Hear the Word

· Bible

I grew up reading Agatha Christie novels and watching many of them acted out in Poirot, a TV series starring David Suchet. Suchet took on the part of Hercule Poirot quite carefully, paying close attention to how Christie described him. Suchet’s Poirot fusses over his moustache. He walks with tiny, brisk steps in patent leather shoes. His obsession with symmetry leads him to adjust other people’s knickknacks or become unnerved when one of his boiled eggs is larger than the other. (Conveniently, Suchet has an egg-shaped head.) And when he needs to discern the solution to the puzzling crime before him, Poirot quiets himself and uses his little gray cells. I can almost see them at work behind his brown eyes.

Only a handful of years before taking on the role of Poirot, Suchet was converted to Christianity in a hotel room while reading the eighth chapter of Romans. Later, in 2015, following the conclusion of Poirot, he released an audio recording of the Bible. (Psst! He’s also done one for kids!) On several occasions he has described what it was like to go through such a lengthy endeavor (over 200 hours in the studio). Once, he said this:

I was recording it with headphones on, so in a sense I was doing what I wanted my listening audience to do: to hear the word of God, not just read the word of God.

Many generations of people before us have been illiterate. As part of a hearing culture, they would not have read the Bible; they would have heard God’s word.  

This hearing culture is evident in scripture. Throughout the prophets, God’s people are told to “hear the word of the Lord.” In Isaiah 30, the long-exiled Israelites learn that things are about to change: When they cry out to God, God will hear them and God will answer. If the people respond by listening well to God, they shall hear a word behind them, a word that directs them: “This is the way; walk in it.” And in Jesus’s last words with his disciples, he tells them about a Spirit of truth who will guide them. Jesus claims the Spirit “will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears.” Even God hears God!

But Suchet is not convinced that verses like these were written simply to accommodate illiterate people, as we might use sign language to accommodate someone with a hearing impairment. He thinks hearing scripture is a significant event. It creates an experience that is different to that of reading it on a page or a screen. 

Consider that Jesus often taught his listeners by sharing parables. Rather than giving them laws or rules to read, memorize, and quote back, he gave them stories that helped them sit back and think about their meaning. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we still finding new meaning in the parables today. 

Suchet adds that it is a gift to listen carefully to someone. Think about it. Who doesn’t want to be heard? To be taken seriously? It hurts when we sense that someone is not listening to us. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer would agree. He taught that listening is a ministry. Sometimes, he observed, we are too busy talking to listen to someone else. And when we do listen, we might find ourselves listening with only half an ear, presuming we know exactly what the other person is trying to say—perhaps even thinking we can say it better for them. “We should listen with the ears of God,” he concludes, “that we may speak the Word of God.” 

So now, whenever I watch an episode of Poirot, I am drawn to another aspect of the way Suchet portrays the renowned Belgian detective. In his book, Poirot and Me, Suchet quotes Poirot:

I listen to what you say, but I hear what you mean.

When Poirot listens to what another character has to say, he aims to hear them explain things from their perspective. He tries to understand where they are coming from. Only then does he work to determine whether what they have to say is the truth, a lie, or a misguided statement. 

There is an exercise we can use to practice listening well, one often carried out in pastoral education. The next time you have a conversation with someone, take some private time afterwards to journal or write out a verbatim of the conversation. Try to remember as much as possible of what the person has said. When you have done this, reflect on the following questions and record your answers.

  • What have I forgotten about what the other person said?
  • Do I understand everything I remember the person saying?
  • Is there added meaning behind what they said? Behind what they chose not to say? Behind their facial expressions or body language?
  • Did I find myself intruding on their words?
  • Did I listen with only half an ear?  

Do this exercise again on another day with another conversation partner. Compare your answers to those recorded after the previous conversation. If you make this exercise routine for a while, you will find yourself learning about what it means to listen well just by reflecting on your listening experiences. 

Let’s use our little gray cells to learn by hearing what others have to say. It is a gift to love someone so well that we listen to them with both ears. So, if you have ears, hear!