The Art of Listening in the Early Church, by Carol Harrison

Ursula King on how the new Christian message was communicated by listening to the spoken word through teaching and preaching

October 24, 2013

Much has been said on the nature of words, and on language both spoken and written. Major advances of Western thought are based on the silent reading of texts, yet the focus of this intriguing study is not words as either read or spoken but as heard and listened to. Carol Harrison quotes Plutarch’s thought-provoking dictum that “Nature has given to each of us two ears and one tongue, because we ought to do less talking than listening”. This provides a suitable pointer for reflecting on the auditory culture of antiquity with its high esteem of rhetoric and the art of listening, all part of the formative cultural context of the rise of Christianity in the Mediterranean world.

Patristic scholars, church historians, biblical experts and theologians have expended immense efforts on studying early Christian texts in order to understand the articulation and communication of the Christian faith to Jews and Gentiles in many different lands. Harrison’s approach is unusual in asking about the methods of communicating the new Christian message by listening to the spoken word through teaching and preaching as well as reading aloud, and the way this message was received and responded to by its hearers. Far from simply presenting a direct description of this process, the rich art of listening and responding is here explored from multiple angles, whether discussing the embodied and cognitive modes of human attention, the right and left hemispheres of the brain, the hierarchy of human senses with the different importance assigned to sight and hearing, the respective significance of orality and literacy in human cultures, the insights of hearer response theory or the important role of images in relation to the vast storehouse of human memory so central for both the outer and inner world of human beings.

Visual rather than auditory terms serve as predominant metaphors for perceiving and thinking, whereas hearing is largely understood as being passive. Classical culture was a culture of the book, accessible to a small minority. The books were read out loud; their study was shaped by the practice of rhetoric, evolved from the 5th century BC onwards. Early Christian authors belonged to the educated elite of Graeco-Roman culture who used their rhetorical training for transmitting the message of Christianity. This was problematic, given the vulgarity of Christian scriptural prose, which fell a long way short of classical eloquence. Christian faith was formed by hearing and then speaking the “summaries” or “rules of faith” in community, leading to a shared culture handed down as a tradition characterised by unity, continuity and universality. There is much here on early Christian preaching, on the transformative effect of listening to and hearing the voice of God, and on the rich responses of personal prayer, far less studied than the public liturgy and monastic prayer of the church. The polyphony of prayer also includes the use of the Old Testament psalms, of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of the heart, and prayer as life, cultivating listening to God’s presence and transcendence.

This book is a treasure trove of inspiring ideas, especially about the transformative power of “literate listening”. It is beautifully written, almost architectonic in its structure, while also playful in many of its examples, narratives and its rich use of musical metaphors. A glossary of technical terms would have been helpful, but more serious is the almost complete absence of gender awareness in the analysis of early Christian data and the lack of an overall conclusion relating some of the rich insights on listening to contemporary culture so profoundly shaped by the dominance of the visual.

The Art of Listening in the Early Church

By Carol Harrison
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £65.00
ISBN 9780199641437
Published 4 July 2013

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