"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Early Christian Listening

We have been seeing more attention paid in the scholarly world to the role of the senses in particular, and the body in general, in Eastern and early Christianity. Moreover, we have been discovering, especially in Evagrian and other early monastic literature, certain practices of spiritual insight and guidance that would not again be "discovered" and popularized until the advent of Sigmund Freud and the birth of modern psychology. One example of this from nearly a decade ago now is the work of the Orthodox historian and theologian Susan Ashbrook Harvey in her fascinating book, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination.

Then in 2013 Carol Harrison published a book whose paperback edition is forthcoming later this spring: The Art of Listening in the Early Church (Oxford UP, 2015), 320pp. Christianity, of course, places great emphasis on message, good news, teaching, and preaching: but to whom? What of those who hear this message? How do they listen? What is involved in the process of listening?

The virtues of this book, according to the publisher, include:
  • The first book to consider hearing in the early Church: Rhetoric, or the art of speaking, in the ancient world, has received a great deal of attention; the art of listening has been almost totally ignored.
  • Demonstrates how the art of listening influenced early Christian practice (catechesis, preaching, prayer) as well as theological reflection.
  • Uses cognitive science, contemporary philosophy, cultural anthropology, and musicology, in addition to theological reflection, to demonstrate that listening is best understood as an art rather than a matter of the rational capture of information.
  • Opens up a new approach to early Christian thought and practice which gives a place to the role of the silent listener (human and divine) and examines their role in influencing what is said/written.
About this book the publisher says:
How did people think about listening in the ancient world, and what evidence do we have of it in practice? The Christian faith came to the illiterate majority in the early Church through their ears. This proved problematic: the senses and the body had long been held in suspicion as all too temporal, mutable and distracting. Carol Harrison argues that despite profound ambivalence on these matters, in practice, the senses, and in particular the sense of hearing, were ultimately regarded as necessary - indeed salvific -constraints for fallen human beings. By examining early catechesis, preaching and prayer, she demonstrates that what illiterate early Christians heard both formed their minds and souls and, above all, enabled them to become 'literate' listeners; able not only to grasp the rule of faith but also tacitly to follow the infinite variations on it which were played out in early Christian teaching, exegesis and worship. It becomes clear that listening to the faith was less a matter of rationally appropriating facts and more an art which needed to be constantly practiced: for what was heard could not be definitively fixed and pinned down, but was ultimately the Word of the unknowable, transcendent God. This word demanded of early Christian listeners a response - to attend to its echoes, recollect and represent it, stretch out towards it source, and in the process, be transformed by it.
The Table of Contents:
Introduction: Voices of the Page
First Impromptu: The Other Side of Language or listening to the voice of Being
I: An Auditory Culture
1: Listening in Cultural Context
2: Rhetoric and the Art of Listening
3: Images and Echoes
II: Theme and Variations
4: Catechesis: Sounding the Theme
Second Impromptu : Playing ball: the art of reception
5: Preaching: Variations on the Theme
Third Impromptu: Singing the blues
III: From Listening to Hearing
6: The Polyphony of Prayer
7: From the bottom to the bottomless

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