Reading or speaking the Bible?

Words are the lifeblood of relationships. When a person speaks to another, the speaker reveals something of themselves to the hearer; when the hearers listens, they come to know the speaker better. Of course, that depends in part on the truthfulness of the speaker and the attentiveness of the listener, but we get the point: words communicate and bring into relationship.

In respect to this aspect of communication, the written word is no different from the spoken word. Writing is an act of speech; reading is an act of listening. This is helpful to remember, for while in our world speaking and writing or hearing and reading are largely held apart, it has not always been so. Particularly in memory cultures, the written word often functioned as the preservation of or aid to recall the spoken word. In other words, the text both reflected the spoken word, and was written to be spoken. In this vein, it is curious to note that the Hebrew (Old Testament) word for ‘read’ is the Hebrew word to ‘proclaim’.

The Bible is the written word of God: it is ‘God-breathed’, inspired by the Spirit of God that we might know God. As we encounter the Scriptures, however, we see just how much of the Bible is designed to be read out loud: whether the law (Deuteronomy 31), the Psalms, the stories, the letters (Colossians 4), and so on. The word of God written has a highly ‘performative’ nature to it.

Let me highlight just three implications of this. The first has to do with our public Bible reading. Would it make a difference to the way our readers read—and to the way we listen—if we thought of our readers as ‘speaking the Bible’ rather than ‘reading the Bible’?

Second, how do we promote the presence of the word in our lives? The ability for people to comprehend spoken words far outstrips written words. Children are the most obvious example, but those with reading difficulties are another. What we may find difficult to do with the text and our eyes, we find far easier with our ears. How, then, might we think about family Bible reading or personal Bible reading—perhaps we steer towards Bible listening?

Third, while the Bible has little to say about the ethics of reading (although it is there), the Bible has a lot to say about the ethics of listening. What does morally responsible reading look like? Especially when it comes to listening to the word of God?