Learning to Listen
The privileging of listening at St John's is not surprising for a church that locates its identity within the Reformed tradition. Being in relationship with God is understood in terms of having heard Jesus, believing in him, and choosing to internalize and obey his words. David Morgan describes how within Protestantism, the sacred is regarded as 'information, as content-laden delivery of proper knowledge. God is in the information, the knowledge of salvation and divine intention for one's life' (2012: 177). Within the history of Protestantism, there was an emphasis on forming subjects who located their agency to believe and interpret the Word within themselves rather than in the authority of a mediating priest, creating the conditions for the emergence of the autonomous subject of the Enlightenment (Keane 2007: 219). This orientation to words and cognitive belief meant that information given through sensations and emotions was understood as 'knowledge' only after processes of categorization and filtering through the mind (Mellor and Shilling 1997: 23-4). Belief - in terms of an internal assent to propositions, mediated through hearing, accepting and then knowing Jesus as saviour - became separated from and privileged over experiences of the sacred gained through 'carnal knowing' (23).
This understanding of a relationship with God shaped by words and knowledge is still central within conservative evangelicalism. As Freddie, a curate at St John's stated, 'The life of faith is the life of the Word. "Abide in me", says Jesus, "abide in my words"'. Listening is described at St John's as the most important practice of the Christian life. David preached in one sermon:
There is only one priority that counts: listening to Jesus. There is only one thing that really matters: listening to Jesus. There is one item that trumps all others on the list of things that you need to do today, tomorrow, this week, next week, next month, the month after, until the day we die. Put this in place as the priority above all others.
David stated that listening must be 'personal and public', explaining that by 'personal' he meant a programme of daily Bible reading, study and listening to audio-recordings of sermons, and by 'public' he meant listening within church services and Bible study groups.
In Sunday services, listening to the Word was positioned as central, indexed spatially through the positioning of musicians on the floor, the Bible reading given from the stage above that, and the sermon preached from the elaborately carved pulpit above that. The sacrality of the Bible was emphasized in every service, for example when David said to the congregation, before the Bible reading: 'we come now to the heart of our meeting, the reason why we're here, to hear God speak to us. It is, you might say, the high point, to hear God's Word as it is read to us and explained'. He usually asked the congregation to 'please take hold of any electronic device and switch it off so that no one is disturbed while we're listening to God's Word', reinforcing the sense that this is the moment people have come for, and almost everyone I interviewed described the sermon as their favorite part of the service.
The leaders aimed to encourage techniques through which individuals could become 'better' listeners. In one Sunday service, one of the curates interviewed a member of the church staff about what being a good listener involves. She gave the congregation tips from her own practice about 'how to listen well', such as finding out the passage in advance from the church website and reading it before the service, listening for 'three or four key themes' to remember later in the week and writing notes during the sermon to return to during individual 'quiet times'. During the Bible reading and sermon, the congregation follow the text in Bibles and take notes on handouts or in notebooks. Whilst other conservative and charismatic evangelical churches often use PowerPoint slides during sermons, these are not used at St John's, a conscious decision to encourage people to focus on the ministers, who - all skilled orators - scarcely look at their notes while preaching, instead making eye contact with the congregation. Thus whilst listening is discursively privileged, this is bound up with a visual aesthetics, as the congregation look up to follow the expressive faces of the male preachers, look down at the words on the page, and jot notes on handouts.
The spatial arrangement of the congregation sitting to listen also functions as a visual marker, conveying shared dispositions of 'solemnity, respect, and submission to authority' (Morgan 2012: 176). The church interior is brightly lit, with white walls and utilitarian seating, and these visual forms together emphasize the centrality of 'listening', performing in their plainness as 'sounding boards' to return the words to the hearer more effectively. Thus the 'iconicity of the text' is underlined, as Morgan describes: 'bodies are disciplined to attune the ears to the prevailing soundscape and to predispose feelings to arise as if separate from the body; and spaces host sound and allow light to lift the eyes from objects and to illuminate the spaces and plain walls that reverberate with sound' (167). Visuality and other forms of embodiment are at work, but they perform unobtrusively, 'all the better to turn words into pure content, delivered in an unadulterated, immaterial form' (167).
This constructs an aesthetic boundary distinguishing 'authentic' Christianity as Word-based from other Christian traditions placing greater emphasis on ritual or emotion. David, for example, said in one sermon:
Reformed Christianity is always challenged by Deformed Christianity ... If somebody backslides from the Christian faith, they've been in a church like this, they very, very rarely completely throw over the whole boat. Normally what happens is you go into a deformed form of Christianity that isn't so focused on a final word and a finished work. And you start saying ... 'I need something extra to give me assurance, I need a worship leader to lead me into the presence of God, or I need a priest, charismatic catholic' ... That's not to say that there aren't real, genuine, lovely Christians in those movements. But actually, a Christianity that starts to rely on the visual and the tangible, and to add to the final word and the finished work, I need something extra, a fresh word, an extra experience to assure me that I'm in the presence of God, that's deformed Christianity.
Such discourse, distinguishing 'authentic' Christianity as Word-based from other forms of Christianity that 'rely on the visual and tangible' was frequently articulated. Yet despite this, members of the church were nevertheless conscious that their formation as listeners depends on specific modes of embodiment, for example, their engagement with music.
As many members of St John's have previously attended or have friends who attend charismatic evangelical churches, they are conscious of their distinctiveness from this life world, and this affects their understanding of music in church. Members of St John's describe songs as functioning pedagogically, reinforcing the main listening event as the sermon, rather than providing an opportunity to 'receive' the Holy Spirit as in charismatic churches. Rebecca, a 22-year-old graduate, said singing is 'a medium by which the Word of God can dwell in you richly'. While 'the sermon should be expositing the Word of God', the next day, 'when I wake up, what I'll be remembering in the shower is the song; so the song should be so full of the words of God that actually it's almost like helping it to dwell richly in me'. She said singing is not about the individual before God, but is 'horizontal: we sing to each other so that the word of Christ dwells in us richly ... so that it's really embedded in my thoughts'.
Through this metaphor of Christ 'dwelling' in them as they draw his words into themselves, belief and body are connected by their discursive practices and they understand their listening bodies as vessels for the divine. The metaphors of 'chewing' and 'hunger' that were frequently used - for example, in song lyrics such as: 'Speak, O Lord, as we come to you / to receive the food of your holy Word' (Getty and Townend 2005) - can be connected with this. De Certeau describes belief as knotting individuals into relations with others, functioning like sacrifice in the Durkheimian sense of establishing a society: 'by what it takes from individual self-sufficiency, it marks on what is proper to each (on the body or on goods) the existence of the other' (1985: 194). As listening to sermons is experienced as the most sacred moment in services, so this metaphor of 'eating' to describe listening can be compared with the sacrament of the Eucharist: as they 'chew' on these sacred words, their bodies are marked with the existence of the other through receiving the 'food' of the Word and this marks their social collectivity (cf. Coleman 2000: 127-8).
As Hirschkind described listening as a means of ethical self-formation, so sermons at St John's function to 'address the listener's conscience' (Keane 2007: 219). Ministers pose questions throughout the sermons, asking the congregation to consider their actions and attitudes in response to the ideals being outlined, and pose questions for them to ask each other afterwards. In one sermon, for example, Pete, one of the curates, stated that 'Our God [is] the God of heaven and earth, the one who knows all and sees all and hears all ... a God who chose to reveal himself in words. He's a God who cannot lie', and challenged the congregation 'Christian: be a man or woman of your word'. Members of the congregation then discussed at length over coffee whether they ever ended up telling 'white lies'. Through listening to such sermons, individuals learn to align their moral norms with the congregation's shared expectations and seek to fashion themselves as receptive to the words addressed to them by a God who, in Pete's words, 'knows all and sees all and hears all', a kind of transcendent panopticon (Foucault 1979). This means of governing the self is achieved through orienting attention to a temporal framework that transcends mundane urban life in the act of listening. As David stated in another sermon, 'As we come to Jesus then and sit at his feet and listen, we find salvation, light, life, wisdom, insight, eternity, peace, reconciliation'.
The church leaders suggest a variety of techniques for individuals to shape their bodies as vessels for the words they hear in addition to listening to sermons in church. These include writing out verses from the Bible reading and displaying them around the home, talking to and praying with others about the sermon, 'praying through' the Bible reading from the service later in the week, and writing out the notes taken during the sermon into a diary. Individuals are encouraged to download MP3s of sermons and play and discuss them with others in workplace or university Christian unions. During my fieldwork, the church launched an iPhone application and many subscribe to its podcast channel. Pre-dating these technologies, sermons were recorded on CDs and cassettes and individuals often had favorite sermons they listened to repeatedly. Jenny, an insurance worker, told me there was a talk on the Psalms she listened to whilst ironing that 'just hits the spot and encourages you to keep going', and said now she has an iPhone, she 'put[s] the earphones on and listen[s] to a talk in the middle of the night'.
The busyness of urban life means finding time to listen can feel pressured. Jenny said she would like to spend 15 minutes on 'quiet times' of prayer and listening on an average morning, but: 'It depends on how panicky I am about work, whether I can actually get my act together to realize that this is more important'. Thus although members of the church develop a desire to listen and sense that this should be their priority, this can feel an ongoing struggle. Thus David prayed for the congregation:
Thank you our loving Lord that you know everything about us. You know how busy we've made ourselves, you know the long lists of things we think we have to do, and we pray that it would become a joy to us to listen to the Lord Jesus day by day. Please put this discipline at the centre of our beings and as we listen, please enable us . to act on what you say.
In these words, we see an understanding of the evangelical subject as divided within himself, aware he is divided in his attention, and laboring to come closer to the ideal of the attentive, undistracted listener. Whilst listening can thus be seen as a means of directing attention to a transcendent beyond busy urban rhythms and spaces, it also introduces a tension into individuals as they become conscious that they do not necessarily always put listening as 'the priority before all others' in their lives.
The other space of 'public' listening at St John's is Bible study groups, each with around 10-15 members, meeting at church once a week. There was an informal atmosphere at meetings, which began as members arrived and chatted over supper. At 8 p.m., one of the ministers would address everyone from the stage and pray a short prayer, asking 'that we would listen as you speak to us through your Word'. Appointed group leaders would then lead the group's conversation, beginning by asking someone to open in prayer, then asking another member to read the Bible passage aloud. The style of discussions in many ways resembled academic seminars, and individuals prepared for meetings using set preparation questions. Leaders encouraged group members to focus on the text in front of them as the means of forming a disposition of attentiveness to the words of the text as the means of hearing God. Through their discussions, individuals learn to develop a particular temporal engagement with the text: they were asked to consider what the author of the text was trying to achieve at that particular point in history and what God was saying to them individually and as a church today through that passage. Although there has been a shift away from focusing on 'meanings' in rituals, these practices of listening to the words of the Bible read together in the group become dense with meaning as individuals learn to interpret this as the means by which God speaks to them. As one woman said to me, 'the longer you are a Christian, the more you realize how amazing it is that the Creator God has revealed himself to us in this book'. She picked up a Bible from the seat next to her and hugged it: 'it's the way God speaks to us, the way we get to know him'.
This listening might appear to threaten the independence of the autonomous modern subject. As David said in one sermon, 'the trouble is, listening to his Word in the Bible like this can seem so un-experiential. I mean, you're just sitting there, and ... it seems kind of just rather a passive thing'. Yet this listening is also interwoven with norms of autonomy and rationality.