By Phillip Jensen
One of the ruder letters that I have received was from a man I do not know. He wrote “I know what you mean” and then, before abusing me, accused me of things I have never said nor ever meant. Deconstruction is rude. It does not respect the speakers’ ability to know or say what is on their own minds.
Sinful people have a great ability to lie, and even to lie to themselves, so that we do not know our own assumptions and hidden messages. The comprehension rate of listeners is not always one hundred percent accurate. However, the amount of information that we can accurately convey by speech is far greater than the confusion we may, from time to time, experience. We may never be able to “know just how you feel”, yet we are able to communicate with sufficient accuracy to have a realistic appreciation of, and sympathy for, the plight of somebody else and how they feel about it.
In human relationships it is very important to develop the art of listening/reading. Many quarrels and fights; misunderstandings and broken relationships are caused by a failure in communication. But more important in communication than clear speech is accurate listening or reading. Irrespective of how clearly the speaker speaks or the writer writes, it is the listener/reader who determines what message is received.
Reading is a simple art that can be taught to most children but is also a very complex task that is quite hard for even adults to master. However much we refine our ability to listen to another person, either by speech or by writing, we can always improve our listening skills.
Fundamental to good listening and reading is the loving desire to know what the speaker means. We must desire to know what they think more than what we think. As long as we listen in order to wait for a break to contribute our next thought, we are not listening. Our aim has to be to hear or read what they want to communicate in their terms of reference; not our own.
Evaluation of the author’s thought comes later. Until we have understood what they are thinking we are not really in a position to evaluate. Even trying to integrate what is being said into our already existing knowledge, will prevent us from hearing the other person properly. Integration is the step after listening – the first step has to be to hear or read what the other person is thinking and that means reading their words in context.
To read in context is more than reading words in their sentences and sentences in their paragraphs and paragraphs in their chapter. True as that exercise may be, it is only part of ‘reading in context’. We also need to check words in the context of the author’s culture – i.e. look up a dictionary of common usage, for that is part of the context of the word. Furthermore, we must pay attention to the genre of the writing because that expresses how the author wants to be read. So poetry has a licence with the facts and even with reality that is not afforded to history (e.g. Moab was not a washpot Psalm 60:8). We have to pay attention to simile, parable, metaphor and imagery if we are to listen accurately to the speaker. This may require more emotional intelligence than intellectual intelligence.
We also need to check what else we can know about the author for that will explain something of the reason for writing. We must read in the context of the author, not our own context. We may try a Marxist or feminist reading of something in order to free ourselves from our own context and open ourselves to alternative ways of thinking – but unless we are reading a Marxist or feminist writer we will not understand what they are saying. The author’s context is more important than the reader’s context.
When listening to the Bible we are listening to two authors: the human and the divine (1 Thessalonians 2:13). There are not two messages but two authors, for God uses the human messenger to convey his message. Yet the two authors do give two contexts. For while the man is speaking to the immediate context, God is using his message for a wider and much greater context. Paul explains to Christians God’s meaning in the events of the Exodus recorded in the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 10:1-11). And listening to the two authors means that we listen with two mindsets. Because it is a man, we listen to his words to understand him; comparing his words to what we know of his situation (Hebrews 4:6f) or studying how he uses the same word, illustration or grammatical construction in other contexts. Because it is God, we listen in order to be obedient to what he is saying to us. The right context to listen to the word of God is on our knees. “Today, when you hear his word, do not harden your heart.”
The human context for the New Testament is the gospel mission to the world. We do not read the apostles as the foundation of ‘the ongoing church tradition’, nor were they new Rabbi’s giving Talmudic interpretation of the sayings of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus. The apostles were chosen by Jesus to leave their nets and fish for men. They were inspired by the Spirit of God (John 20:22-23 cf. John 14-17) to continue the saving work of Jesus and commissioned to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:18f, Luke 24:44f). Some like Peter, James and John had a commission to the Jews whereas others such as Paul had a commission to evangelise the nations. They were a missionary movement and wrote as missionaries in the cause of the mission.
That is why to teach the Bible accurately is to preach evangelistically (1 Corinthians 2:2, 1 Peter 4:11).
Copyright (2014) phillipjensen.com
Reproduced with permission from phillipjensen.com
Phillip Jensen is Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia.