The Spoken Word vs. The Written Word

The Spoken Word

I’ve been writing about lectio divina this week, as part of my next book project on Reading for the Common Good I’m fascinated by the early monastic practice of (almost always) reading aloud, which not only was common practice in that day, but also served to engage the body as well as the mind in learning and meditating upon scripture.  As part of my research, I encountered the following passage from Eugene Peterson’s Eat this Book.

I had never really thought about how important the spoken word is and how the written word is a reduction of the spoken word, eliminating such important context as body language, tone of voice and even background noise.

I find myself in the odd predicament that I resonate with Peterson’s preference for the spoken word, and yet here I am having devoted so much of my life to the written word (as editor of The Englewood Review of Books) and in the process of writing (yes, writing, not speaking) a book about reading.  The only sense I can make of this situation is that I emphatically believe that reading is only helpful insofar as it guides us deeper into conversation, in our churches and neighborhoods. In our late modern age in which we are –to use the words of Neil Postman — amusing ourselves to death, the discipline of reading, and particularly reading that is resonant with the scriptural story and our embodiment of Christ in our local church communities, can be a bridge out of the self-oriented land of amusement (note the roots that mean “not thinking”) and into a conversational life in which we are seeking to hear, to speak and to discern the all-reconciling word of God in our congregations and our neighborhoods.
Here is the passage from Peterson. I highly recommend reading from the middle of this page (starting with “One more caveat lector…”) through the middle of page 87 (“cragginess of the prophets… and Jesus”).


What do you think?  Is Peterson right?  Is the spoken word preferable to the written one?  And if so, how do we further cultivate local cultures that deeply value conversation and the spoken word?


  • drewpop

    I’m reminded of a man in my congregation who would say something akin to this: “when I read the scripture passage before the service, I can’t make heads or tails of it. It might as well be in Greek. But when you read it, when I hear you read it, it all of it sudden makes sense.” Note: it made sense to him, not because of the insightful sermon that followed (!), but simply because I read it, aloud, with inflection, passion, and feeling appropriate to the text. He had already read it, but he needed to hear it.

    • erbks

      That’s a great story… thanks! I’ve had a similar experience — to the man in your congregation — a few times in my life. ~Chris

  • David

    Two comments – in our church community we encourage people to read a book together over several months and that stimulates conversation and engagement.
    Also I have noticed that listening to an audio book often offers a richer, than reading – almost three-dimensional, depending on the reader. Reading aloud also slows everything down.

  • bob

    One concern I have with over-emphasizing the literal act of hearing is that there are many who cannot aurally hear (i.e. the Deaf), but who can read and who can communicate through non aural means. There are cultures with languages that are not spoken. They are sign languages, and they exist in most countries.

    And when I read the scripture silently to myself, I can read it dramatically with inflection, emotion, and variations in speed, just as though it were being spoken. When I read with interest and desire (rather than to check a box), then what I read captures my emotion, my imagination, and my heart and soul. I don’t understand everything I read, but neither do I when it is spoken to me. Honestly I am much better at processing what I read than what I hear (in general, not just the Bible).

    I don’t think that when the Scripture says that faith comes by hearing, that it is excluding non-aural hearing. I think that this point is supported by Paul’s reference in this famous passage about faith to “hearing” the Creation’s testimony about God (see Psalm 19), an act that would be visual and more importantly spiritual. And of course the gospel message must be transmitted verbally in some way, whether aurally or visually.

    Just my opinion. :)