When we practice oral Scripture interpretation, we get a clearer view of God.
If you were to observe me during the reading of the Word on a Sunday morning, you would find my eyes either fastened on the readers’ faces or on the vivid blues, reds, and oranges of the large stained-glass window behind them. I do not follow along in my Bible or the Scripture in the bulletin. Instead, I listen intently.
In The Presence of the Word, Jesuit communications scholar Walter Ong, wrote that for centuries the reading of Scripture aloud drew its listeners, without their own Bibles, into Christian community. Before the printing press in the West—and subsequently, the Reformation—the only copy of the scriptural text was in the care of the local clergy.
What was the role of this reader like in the past? I turned to my colleague, Jonathan Loopstra, for an answer. Jonathan is a scholar of the history of Christianity in the Middle East. He starts our conversation by quoting the Syrian-language expert, Sebastian Brock—the early Church had three “lungs,” not two: Greek, Latin, and Syriac.
Jonathan opens a massive book with a folio on each page, an image of a manuscript in an orthography I don’t recognize. It’s Scripture written in Syriac. Each image, he tells me, is from a teaching manual, which would have been owned by a deacon or priest. He points to dots below and over the lines of script. Six hundred years after Christ, this system of markings appeared beginning at a school in the city of Nisibis, now Nusaybin, Turkey. A millennium after, teachers of reading wanted to follow this tradition of reading Syriac aloud. The dot system isn’t entirely understood, but scholars believe that they stood for things such as major and minor pauses, intonation for questions, emphasis on certain words, and expressions of supplication, wonderment, and command.
In other words, ancient clergy, reading to their listeners, practiced oral interpretation. Recently, a reader in our church demonstrated oral interpretation in her reading of a passage in Genesis—she used a plaintive voice as Moses talked to God about fearing to go before Pharaoh. The room increased in silence, and my eyes lifted off the stained glass to her face. We listened more carefully.
Below are some helpful tips, some generalized from books about orally interpreting Scripture.
- Prepare earlier in the week. I give myself a few days if I can, making the reading my devotional meditation. I cut and paste the text into a document with enlarged font and italicize, draw lines, and write notes. Even if I read from the Bible at the podium, I’ve found that I tend to follow what I practiced.
- Read it as literature. According to one expert, “It is not enough to know what it means. You must also know how it means what it means.”1 Books on oral interpretation of Scripture give counsel on literary style, but as members of our story-driven culture, we already have some internalized resources.
If the action is rising, I know to raise my volume and reading rate because I hear background music doing this in a movie. To know where I am in the action, I read the chapter before or after my text, or more if possible. I delete the verse numbers to help me to see the text in its literary genre, and I take out any line breaks that are based on the columnar format of most Bibles so that I don’t assume I should pause where the line ends. I make my own paragraph breaks to indicate pauses.
- Read it as prayer. In liturgically oriented churches, reading Scripture is a form of prayer. Many of David’s psalms or Moses’s conversations with God are cries of prayer. They are charged with emotion. If Scripture reading is prayer, then it is a disservice to read the text as if it were dead. I ask Jesus to help me to pray with him. I want to join in his intercession to the Heavenly Father for the church (Rom 8:34). Books on oral interpretation of Scripture recommend reading with empathy—I imagine the writer or speaker and attempt to feel what he or she would be feeling.
- I read emotional quotations of Bible characters with matching emotion (although not so overly dramatic that the listeners are distracted from the words).
- I pause after commands and questions. (Wouldn’t the original writer have wanted them to sink in?) I pause before a new thought to let the last one be absorbed.
- If two things are being compared, I give greater weight to my voice on the positive thing.
- Make eye contact. This recommendation startled me in the oral interpretation books, because I fretted that I would be calling attention to myself rather than the Word. But the argument is simple. I am putting on a persona from the Scripture, forming a connection with the listeners—eye contact contributes. Praying with Jesus, I am representing him. If he were standing up there, I would hope for his eye contact. Secondly, lifting one’s head also betters one’s posture as in the next point.
- Control your air intake. I stand tall and breathe from my diaphragm or waist area. This posture helps me to project my voice well. Then, I take a breath only when it makes sense to pause according to the text. If it seems I need to increase my breaths, I find more places for fitting pauses in the text when I practice.
Ong mused that Protestants may have “an unarticulated feeling that without reading [for oneself] one does not have quite the proper feel for words or for God’s word itself.” Sometimes, I wonder when I’m the one in the pew if I’m actually trying to pin down God’s Word by following along visually in Scripture, not only to understand it but to grasp it as if to control it. A way of practicing dependence is to use a medium I’m not as comfortable with—the auditory one instead of the visual one. What community would the Spirit affect if churches were to invite a mode of active listening as a body of believers?
- Charlotte I. Lee, Oral Reading of the Scripture, 1974, Houghton Mifflin
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.