March 25, 2004
Many scholars have written about why and how Christianity conquered the Roman Empire, but it would surely be amiss to neglect the way Christians remade the world by their words.
Christianity inherited the ancient rhetorical tradition and put it to a radically new use. If rhetoric was orphaned, as Cicero complained, with the passing of the Roman Republic into an autocratic Empire, then rhetoric found a new home when it was adopted by the bishops, priests, and theologians who came to dominate the Empire by proclaiming their good news.
Public speaking for the Romans was an essentially political skill, but during the Empire, public speaking no longer served the common good. The days when individuals could stand up and steer the course of Roman history with nothing more than the power of their words were over. Christians, however, rejuvenated rhetoric with their faith in the power of speech. Christians had a good story to tell, and they had learned to tell it well.
Christianity is inextricably tied to the history and the future of rhetoric because Christian theology puts public speaking at the center of the doctrine of divine revelation. The disciples did not seem to care what Jesus looked like, since no physical descriptions of him or likenesses were passed down to later generations. When they thought about the authority of Jesus’ teachings, and the claims he made on his own behalf, they concluded that Jesus was more than just another prophet to whom God had spoken. In Christ, the Word had become flesh. The early Christians concluded that the voice of Jesus was the very sound of God.
Proclamation was thus the means of passing on the faith. Faith comes through hearing, as the Apostle Paul wrote (Romans 10:17), but it also leads directly to public speaking (2 Corinthians 4:13). We all have experienced those moments when we do not know what we think until we open our mouths to speak. The same can be said about Christian faith. Christians do not know what they really believe until they publicly witness to their faith. To be a part of the biblical narrative is to be challenged to speak out in ways that test one’s vocal capacities. The fear of public speaking, far from being a merely psychological problem in the mind or chemical imbalance in the brain, actually tells us something crucial about what it means to be faithful to the Word of God. Stage fright is, in a very real sense, the way in which the Christian body processes the dynamic of faith and doubt.
The significance of understanding God in terms of speaking and hearing can be understood fully only if we recall the visual metaphors for knowledge that dominated the Enlightenment and extend back to Plato’s metaphysics. Although the cave dwellers in Plato’s famous allegory in The Republic hear sounds, the source of which they cannot correctly identify, their seclusion in the dark—and their subsequent visual confusion of shadows for reality—is the point Plato was most concerned to make. It is a point that has been well taken in the West.
Talking about knowledge as illumination and ignorance as darkness comes naturally to us. To be enlightened is to open one’s eyes; to think is to clarify what we see. The Bible’s "audio-centric" worldview that gives hearing primacy among the senses seems strange to us today. We so readily imagine knowledge as the broadest possible view of a topic that we rarely reflect on what we are missing when we focus on sight at the expense of sound.
But connecting knowledge to sight fools us into thinking that knowing is a private event, since you do not have to be seen in order to see. The very image of illumination conjures a quiet moment that takes place in one’s solitude, since light moves without making a sound. And the further you can see (the further from the object you are), the more impressive is your act of knowledge.
The origin of modern science lies in this silencing and distancing of nature; the world is measurable due to its "picturability." This is why Martin Heidegger defined modernity as "the age of the world picture." The primacy of vision turns the world into a thing and thus endows humanity with enormous powers, but it also makes humanity a spectator, alienated and estranged from the object of our inspection.
Hearing, by contrast, establishes a more intimate relationship between source and perception. We must be fairly close to the source of the sound we are trying to hear. Sound waves travel slower and weaken more quickly than light waves, and that physical limitation makes hearing a more relational form of knowledge.
Sight privileges speed. You can observe and analyze much in a moment’s glance.
But sound takes time, requiring the listener to wait until the sound is finished or the person has completely articulated his thought before we can understand what we’ve heard.
Sight is a sense of mastery and control, but in listening and speaking to another person, we give of ourselves intimately in a way that requires mutual submission: when I talk, you listen, when you talk, I listen.
The Bible says that speaking is what most makes us human, but even from a non-Biblical perspective, learning to speak is what makes us different than the animals. We attend to each other’s voices, and that makes community. You can’t have community without taking time for speaking.
Yet we live in an accelerating society. Our attention is fragmented. We’re put to multiple tasks simultaneously and we push ourselves to find the quickest way to process it all. We’re inundated by images and printed words, but the human voice is being eclipsed. We don’t talk as often to each other, and we don’t listen to each other speak. We have to make a conscious decision to read out loud or to articulate our thoughts; our sluggish tongues resist the effort. A phone call seems like an impossible and inefficient labor given the speed of email. Fewer people attend the theater or public lectures; they prefer movies, where the voice is technologically manipulated and subordinated to images and music. We demand that our public speakers be brief, our political speeches chopped into sterile but digestible sound bites, our sermons or presentations little more than accompaniment for graphics on a screen.
When comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin began defying the censors by using profane language in their televised appearances, the whole notion of sacred speech began to collapse. If there are no limits to speech—everything can be said because words are just words—then nothing that we say can convey the sacred or the profane. Without demonic speech, it is unlikely that we will be able to hear something of the divine in speech either.
So public speaking is on the decline. When we don’t take our speeches or our voices very seriously, we degrade our humanity. And to the extent that human speaking is no longer the mainstay of our life together, we have less possibility for true community.
Wabash and other liberal arts colleges are an exception to this trend. It’s no accident that they trace their history to Protestant roots—denominations whose faith was centered on the proclamation and hearing of the Word. Wabash is still a College made out of sound, where the chime of the Chapel carillon, the roar of Chapel sing, and the yells of the crowd after a Little Giant touchdown can be heard campus-wide; where students step onto the stage, raise their voices and sing, act, and debate; still a place that offers students the intimacy of hearing their professors in close quarters, where we know each other through the spoken word, and where community is built upon speaking and listening.
Wabash is also place where we still say you are not educated until you know how to speak. Perhaps not every Wabash student will be proficient in delivering a formal speech, but during the required oral examinations, which are going on as I write this, students have to be able to say what they believe and to present themselves through the spoken word.
Few colleges demand this of their students—one senior at a time professing what he has learned before three faculty "judges." It takes a lot of time, and, as a professor, you have to be patient—it can be work listening to them and pushing them. But the oral examination is the climax of a Wabash education; it’s good work that must be continued and expanded upon if liberal arts colleges such as this are to play their essential role in restoring the human voice to its rightful place in our lives.