Hear the Gospel

Angel 3You have to love this new article at Psychology Today, Empathy and Dream-Sharing: New Research Shows a Connection.  The author is Kelly Bulkeley.


Dreams play an important role in the Bible.  Jacob’s ladder may be the most familiar. The interpretation of the dreams of Pharaoh by Moses may be the most dramatic. The flight of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus into Egypt, in response to a dream, may be the most important.

Dreams are not simply a literary device. Most of us experience dreams – even if we can’t remember all of them. Some dreams trouble us.  Some dreams excite us. Although science recognize their importance to our health and well-being and we all recognize the hold they have over us, dreams are not well understood.  Why exactly do we dream? Why do we dream the way we do?  Why do we dream about the things we do?

As Shakespeare famously wrote, “…we are such stuff as dreams are made on.”  We recognize that although the material of our dreams can be found in our daily lives and our dreams have agency in this world they seem to come from somewhere beyond. Dreams remain powerful, mysterious and ephemeral. Without our dreams — both day and night dreams — our very humanity can be at risk.


Sharing our dreams

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously had a dream. His sharing of that dream in a public space captured the hearts and minds of most Americans.

Most of us are reluctant but can sometimes be eager to share our own dreams. Recounting to others a fantastical dream that woke you up in the middle of the night can be therapeutic. It’s a way of unburdening yourself and helping you to make sense of your dream.

Research in the article linked to above reveals that most people are interested and willing to listen to the dreams of others (within reason.)

I’m interested to know how other people dream. I’ve had remarkable night dreams – including night terrors as a child — and wonder if others experience the same thing.  Do others dream in color or black and white?  Are the subjects of their dreams fantastical or ordinary?  Do they experience emotions that far exceed anything they have ever felt in their daily life? Do we all have this in common? I’d like to know. Listening to another person recount a dream they had can be insightful.  I may have never imagined that they were capable of such flights of imagination and fantasy.

Periodically acknowledging that we all dream, that those dreams help define us and play an active role in our lives helps to keep us in touch not only  with our own psyches but  with each other.  (We spend so much of lives asleep and in our dream lives, that it seems a pity to deny, repress or evade our dreams.)



When we read the Bible aloud, we encounter the lives of thousands of people.  We are witness to their struggles with daily life and their own encounters with the divine.  We are often privy to their dreams.  These dreams are revealing. They give us insight into their hopes and fears and often reveal God’s purpose.

When we read scripture aloud, we goal is to read with empathy.  We read to get closer to the experience of those lives included in the narratives of the Bible.  We want to know, who these people are.  What’s happening to these people? What do they experience?  Dreams are an important part of their experience and this understanding.

Greater empathy is possible when we learn of and are witness to their dream life.


The science

And so, according to the article, science seems to bear out this relationship between the sharing of dreams and empathy.

“Study 1 found that trait empathy is significantly correlated with the frequency of telling dreams to others, the frequency of listening to others’ dreams, and a positive attitude toward dreaming.”

The author suggests that dreams act as a kind of fiction that audiences can listen to and associate with. I would substitute with word narrative for fiction.  Dreams are facts unless you are purposefully inventing a dream. The Bible is comprised of narratives.  Real people experience real live events and have very real dreams.

Hearing those dreams recounted aloud can give us greater insight to the experience of those who dream and afford us greater empathy in our spiritual lives.


So, read scripture aloud.  Hear the Gospel. Listen to the dreams of others.  Grow in empathy. Share in a transformative experience.

John and Jesus

Irina Dumitrescu has published a captivating article at, entitled Reading Lessons. It is a bit of a long read, but well worth it. She offers a lyrical meditation on deep reading and the way in which her experience of, and appreciation for, reading has evolved over time.

I like the article because she touches on the physical experience of reading. Not just the active mechanics of  reading but the way in which reading evokes a physical response.

That reading aloud is a physical act is a key principle that informs the approach we take at Hear the Gospel. Here we embrace the physical aspects of reading.  Perhaps even more fully than Ms. Dumitrescu because a) we concern ourselves with reading ALOUD specifically, and b) scripture often places greater physical demands on the reader than other works of God or man. But it’s a pleasure to discover that the author’s experience of reading also touches on the physical.

Reading aloud is physical

While reading, the author describes how  she has experienced, “… flashes of grace, spaces of half an hour here and there when I could connect so directly to the language of a poem that it felt as though an electric charge were surging back and forth between my heart and the page…”

She describes the way in which her body, “used to help me find my way into difficult texts; it was a matter of synchronizing it, aligning it, relaxing it to accept the words.”

As Lay Readers, our encounter with the text of the Bible, and our acceptance of the experience it offers us, can have a powerful and even transformative effect on us; not just intellectually but physically. To reach and fully realize the text for listening audiences requires physical engagement. It requires not just articulation, but physical ENERGY. As readers, we are the catalyst for that experience that provides an “electric charge.”

Discovering the physical aspects of reading

I’ve long held that the best way to practice a speech or public recitation of any kind is to take a long walk (preferable out of earshot.) Speak out loud as you walk. Speaking, or even reading, while standing and walking requires physical engagement on the part of the reader. We breath more deeply, we project more, and our reading becomes infused with greater energy as a result of our physical exertion.

So, I was delighted by the author’s report, by way of Hazlitt, that Coleridge like to compose his poems while walking through the copse-wood or over uneven ground. The key to discovering the pace and rhythm of his poetry is to retrace those steps with your voice. Similarly, Wordsworth walked as he composed but preferred a straight gravel walk. The author reports that, “To read Wordsworth’s verse, I had had to imitate the movements of his body as he composed it.”

For me, the key to the writings of Paul was to imagine him on his feet, pacing while dictating letters to congregations of fledgling and often unruly Christians hundreds of miles away. This gave me a greater appreciation for the urgency and often emphatic tone of voice he adopts. He felt urge and understood the need to project in order to grab and hold the attention of a listening audience.

The terror of reading aloud

The author goes on to describe the writings of old English poets and poems, Aldhelm and Solomon and Saturn. The former likens training to read difficult texts to a kind of athletic or warrior training.

Saturn wants to hear the Lord’s Prayer so that he might be “gebrydded” by it, which is thought by some to mean frightened or even terrified by it. As Ms. Dumistrescu puts it, “Solomon and Saturn imagines that a text can grab the reader so profoundly and emotionally that the act of encountering it might feel like terror.

Reading aloud can feel like terror to some, but the idea here, I think, is that the act of reading and hearing scripture read aloud itself can have a physically transformative and profound effect on the reader and listener.

A bias for action

The author even describes the effect that rehearsing a play can have on actors – even untrained actors. She describes the way in which the text of a play invokes instinctive gestures and movements on the part of the actors. The text exerts this power over the human body and commands physical responses.

As readers, we engage with the text, respond to the text and invite — and even calling — the congregation to respond in kind.  We invite the audience to become physically engaged. The Bible has a bias for action. We are called to do something.

All of this calls to mind another core principle of reading scripture aloud. Any reading has both emotional as well as intellectual appeal. Emotional engagement requires physical engagement. We read not simply to parse words for meaning, instruction and law. We read for the experience. And that experience is physical.

Bible afire

Recently, I came across an interesting article at the UK publication,  The Week.  The article is part of its 52 Ideas that Changed the World series.  #3 on the list is Christianity.

52 ideas that changed the world – 3. Christianity

The article is simple. It’s the kind of article on Christianity you might have found in an old encyclopedia. (In fact, the article references the Encyclopedia Britannica!)

Separating the forest from the trees

I like the article because is presents a simple overview of the history of Christianity. Maybe oversimplified, but simple works here. With so many competing issues in the Christian church today, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. This article encourages you to look at the forest.

What struck me is the fact that every 500 years, there has been a major shift or schism within the faith:

  1. The adoption (one is tempted to say the co-opting) of the faith and ultimate collapse of the Roman Empire in the 4th-6th centuries.
  2. The split between Roman Catholicism and Easter Orthodoxy in 1054.
  3. The snowballing Reformation in the 1500’s.

Now, on or about the year 2,000, are we due for another titanic upheaval?  With declining interest in organized Christianity in this country today, it seems like something needs to give.

The challenges we face today

As I see it, Christianity in the US faces three principal challenges and myriad of micro-challenges. The big three are:

  • A perceived conflict between science and purely literal readings of the Bible.
  • The inability of most people to separate the human failings of the institution of the churche from religion and the Bible.
  • The weaponizing of the Bible for political purposes.

I think all three are leading to a profound sense of alienation. And interestingly, all three are Bible based. The Bible continues to be both used and abused, for good and ill. And right now, it’s on the receiving end of most of the blame.

The article references the Encyclopedia Britannica regarding the third point: “Throughout history, the Bible has been used to justify racism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice, and at its worst, the Church has actively acted “in collusion with tribalistic nationalisms (e.g., the ‘German Christians” and Nazism’)”.

Of course, the church is not always at its worst. Most often it is at its very best. And the Bible has played a leading role. Again, from the article  “…the King James Bible was “crucial” in bringing about everything from Western democracy to the civil rights movement.”

There are those who reject the Bible and all of religion because the Bible has been invoked for malevolent purposes.  There are those who claim that what they choose to read into and out of the Bible is invariably righteous. Both may be misguided. The article quotes the U.S. theologian H. Richard Niebuhr in observing, “…the many-sided debate about the relations of Christianity and civilization… is as confused as it is many-sided”.

Finding ourselves again in the Bible

I think we may be due for a change. That change could include a different conception of what it means to be “Bible-based.”  For the reformation that may have meant that ultimate authority rests in the Bible, not with the church hierarchy. Bible-based may have come to mean an understanding that a “literal” reading of scripture is not only authoritative, but exclusive.

Whatever the larger shift over the next 500 years, I think Christianity is most likely to be revitalized by an understanding that:

  • The Bible is available to everyone.
  • The Bible is at its best when it reveals the truth about the human condition, and not when it is seen simply as a source of purity laws and a prescription for salvation.
  • The Bible describes what it means to be human in a world inhabited by the living God.
  • The Bible describes what it means to live fully in that world – with ourselves and in our relationships with each other and in relation to the divine.

Hear the Gospel

If we read the Bible aloud and simply listen to the voices of those in the Bible who have had and are sharing this experience, that might be simply divine and truly Christian.



Attempting to read scripture aloud for meaning can be frustrating and even futile for the Lay Reader.  A recent article in by John Barton in TIME, Judaism and Christianity Both Rely on the Hebrew Bible. Why Do They Interpret It So Differently? , offers perfect examples as to why this is true.

Different Interpretations

According to Barton, the interpretation of a text often lies outside the text. Different religions, and different denominations within religions, interpret the same text differently.  Scripture alone can’t adequately explain what’s believed or what’s practiced by either Christianity or Judaism. Each rely on keys or guides to decode the meaning of the text. The two religions rely on separate bodies of preaching, Midrash, commentary and scholarly writing to reveal different meanings for the same shared texts.

The texts diverge even within denominations as translations, modern versions and editions proliferate. A subtle change in word choice (perhaps in an attempt to be more faithful to the original Greek) can suggest a dramatic reinterpretation. Is that intentional or collateral? Attempting to read a text aloud, in the precious few minutes allowed in the worship service, in such a way as to communicate every nuance in meaning would be a challenge for even the most skillful reader.

Read to experience scripture

That’s why I argue, as we read aloud, we should leave meaning and interpretation to those with specific training: to Pastor, Priest, Rabbi, or scholar. The most valuable contribution the Lay Reader can make is to read aloud in order to experience scripture. We read to discover and reveal the experience of people captured in the Bible. And we read for the experience itself of reading aloud and hearing scripture read aloud.

Barton draws a distinction between the focus of Christianity and the focus of Judaism in their approach to the narratives of the Bible. Christianity, he says, focuses on God, humanity and salvation. Judaism, on God people and land. I think this oversimplifies things, but we can make it even more simple for the Lay Reader.

It’s about people

Put God aside for the moment, and what the Bible really focuses on is people. Whether you call them people, humanity, nations, tribes or the crowd… the Bible is about people and their individual experience in the world, in relationship to each other, and in relationship to their God. Choose any perspective on the Bible and we encounter people. We encounter extraordinary people, living lives in extremis and having experiences which astonish us. Add God back, and those experiences become transcendent, transformative and sublime. That is what we can all focus on as readers in a public reading.  And that is more than enough.

According to Barton, Judaism regards the Bible as “a guide for living in the present.” I think that works for all of us. Reading scripture aloud is a shared experience between the reader, the audience and scripture. It happens in the present, in real time and space. The experiences of people in the Bible are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. The technology and political landscape have changed, but human nature has not.

Come together

When we begin to institute rule-making derived from a text, we begin to separate ourselves from others and great divides. Hearing scripture read aloud with a focus on shared experience, invites us all to get back together, even if only for a few moments, to experience a common narrative.

To re-purpose a phrase from Hamlet, this shared experience should be “a consummation devoutly to be wished.”