1 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 in Western 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 in modernity. Vision reigns as at least princess of the senses or, to stick with the metaphor, the sweetheart of the ball. In this context, Stephen Webb offers us something of a Cinderella story about sound: too long left toiling in abjection while vision dazzled post-Enlightenment viewers, Webb invites hearing to the big dance and gives her the floor. But this isn’t just some version of sensual ressentiment: Webb offers a theological account of why sound and hearing should be privileged for Christian discourse. Thus Divine Voice sketches what he describes as an “acoustemological” theology, privileging not what the eye sees but what the ear hears. “Acoustemology,” as he 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 be profitably read by any and all engaged in the vocation of proclaiming the Word (as well as Christian scholars interested in rhetoric and communication). Webb offers a compelling diagnosis of our disenchanted, post-Enlightenment condition as a mode of “devocalization”: in other words, “secularization is a kind of byproduct of a certain loss of hearing” (40). “To be fully modern,” he aptly notes, “one must be at least a little bit deaf” (165). (As an aside, the book is filled with these kind of pithy, densely-packed

2 gems that make one stop reading, ponder a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of suggestion and set off 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 are contested 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, the Bible has the power of a good shout” (146).) If vision’s preeminence was rooted in ancient philosophy, its triumph over other senses was consummated in the Enlightenment, and Christian theology subsequently bought into modes of reflection (there’s the visual again!) that privileged sight and denigrated sound—compromising, or downright ignoring the centrality of voice and sound in Scripture. As an antidote, Webb points us to alternative sources, including late medieval preaching, the Puritans, Karl Barth, and contemporary theater and voice theorist Kristin Linklater. But the most booming voice in the book’s argument is the Protestant Reformation. The book pivots on 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, let me register just a few reservations. First, while space does not permit working out all the details, I found Webb’s desire to simply re-invert the relationship between speech and 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) that sound is somehow immaterial. Noting that “sound is invisible” (13), he goes on to contrast “the immediacy of sound” with the mediation of print (38). Thus one is tempted to privilege orality as a site of immediacy and denigrate writing as a mode of

3 communication belabored by mediation, and therefore interpretation. But as I’ve shown elsewhere (and Derrida well before that), the non-visual nature of sound does not make 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 point cuts both ways. Second, while Webb rightly seeks to revalue sound, I think it is mistaken to topple vision from the throne and set up hearing as the new queen of the senses. Webb tends to do so when he claims, for instance, that “the idea that we are most present to each 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-orbed theological anthropology will equally value all of the senses. Why should taste and touch 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 “the redemption of the world will entail the restoration of all of our senses” (30; cp. 42). But the 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 points us to Luther, Calvin, and Barth, and while it might be the unique apostolate of the Protestant churches to keep sound on center stage, I found the portrayal of the

4 Reformers at times just a bit too hagiographic, even romantic (see on Luther, pp. 106107). And I found the tone sometimes anti-Catholic, despite his indebtedness to Walter Ong. This tension stems, I think, from the same tension noted above: on the one hand wanting a holistic theological account of the senses (which would re-value sound and de-privilege vision), but on the other hand setting up a new hierarchy with sound reigning supreme. The former, I think, is something close to the heart of the Reformed tradition; the latter, I fear, ends up denigrating aspects of a good creation—in the name of a Protestant privileging of hearing. When Webb rightly observes that “Catholicism is truly catholic with regard to the senses” because it engages “all of them in a holistic presentation of the gospel” (42), that sounds more Reformed to me than the Protest privileging of voice over other senses. Must we choose between Word and Table— between hearing and vision? I think not. As Webb suggests, “Calvin can be said to sacramentalize the Word” (152), entailing a revaluing of sound (Word) without a denigration of vision (Eucharist). In an image-saturated culture, The Divine Voice’s myopic focus (the visual again!) on sound is a much needed corrective which will serve us best if it points us to a restoration of all the senses as part of the redemption of the world accomplished by the prolamation of the Word.

James K.A. Smith Calvin College

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