On the Pleasures of Not Hearing

Frank Kermode, in his very interesting (and secular) book on the gospels, The Genesis of Secrecy: On Interpretation of Narrative (Harvard, 1979) quotes the 1930’s novelist Henry Green: “the very deaf, as I am, hear the most astounding things all round them, which have not, in fact, been said. This enlivens my replies until, through mishearing, a new level of communication is reached” (p. 13). (I’ve experienced this first hand from both ends: “Is this Thursday?” “Yes, me too. Let’s get something to drink.”)

This is both a humorous and helpful observation that describes a lot that goes on in conflicts of all kinds. (I say revenue increases, you hear tax and spend. You say spending cuts, I hear attack the poor.) People have ears (as the gospels declare), but do not hear.

It applies, for instance, in the case of the culture wars at various levels. Christian fundamentalists/evangelicals and secularists, for instance, are both largely ‘deaf’ in terms of the others’ worlds. It is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, to observe the apoplexy of secularists when they cite age-old evangelical commonplaces as signs of the end of civilization. For instance, the recent reaction to Texas Governor Perry’s prayer and fasting event, or to Baptists saying they want to evangelize EVERYBODY, including people who already have a religion. This is not a new thing of course: in Roman times, people heard Christians speak of eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ and charged them with cannibalism.

There is also a lot of deafness in fundamentalists and evangelicals when they respond obtusely to secularists. (We really DO want separation of church and state, even if Noam Chomsky is the one saying it.) One side hysterically thinks we are on the edge of becoming a theocracy and the other that soon the Bible and Christianity will be criminalized.

Enlivening, yes. Illuminating, no.

Needed: translators and interpreters and people who live in multiple worlds and understand many languages.