What's Tony Thinking

Humility and The Art of Listening


When teaching preaching I would begin by saying, “Good preaching begins with good listening.” Before we dare speak, we must do something even more daring. We must listen, deeply.

“Daring to listen” may sound overly dramatic. We do not think of listening as risky. But it is, or at least, it can be. We risk hearing a word not our own. We risk a challenge to the way we have reality construed. We risk being changed. We risk hearing something.

I encouraged, in my students and for myself, what I thought of as humility before the Biblical text. Letting the text speak. That was the requisite of good preaching. Listening.

I thought of this when I read what was to me a particularly moving section of one of Fleming Rutledge’s Advent sermons where she wrote about the study of Shakespeare.

“The professor who taught Shakespeare when I was an undergraduate gave me a great gift for which I have been grateful all my life. He taught his students that Shakespeare is vast, colossal, inexhaustible. Shakespeare, he insisted, is bigger than any of us, bigger than all of us put together. He instilled in us a respect, indeed a reverence, for Shakespeare’s plays, and this evoked a corresponding humility in us.

“We were assigned various critics to read, but in the end, he used to say, ‘the critics are all bad’ –including himself. The plays were indeed the thing. Only by submitting ourselves to the texts for months and years on end would we ever approach wisdom — by entering the world of the plays, by giving ourselves up to their shaping power, by allowing Shakespeare to reconfigure our horizons and open our eyes to new realms of understanding.

“This is totally different than the way Shakespeare is taught now. Students are encouraged to think of themselves as competent to interpret the text as they think best before they have allowed the text to have its way with them.”

For me, the biblical text is analogous to Shakespeare. It is bigger than we are, and points to a God who is as well. The art of preaching begins with listening, with letting the text have its way with us.

These days texts are approached from a thorough-going hermeneutic of suspicion, that is, an assumption that they all are cover for power interests. One word for this is “de-construction.” A text is examined and taken apart to reveal the ways it serves oppressive interests. It all sounds very smart. But at the end of the day you are left with . . . not much.

Or, less dramatically, we come at most every thing subjectively, boiling it down to “I like” or “I don’t like.”

And so we have effectively cut ourselves off from our own cultural inheritance, the civilizational treasures that we so desperately need at this time to fund humanity and renewal.

I remember reading the memoir of the English writer, Jeanette Winterson, who said that her adoptive father, a miner with an eighth grade education, “had” two texts from which he and her family read nightly: Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. They were not weathy people, but they were rich.



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