is so grippingly expressive in lamentations, not for Himself, however. They are our lamentations, as He became us and became our sin. When Jesus cried, “My God why have you forsaken me?” we hear the cries of despairing, lost human souls crying those words through Him, not realizing our Father and our God never did nor would forsake us. When Jesus cried, “I thirst!” we hear the echoes of millions of souls crying those words through Him, thirsting for relief, for redemption, for God’s presence and filling Spirit.

When Mary didn’t recognize the risen Christ at the tomb site, He spoke her name into His recognition that became her own, of who she was to Him and who He was to her. The calling of our names by the Christ is heavenly music to our ears. As we read with our eyes, let us keep listening with our ears and hearts. Scripture and our reading and contemplation of His passion are infused with life. This life cannot be expressed only in written words. Life and holy Scripture have a luscious cadence, a compelling tone, and musically resplendent layers of color, flavor, feeling and meaning that, in the end, can be best spoken about by living and dancing our gratitude for being able to enter its mystery.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
~ Education, Research and Advocacy
   in the Christian Faith ~

Spiritual Resource Services  © March 12, 2004

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