Listen up

Culture & Language Proximity Principle
An image of Matt Britton Matt Britton
6th June 2024 5 minute read
A man holding up a sandwich with a halo illustrated over his head

‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’ James 1: 22

As a professional actor I have toured the country performing Mark’s Gospel verbatim from scripture. Long before stories of Jesus were written down, this is how the good news did the rounds. By word of mouth. The oral tradition. When it came to scribbling down those tales later, the biblical authors knew their readers were not in fact readers, but listeners. Like screenwriters writing to be seen and heard, John Mark knew his audience was illiterate and so he penned stories like a script: to be spoken aloud. 

It’s estimated that nine million adults in the UK are functionally literate, whilst three quarters of white males from under-resourced areas fail to achieve the government’s benchmark at the age of 16. According to the National Literacy Trust, there is a link between low levels of literacy and shorter life expectancy, depression, and obesity. But what about the cost to discipleship? 

In our twenty first century evangelical world, we are encouraged to have a quiet time. Christian lingo for a dose of coffee and a shot of bible reading. These ideals are beautiful in theory, but what about the dyslexic Christian? Or the asylum seeker? What about those who’s education has left them with a basic grasp of reading and writing? The stats suggest our most serious literacy challenges are with boys on estates. In other words, the urban church has rethinking to do around biblical literacy too. 

A casual glance at the New Testament tells me James did not write, ‘But be doers of the word, and not readers only…’ Fishermen and farmers of first century Palestine were not up at the crack of dawn with their flat whites and their genuine charcoal leather, thumb indexed bibles.  Nope. James is aware his readers are not readers. But listeners. ‘Hearers’ of the word. Perhaps our biblical literacy rethink takes its cue from James. Our traditional quiet time is me-centric. It relies on the individual pawing the pages of scripture alone. Listening is a communal activity. At least, it would have been for those first Christians receiving the latest letter from Paul or Peter or James. Wisdom read aloud to a gathering of believers corporately. Engaging with God’s word as part of Christian community, wrestling the intellectual complexities together, as opposed to googling a commentary alone. 

Whether performing Mark’s Gospel in prison, primary school, personal care homes, or with communities of homeless people, I have found that the communal act of listening is powerful. Groups of people affected by drug addiction were able to focus for the entire sixteen chapters of the gospel. As could older adults in care homes with dementia. Prisons too, where, it is claimed, well over half of the inmates have a reading level below that of an eleven-year-old. There is a hunger for the word obstructed by illiteracy. Perhaps the answer to quiet times is actually ‘aloud moments.’

At this point, you may be questioning whether your own church has the attention span to sit through a long bible-reading spoken aloud. Firstly, let us not forget Ezra read scripture “from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” (Nehemiah 8: 3) His listeners would be working class, illiterate followers. Ah, but nowadays we have shorter attention spans. Really? We binge boxsets in one sitting, we listen to two hours of Joe Rogan’s podcasts, we sit through ninety minutes watching twenty-two millionaires chasing a bag of wind. Surely, we have the capacity to engage with God’s word for more than ten minutes. Secondly, many books in the bible can be read well under half an hour. The book of Ruth should take no more than fifteen minutes. Philippians too. Whilst it’s true Isaiah and Jeremiah would take you from morning to lunch, the entire minor prophets could be read in just a couple of hours. 

Obviously, there is a recognition here that acting is a craft, and most ministering on estates have not dedicated themselves to three years of drama training. But the same could be said of those early-church leaders reading Paul’s latest prison letter. I know a woman in her sixties who runs a High School lunchtime club solely dedicated to reading scripture with teenagers. No tuck shop, no games, no video clips to keep it culturally relevant. And yet her Gen Z group faithfully return each week. Reading scripture aloud should not require a trained actor to keep people engaged. The power is in the word. Not the reader. 

 No actor recites ‘To be or not to be’ in front of the paying public without first putting in the long hard graft of rehearsals. In other words, practice. Of course, nobody in ministry has five weeks spare to rehearse half a chapter of Hebrews, but it does beg the question, how much practice is going into reading scripture aloud? There is no doubt most preachers set aside a chunk of time each week to carefully craft a sermon. What if that sermon was already crafted? In the form of Colossians or Ephesians. If the usual prep time of scanning commentaries, searching for quotes, stories, and analogies, was instead redirected to reading Galatians over and over in front of the mirror – perhaps our Sunday mornings would begin to resemble those early Christian gatherings.

I close with a story from a hot day in a church on a Midlands estate. I had just finished a ninety-minute open-air retelling of Mark’s Gospel. A man who had been drinking all afternoon made a beeline for me. For a moment I thought I might be assaulted. Verbally if not physically. ‘Can I just say something?’ he slurred. Here we go. Bring on the backlash. ‘If every Vicar read the bible like that, the churches would be full.’ My ego likes to think he was complimenting my performance. My skepticism says it was just the booze talking. My faith, however, tells me that scripture read with passion is contagious. In prisons, schools, pubs, churches, even grass verges on estates- God’s word is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword (Hebrews 4: 12)

Written by

Matt Britton

Matt is an actor, writer, and theatre-maker, often staging theatre for audiences and participants with restricted access to the arts. Committed to social change, his inclusive projects see him working in prisons, estates, and with those identified at risk of offending.

His most recent project has been a one-man verbatim retelling of Mark’s gospel that’s been seen by thousands nationally on estates, in schools, in pubs, at homeless drop-ins, as well as at festivals, churches and beyond.

Matt is content lead for Proximity, helping to produce spoken words, write articles, and liaise with contributors.

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