Listening for “voice” while reading text

by David Hawkinson

Becoming a reader requires that we learn how to speak and listen for the voices that come from within and for the ones that address us. Bible is spoken word more than written word. Reading bible is at heart the practice of genuine dialogue.

Martin Buber points in his essay, “The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,” to the elemental step which begins this genuine dialogue: that we must “face the Book with a new attitude as something new.” We must “yield to it, withhold nothing of (our) being, and let whatever will occur between” ourselves and the text. We do “not know which of its sayings and images will overwhelm” us. We read “aloud the words written in front of” us. We hear the words that we speak and it reaches us. (On the Bible, p. 5)

Buber’s suggestion is that we must be open to hearing something that we have not yet heard—perhaps in a way, a tone or nuance that finds us. We must be open, because most often, the writer of the text does not indicate a particular tone or texture, either with emphasis or a mood of the voice behind the words. The text is not like a musical score which indicates some of the composer’s intent, as in the appellations of adagio or lento; forte and diminuendo. And even with these markings, each performance is different because the way these directions are interpreted and played. Different orchestras have different sounds. And likewise, we hear it differently each time. In this same way, reading text requires that we read out loud—exploring the many possibilities and listening carefully for the way the voice “reaches us” anew.

Whenever I read a text with others, I am always listening for that which I have not heard before. I assume it’s there, if I am open to it. I can ready myself and challenge the text by emphasizing different words, turning phrases around, adding different feeling and tone to the reading. And, I also want to hear how others are reading. More often than not, I learn the new thing from listening to my fellow readers.

Yet, while I try to prepare for this occurrence, by facing the text as “something new,” I am often caught off guard, hearing the never before heard in the surprise of a single moment. This happened this past week. Here’s the context. I was eating breakfast at Keys restaurant on Raymond Avenue, St. Paul. This is the spot where my great friend Tim Regan and I meet, discuss family and theology, read text, and pray. Tim brought the Daily Missal. First we ordered the usual “#1” off the menu—two eggs hash browns with onions and toast. Tim generally gets poached eggs and unbuttered toast. I order basted eggs and allow them to slather the toast with butter. This morning, I changed my egg order to poached. It startled Tim and perhaps created a bit of an opening in our ritual which set me up for hearing something new. After the dishes were cleared, we moved to prayer. The first antiphon was psalm 43. Here it is in the NRSV.

1 Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people;
from those who are deceitful
and unjust deliver me!

2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because of the oppression of the enemy?

3 O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling.

4 Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.

5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

I have read this passage many times and I know something of the scholarship which believes that psalm 43 and psalm 42 are a single poetic piece, separated from each other for an unknown reason. Listen to each. Notice the same words and phrases that are used in both (e.g. 42.11 and 43.5). The tone of both poems sounds similar. The earnest yearning expressed in the image of the deer who longs for flowing streams as the metaphor for the thirsting of the human soul for God in the first verse of 42 creates a marked contrast to the search for vindication (justice) from the oppression of those who know no such thirst for God, pointed to in verse one of psalm 43. This kind of contrast is not unusual and is present in many poetic units. From here we could continue to study the parallel poetic structure, the call and response that are built into the style of Hebrew poetry. We could examine the words, look up the different meanings in a lexicon and respond to the personal sense that each finds when we read the text. All this can yield fine fruits.

But, sitting across from Tim reading the text out loud on that morning at Keys, I heard a voice speak. It was my voice asking the poet’s questions in verse 2 and verse 5. I set both according to the style of biblical parallelism:

For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?
Why are you cast down O my soul why are you disquieted within me?

Before I describe the sound of my voice, let me first open ourselves to other possibilities. How shall we voice the question in relationship to the first declaration? What words do we give emphasis to? Speak this phrase while giving a little extra weight to the words as I emphasize them: Why have you cast me off? Why have You cast me off? Why have You cast me off! In other words, since God is the One in whom I take refuge, why is this happening? Why have I been cast off and not rescued? Doesn’t refuge mean that we are supposed to be safe, held and protected from all the hostile forces at play in our life? Speak the phrase again, this time with some anger as if we intended to speak from our depths. Try it. Pull up those moments in your life when you wondered what was going on—when the crises of life carried that sharp irony which shouts out statements of faith as if they are just empty words, as if we were saying with the tone of our voice: “Some refuge You are! Is this a joke? I come to You for safety and You toss me out as if I were like them… those ungodly ones!” Don’t worry about voicing these feelings to God. He has heard them before. The more important issue is—how does it sound to you? How do you sound to yourself? Let the words “reach you.”

We frequently do not have the courage to speak out about how we feel. It seems untoward and inconsiderate and complaining. It expresses doubt in the presence and goodness of God. We should know that God is a refuge even when we feel cast away-exiled-alone-afraid and vulnerable. Understood in this way, the poet may be describing faith as belief in the presence of God even when all evidence points to the contrary. Yet listen, again, as this poet seems to catch himself in the same dilemma when his outburst of “living mournfully” leads to another petition:

Send out your light and your truth;let them lead me;

The poet wants some direction back to relationship, some indication that God is interested in his condition. As if saying: “I can’t do this without your help. Bring me back and I will sing a hymn of praise!” Yet once more the old questions arise:

Why are you cast down,why are you disquieted within me? O my soul?

Speaking now to his own self, his own being, how shall we give tone and weight to these words? Again, speak out loud trying different possibilities. Use your body, your hands, and your face. Is there sadness? Is he angry with himself? Is he giving himself a healthy dose of cognitive behavior therapy—challenging the negative thoughts by seeing them as distorted? Is he asking an honest question because he is genuinely perplexed? Perhaps he goes on to proclaim these statements of faith in order to correct his experience; in order to bring himself out the hole that he has dug for himself? As if to say, “Come on self! Don’t give into this!” Or, even more boldly, is he telling his soul that he plans to continue hoping in God no matter how poor the condition of his soul? Like Job: “Even though he slay me, yet will I love him.”

Can we find the voice that expresses the confusion that can’t understand why life can be so disquieted while still believing in the goodness and presence of God? I like Robert Alters translation of this line:

How bent, my being, how you moan for me Hope in God for yet will I acclaim him!

The poet does speak to himself/herself in the end. “Hope in God!” But I also hear another voice: “Hope in God? Hope in God?—anyway!” Does this hopeful pronouncement bring renewed relationship? Does it end the feeling of being cast away? As we read the text we end in the future, not the present. The hope seems to express that sometime it will happen, “for yet will I acclaim him!”—but not now. Not in this moment. If C.S. Lewis is correct that praise is “inward health made audible”—what can a disquieted soul express? We can’t do what we can’t do.

This reading may not be considered theologically sound. It may not follow good biblical criticism. I don’t really care about that, not at this point anyway. Listen again to Buber’s advice to readers: “…[the reader] holds himself open. He does not believe anything apriori; he does not disbelieve anything apriori. He reads aloud the words written in the book in front of him; he hears the word he utters and it reaches him.”

On this morning, after eating a pound of potatoes and onions topped with two poached eggs, I heard these words in a way I had not heard them before, because I spoke them differently than I had before. I spoke them as one emerging from the long dark night of a major depressive episode. For months I couldn’t read, write or teach—each critical to the nature of my being and necessary for the work I felt God had called me to do. But unlike the anger that may or may not tinge the voice of the poet of Psalm 42 and 43, I found myself reading it without passion and feeling. I read it with a shrug of the shoulders, expressing a disinterestedness in any answer. I spoke these words not from the darkness of despair but as one unable to construct a sentence or to even care or believe that this might be over someday. It didn’t concern me if or when I would return to the light and to the songs of praise. I didn’t care if God was there or not. I didn’t care if I was there or not. I don’t mean this as a suicidal thought…but rather a simple sense that I existed only as a dimly burning candle. This is a description of what the biblical authors mean by Sheol and that “there is no praise in Sheol.” I voiced the questions of the psalmist with a flat tone, as if to say without any genuine emotion, “Isn’t it something that I can say these words about God and remain so disconnected from the energies of life and hope that these words are supposed to create in my being?”

These words now speaking in my voice, continued to echo in my mind on the drive home from breakfast with Tim. And then this happened. Soon I heard another voice, not my own. It was the voice of another friend, who had met me throughout the long sunless winter, week after week, each time speaking the words: “you will get through this!” Not my voice! Not me by myself calling up propositional language to bolster my hope. But a very human voice, kind and knowing—out of his own moments of darkness and struggle. This voice now recited the psalm in my own ears. Indeed he had been reciting it again and again all through the bleak landscape of my soul. So you see now, it took me a while to finally find the voice in the text—the real voice that addresses us in our desperate moments. Certainly the medication he prescribed helped. But it was the voice that healed. Slowly, over the weeks, I took up the chant:

“Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

David Hawkinson is a teacher of Bible, editor of Pietisten, and Pastor of Covenant Community Church, Jericho, Vermont.

See all articles by David Hawkinson