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Review of Webb, "The Divine Voice

Review of Webb, "The Divine Voice

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Published by James K.A. Smith
Originally appeared in Calvin Theological Journal.
Originally appeared in Calvin Theological Journal.

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Published by: James K.A. Smith on Apr 08, 2011
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04/08/2011

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Stephen H. Webb,
The Divine Voice: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound 
(Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004). 244pp.Sight is always the first of the senses to get invited to the ball. Long privileged inWestern thought—almost all of what counts as important is linked to the eye (theory,contemplation, ideas, etc.)—sight has also enjoyed privilege in theology, particularly inmodernity. Vision reigns as at least princess of the senses or, to stick with themetaphor, the sweetheart of the ball. In this context, Stephen Webb offers ussomething of a Cinderella story about sound: too long left toiling in abjection whilevision dazzled post-Enlightenment viewers, Webb invites hearing to the big dance andgives her the floor. But this isn’t just some version of sensual
ressentiment 
: Webb offersa theological account of why sound and hearing should be privileged for Christiandiscourse. Thus
Divine Voice
sketches what he describes as an “acoustemological”theology, privileging not what the eye sees but what the ear hears. “Acoustemology,” ashe puts it, “is theological reflection on how Christians know what they know in worship”(27).The book is aimed at preachers and a renewal of preaching and is, quite simply,mandatory reading for every homiletics teacher henceforth—but would also beprofitably read by any and all engaged in the vocation of proclaiming the Word (as wellas Christian scholars interested in rhetoric and communication). Webb offers acompelling diagnosis of our disenchanted, post-Enlightenment condition as a mode of “devocalization”: in other words, “secularization is a kind of byproduct of a certain lossof hearing” (40). “To be fully modern,” he aptly notes, “one must be at least a little bitdeaf” (165). (As an aside, the book is filled with these kind of pithy, densely-packed1
 
gems that make one stop reading, ponder a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of suggestion and setoff on a whole host of questions one’s never asked before—like when Webb suggests that“churches have become one of the primary sites in our society where gender roles arecontested according to the qualities of sound” (24), that “church is more like community theater than a professional production” (32), or that “even when it is read softly, theBible has the power of a good shout” (146).) If vision’s preeminence was rooted inancient philosophy, its triumph over other senses was consummated in theEnlightenment, and Christian theology subsequently bought into modes of reflection(there’s the visual again!) that privileged sight and denigrated sound—compromising, ordownright ignoring the centrality of voice and sound in Scripture. As an antidote, Webbpoints us to alternative sources, including late medieval preaching, the Puritans, KarlBarth, and contemporary theater and voice theorist Kristin Linklater. But the mostbooming voice in the book’s argument is the Protestant Reformation. The book pivotson chapter 5’s argument that the Protestant Reformation was an event in the “history of sound.”Having clearly noted that this is a groundbreaking, learned, and erudite book, letme register just a few reservations. First, while space does not permit working out allthe details, I found Webb’s desire to simply re-invert the relationship between speechand writing (orality and vision) to be a bit simplistic and therefore somewhat misguided.This stems partly from his misreading of Derrida (14n.), but more seriously, I think,because he seems to fall for the Platonic temptation (played out in the
Phaedrus
) thatsound is somehow 
im
material. Noting that “sound is invisible” (13), he goes on tocontrast “the immediacy of sound” with the mediation of print (38). Thus one istempted to privilege orality as a site of immediacy and denigrate writing as a mode of 2
 
communication belabored by mediation, and therefore interpretation. But as I’veshown elsewhere (and Derrida well before that), the non-visual nature of sound does notmake it immaterial. Sound is still solidly linked to the reality of matter (air, ears,tympans, eardrums, etc.) and is highly mediated. Therefore it does not deserve any special privilege—which also means that it’s not any worse off than seeing. The pointcuts both ways.Second, while Webb rightly seeks to revalue sound, I think it is mistaken totopple vision from the throne and set up hearing as the new queen of the senses. Webbtends to do so when he claims, for instance, that “the idea that we are
most 
present toeach other in sound is also true about God’s relationship to us.
Only
the sense of hearing can do justice to the way God is simultaneously with us and beyond us” (39,emphases added). Or when he suggests that “the invisible God is revealed
primarily
though the audible, not the visual” (42, emphasis added). But this kind of privileging of voice or hearing is just
another 
reductionism. A more properly holistic, fully-orbedtheological anthropology will equally value
all 
of the senses. Why should taste andtouch and smell not receive similar affirmations? Why should vision be a whipping boy?(I see no reason to conclude, as Webb sometimes does, that vision is somehow inherently “objectifying” [38]; vision, too, is a feature of a good creation [see Col. 1:15].)Admittedly, in other places Webb seems to conclude the same, rightly noting that “theredemption of the world will entail the restoration of 
all 
of our senses” (30; cp. 42). Butthe force of his argument tends to mute this more egalitarian account of the senses.Finally, I found Webb’s project just a bit too Protestant. While he rightly pointsus to Luther, Calvin, and Barth, and while it might be the unique apostolate of theProtestant churches to keep sound on center stage, I found the portrayal of the3

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