Book Review – What Do They Hear?

What Do They Hear?: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew by Mark Allan Powell


This is a fantastic read.  It’s short and engaging.  The topic is fascinating whether you stand in the pulpit to preach or sit in the pew listening.  The book deals with communication, and the curious fact that six people can read a single, identical text, then come to six different conclusions, or see six slightly different things, or ignore certain details while focusing on others.  It is a reminder that what seems clear to us in our own speaking and writing may not be as clear as we think – or clear in a very different way than we anticipated.

A caution – there are philosophers and language experts who will take this to ultimate extremes, claiming that communication is literally impossible because we can never be sure either of what we have said or written, and more importantly what the other person(s) have heard or read.  They create a massive vacuum of uncertainty, where the very act of communication ultimately comes to be pointless, an exercise in futility with no certainty.  We are truly alone.

This book does not go down that road.  But it does emphasize how our personal contexts can nuance what we hear or read, so that the same text is heard or read differently by different people.  Powell makes this clear through examples of his own research utilizing two major categories – cross-cultural interpretation and clergy/laity interpretation.

Powell cites several personal experiments where he asked groups of pastors and lay people to read a text and then answer questions about meaning or the effect the text had on them.  Pastors and lay people tend to have very different answers from each other.  Likewise, pastors from different cultural backgrounds tend to interpret various teachings of Jesus differently.  Pastors in America emphasize certain things in a parable in ignore others.  Pastors from Russian emphasize different things in the parable and ignore others.  Same for Pastors from South Africa.  

Truly eye-opening.  It’s one thing to know intellectually that we are shaped by our culture and that this shaping literally conditions us for what we see and don’t see around us.  It’s another to see that at play with something like the Bible.

Pastors may be unsettled by this book, as it leads us to the knowledge that we aren’t in control, even of our own sermon.  Hopefully every pastor would acknowledge this intellectually, but it can be disconcerting to see it in action and be reminded of it that way!  

Powell’s contrasts of how pastors and lay people hear certain parables of Jesus is also fascinating.  Pastors tend to identify with Jesus, lay people tend to identify with the disciples and other figures in and around the parable.  Pastors have been taught to know and teach what the parable means, lay people are more able to hear the parable as teaching them something applicable to their lives here and now.  They are more inclined to have the parable work on them, rather than pastors who tend to work on the parable.  




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