Hear the Gospel

Voices in the Wilderness

A Voice in the Wilderness

Rich Cohen, posted what I thought was a nice article in the New York Times, Where does Rabbi Voice Come From?

He identifies a common speech pattern and tone among Rabbis he’s known and calls it “Rabbi Voice.” He sets out to research its origin. He describes the “voice” as he hears it and links to some comic treatments by Wood Allen and Jerry Seinfeld (suggesting that Rabbi Voice is widespread and has been around for a long time.) But, he notes, not much serious consideration or writing has been devoted to the development and persistence of Rabbi Voice.

The article received blowback from at least one NYT reader, complaining that this was a stereotype and offensive. But Mr. Cohen never claimed that ALL Rabbis use Rabbi Voice. Some do and his description of what he was and is hearing when he attends synagogue on Fridays was recognized, familiar and acknowledged by many he consulted in the field.

There’s also a sweet sentimentality in his consideration of the phenomenon. He’s not judgmental or even calling for the disappearance of Rabbi Voice. He ultimately finds it comforting and reassuring.


Poet Voice

There may not be much literature out there on Rabbi Voice, but the incidence of a recognizable speech pattern among professionals and clergy in particular is not unique to Rabbis. It’s not dissimilar to Poet Voice, the distinctive voice many poets adopt when reading their work aloud, which has received a lot of attention.

Mr. Cohen’s article caught my attention because the conclusion he comes to is that the voice is as important as what’s being said. The tone of voice provides resonance and depth – and generational continuity — that goes beyond face-value meaning of the words.  Like a mother’s lullaby, the recognizable sound of the human voice fulfilling a recognized role triggers an emotional response in the listener.

My father and the fathers of many of friends growing up were members of the clergy. I’ve listened to a wide variety of ministers, pastors, and priests and a few Rabbis in countless religious services over the years.  I certainly recognize a recurring speech pattern in much of the sermons, baptisms, weddings, counseling sessions and readings from scripture on which I was at the receiving end.

“Little Johnny tried to be a good boy….” began a typical homily in our local community churches in that familiar Norman Rockwell-ish pastoral cadence that sounds warm and friendly unless you are “Little Johnny” and know you’re not really all that good or even really trying all that hard to be good.

There are many reasons speech patterns take hold in any profession. Here are links to sites and articles including a recent academic study about Poet Voice.

Beyond Poet Voice: Sampling the (Non-) Performance Styles of 100 American Poets, Marit J. MacArthur, Georgia Zellou, and Lee M. Miller 

Poet Voice and Flock Mentality: Why Poets Need to Think for Themselves, Lisa Marie Basile

 [saUnd] literary magazine

I think many of the reasons for the development of the Poet Voice style also apply to the clergy and lay readers in the mainline protestant churches.


Pastor Voice

In the case of mainline protestants, who have always placed a high value on education and intellectual rigor, there’s what I like to call Authentic Academic style; a kind of all-knowing, literary quote-dropping, bemused detachment seasoned with a soupcon of humanist sentimentality.

What’s often missing here – especially in the reading of scripture aloud – are the imperatives of a compelling performance before a live audience. The presenter wants to be safe, and so wraps themselves securely in tradition. That tradition most often favors the neutral. Emotion is dismissed as belonging to an order that is lower than intellectual rigor (context and commentary in the case of readings from scripture.) The principles of live performance are generally ignored and covered over by the “Voice”.  “Actorly” and “theatrical” are pejoratives and are to be avoid as much as mortal sin.


Reading Scripture Aloud

But the goal is not and never has been to be actorly, theatrical or overly dramatic when reading from scripture. When referred to in this context, theatrical and actorly usually mean BAD acting. There are bad actors and bad theatrical performances just as there are bad sermons and disappointing scripture readings. We don’t want bad. We want to promote the good. Sermonizing can also be a pejorative, but we don’t attempt to banish sermons. So, don’t condemn performance to perdition. Be wary of performing, but do not discount the important principles of live performance.

A first principle of live performance is: don’t be boring. The problem with promoting a recognizable “neutral” speech pattern in readings from scriptures is that it can easily become predictable and boring. When overdone, it’s at best hypnotic: comforting…. soothing… calming… but it doesn’t challenge the congregation in the slightest. The familiar neutral voice insulates us from the words.  Scripture becomes a soporific.

As the study on Poet Voice referenced above points out, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “neutral” as “Exciting no emotional response; provoking no strong reaction; innocuous, inoffensive.” It continues, “Displaying . . . no overt emotion; dispassionate, detached.”

Surely that’s not what we want from readings of scripture. We need voices that faintly echo one crying in the wilderness.

Jesus and discliplesThe Biblical Guide to Reporting

Hometown“…and they took offense at him…”

This Gospel passage from Mark 6:1-13 is included in the revised common lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The text is from the NRSV. You can hear a recording of this passage here.

Reading the Gospel aloud invites the audience to experience human encounters with the divine as revealed in the Bible. We can leave interpretation and meaning to members of the clergy and other scholars. What we are most interested in as lay readers is the human experience found in the narrative.

First Impressions

This reading has three distinct sections:

  1. Homecoming with its initial rising expectations.
  2. Rejection and realization that sometimes change and progress require the leaving of home. Those who know you as one thing often have difficulty seeing you as something different and new. They see you through their own and same old paradigms and can’t let them go.
  3. Renewal with an energized sense of purpose. A realization that you have to make your own way in the world. The past may be sweet but it can be ultimately constraining.

Where is your hometown

For many people, their hometown is where their sense of identity and belonging begins. Origin myths reside in their hometown. Key milestones in their lives have been celebrated there. Hometowns may be where their “stuff” is. They may feel longing and nostalgia associated with their hometown. It may be a safe place to return to, a place where friends and family are still to be found, a place where they are recognized and feel understood.

Others may not have had a happy childhood. They may continue to have difficult lives. Their hometown may be where old “ghosts” reside. They may feel as if their true selves were constricted and never recognized in their hometown – that they were never given their due — and that they had no choice but to leave.  Many do leave and never look back.

We may feel a rush of emotion and be glad upon seeing old friends from our hometown again after long absences. But then, we may quickly realize why it is we haven’t sought them out in a long time or why it is they may not seem as glad to see us we are to see them.  We change.  We no longer play the roles assigned to us by others long ago.

When I go “home”, I almost invariably and quickly find myself stretched out on the floor taking a nap. It may be that I am only too glad to embrace the old comforts, to surrender to old family dynamics and let others make all the decisions or hope others will wait on me.  It is easy to slip into a passive state.  But soon it’s time to re-enter the real world; to reactivate ourselves and reclaim our lives in the present.

In this passage, his hometown may initially beckon Jesus, but his old acquaintances seem to fall short of expectations. He has family there and is clearly well known.  He is allowed to teach in the synagogue. But rather than being warmly embraced by his neighbors, he’s quickly rejected. To his neighbors, he seems changed and to have forgotten who he is. “Is this not the carpenter?” He’s amazed by their unbelief.

Actions speak louder than words

I think the passage also dramatizes the importance of combining speaking, hearing and listening with ACTION.  It is important not only to hear what Jesus is saying, but to recognize what he is doing and to see what he does next.  Jesus teaches in the Synagogue and listeners hear him but do not respond. He has no power there.  Even the aphoristic, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown…” seems to have no effect.  Nothing he says does seems to matter. It is only when Jesus becomes active — goes out into the villages and issues a call to action to his disciples — that things begin to happen.

Faith and power

Jesus has no recognized power in his hometown (he does manage to cure a few sick people!) He is amazed by their unbelief. Jesus and his disciples must actively go out into the villages around them to realize and exercise any power.

The reading makes clear that transformative power is only present where faith is present.  We move through the world sowing faith and finding where faith has taken root.  That is where were the power of the holy spirit is to be found.

We need to go “about among the villages” to find ourselves and realize our full potential and it is better to do this two by two.

 Text Analysis

First impressions of any reading from the Gospels are not based on an interpretation of the text. They result from speaking the words we are given in the text.  We take them at face value.  We’re not surmising that the neighbors of Jesus fail to recognize his new calling.  We’re told so, “Is this not the carpenter?”  If you read those words aloud, you can see them looking at each other and hear the disbelief in their voices…along with a rising sarcasm.

As Lay Readers, we analyze the text for key word choices.  Again, not so much to unlock meaning, but to unlock the emotion of those participating in the events recounted and the experience of that emotion.  “Hometown” is such a word.  Hometown is the first key word in this passage. The Bible does not say Nazareth.  It says, hometown.  And with it comes all the emotions described above.  Even the sounds of the letters in hometown are warm and inviting, the “m” and “n” sounds resonate and drift into lasting memories.  Don’t miss or skip quickly past that word.

The neighbors in the Synagogue listen to Jesus and heard what he is saying but also remark upon his deeds, what he has done by his hands.  Or do they really heard him?  Do they really appreciate what has been done by his own hand?  Or does their unbelief make that impossible?  But I think the fact that speaking is inexorably linked with doing:  teaching, healing is purposeful.

Unbelief a word for the dead.  It is worn as a hood that covers your eyes and obscures every vital thing surrounding you or renders it invisible. It is a heavy word. Unbelief is a place to become mired in.

Repent.  Jesus is not discouraged.  He immediately goes out into the surrounding villages to teach. He sends his disciples out with clear instructions. “Repent” is active.  We are asked to DO SOMETHING.  Jesus recovers his power through active engagement.

The disciples may still be rejected.  But he saves them from the loneliness of rejection by sending them off two by two.  He instructs them to brush rejection off and go on to the next household. The only profit all those who will not listen will gain from the disciples and their attention is the dust on their feet. They reject the opportunity to be anointed with oil fail to see the demons cast out and the sick cured. It is their choice and their loss.

Reading this passage aloud

In this reading we want to make a clear demarcation between the three sections. The homecoming is warm and hopeful.  The resistance is short, hard and cold. The recovery is swift, deliberate and hopeful, gaining in momentum.  Each of these is reflected in the voice we choose to use.

Find the key words and give them time to resonate with the congregation or other listeners.  We are inviting the audience to enter into a shared experience.

Rather than the anchor or headline of the reading, “A prophet is not with honor….” is a throw-away line. “Oh, well…”, you can almost hear Jesus sigh. He is not angry, he is not offended.  There is really nothing to be said, there is only something to be done.

Then there is a rush of activity and a sense of movement.  The instructions to the disciples are clear, crisp and purposeful.  Repentance, the casting out of demons and the curing of the sick is a purely human endeavor. We don’t need clothes, props or technology. All we need is a staff and an ally in faith. We do not venture forth alone but in twos. If there is no one else, let your staff be your comfort.

Do we really feel most at home when we are doing what it is we are called to do? Is that our hometown?

What do you hear in this Gospel passage?



AngelI admit it. I succumbed to clickbait.

I was reading a news article online this week and, as I neared the last paragraph, my eye was drawn to a box of  “trending” headlines further down the page. The headline that caught my eye was, of course, surrounded by content served up by an advertising company to drive click-through and generate ad impressions.  So, the headline was typically sensational: Nun says Mary was likely not a virgin.

The article turned out to be from the New York Post over a year ago and concerned a cheerful looking catholic nun in Spain who it was suggested opined that Mary may not have been a virgin. It seemed to her entirely likely that she and Joseph loved each other and therefore where not strangers to one another. This realization did not undermine the sister’s faith. It simply seemed natural to her for the time and place in question and of little consequence.

The outrage was immediate, widespread and menacing. The church apologized for the nun’s comments and offered clarifications, and the nun then apologized to anyone who might have been offended. No one apologized to me for representing that a headline that was over a year old was identified as “trending.”

AND, this is why as lay readers we don’t’ concern ourselves with interpretation. Clergy can do that. We can only and quickly get into trouble. If a nun can get into trouble, just think of what might happen to us!

When scripture readings are used as the launch-point for the sermon, it’s not atypical for the minister or priest to first recount in their sermon the events of the story just read by the lay reader and then embellish the narrative. This is usually done in one of two ways.

  1. Historical context. This is an attempt to punctuate actions or behaviors by according them historical precedent. An offering of water to drink is often preceded by “As was the custom at the time…” Historical context is meant to explain why someone is doing what they are doing, and to attribute thoughts to them that are not mentioned in the text: “He would have thought that it was strange…” We don’t know if any of this is true.
  1. Historical fiction. This is an attempt to “fill out” the story using modern literary technique. Presumably this script doctoring is meant to make the story more vivid or dramatic for modern audiences: “It was a hot day, the apostles were tired and were likely quarreling among themselves…”  (I’ve always been interested by how few descriptive passages and even adjectives are employed in the Bible. We don’t’ get passage like, “The towering trunks of the palms by the cool blue waters of the oasis, bent gracefully in the gentle evening breeze. The camel tails switched, sending flies buzzing in search of safer places to alight. Lamps appeared behind darkened tent walls like lone stars popping into focus in the night sky…” I think that is by design. It’s all irrelevant.)

The nun was, I think, guilty of a strange combination of both fictionalizing and contextualizing.

I’m always wary of these kinds of clarifications and “improvements” to scripture, even when offered by pastors, priests, ministers and anyone else given a voice of authority. It’s all conjecture and, I think, obscures the purpose of scripture reading. Rather than illuminating scripture, it dilutes and reduces the power of the language. It attempts to normalize something that is anything but normal.

Let it go.

We don’t need it.

The reading illuminates the experience of those encountering the divine and divine purpose. It’s not about historical detail. Mary’s declaration, “I am the handmaiden of the Lord” is the ultimate expression of an overwhelming experience and flush of emotion that transcends all time, space and historical context or detail. It is not a legal or medical condition. There is no prior human experience that can prepare a young woman of any age, of any circumstance, at any time in history for this encounter with the divine.

It’s not up to us as readers to explain any of this. It’s only up to us to invite listeners to hear and convey to them – through the words given to us – even the faintest glimmer of what Mary is experiencing. Right here. Right now. What does it feel like to surrender yourself willingly to something which is almost beyond comprehension?

Don’t succumb to temptation. It’s not fan fiction we want. Hear the Gospel.