Thursday, May 26, 2005

What Audio Books' Rising Popularity May Say About Our World

An article in the New York Times chronicles the increasing acceptance of audio books and the continuing disdain with which some traditional readers regard audio-reading.

While my experience with audio books has been limited, I've found that when driving solo on a few long trips to seminars, after I've become bored with the CDs I've brought along and been unable to find a decent radio station, audio books can be a nice alternative. I've listened to novels and to some non-fiction works under these circumstances. Audio books help pass the time and with the right books, engage the brain.

Still, a slow reader, I confess that I like savoring and cogitating over passages and phrases I find in books. I love traditional reading! A pen is obligatory equipment when I do so, as I'm an avid underliner, bracketer, and commenter in the margins. Reading is, for me, inherently dialogical: I'm always talking back to the author, whether to say, "Right on!," "Hmm," or "I don't agree." I also make notes of connections with other things I've read or with experiences and lessons from my own life.

The advantage of an audio book, of course, is that you can re-listen to something repeatedly. Of course, I do traditional re-reading of books that are meaningful to me. But you can re-listen to books more quickly than you can re-read them.

That can have a huge impact on a person. Years ago, I found audiotapes of a bestselling book by a psychologist on a close-out table. I bought the tapes immediately. A young pastor living in a rural area in those days, I often had to travel long distances to big-city hospitals in order to visit parishioners. Those audiotapes became my traveling companions as I listened to and incorporated their lessons into my mind and eventually, my life. To this day, I still draw on those lessons even though it's been several years since I last listened to the tapes.

One major reason for the growing popularity of audio books--although they still only account for 3% of book sales, according to the New York Times article--is that people are so busy these days and the average commuting time for workers is increasing. "Reading" audiobooks can be a pleasant diversion from the monotony of taking the same stretch of Interstate from home to work and back again every day.

But I suspect something else is going on.

A few years ago, my mom said, "I have something to give you, Mark" and handed me a packet of seventy to one-hundred old mailings. Those old mailings contained the sermons of a pastor who had served my grandmother's church back in the mid-60s. The church used to send the sermons out weekly to members who were unable to be in worship.

When I read some of those sermons, I was struck by several things. First, the preacher was an intelligent and knowledgeable person. His finely-tuned intellect was adept at making the connections between things going on in the world of 1965 with the message of the Bible and the people in the pew.

But the second thing that struck me was the thought, "Most of this would never fly today." It wasn't that the guy's sermons were objectionable from the perspective of Christian understanding of truth. It was that they reflected a kind of Greco-Roman way of thinking, writing, and arguing. That's not the world in which we live today.

In a book called Inductive Preaching, the father and son team of Ralph and Gregg Lewis talked about learning to preach like Jesus, rather than like Paul, the first century author of such New Testament books as Romans, Galatians, and First and Second Corinthians.

The Lewises weren't slamming Paul. But Jesus, they said, grew up and lived in Judea, the first-century descendant of ancient Israel. As such, Jesus was steeped in Semitic and Hebrew ways of communicating. Jesus' most characteristic form of "preaching" was the parable or story followed, sometimes, by explanations. (Often, he left the stories unexplained, a tribute to the ability of the stories' to carry their points right in the tales they narrated!)

Paul, who grew up in Tarsus, and was tutored by an expert in Jewish law, Gamaliel, and who was also comfortable in Greek philosophy, was much more propositional. Although Paul is notorious for his run-on sentences in the Greek of the New Testament, he's adept at argumentation in the Greco-Roman style. He needed that facility because it was Gentiles (non-Jews) steeped in this cultural milieu that he had been charged to teach about Jesus Christ and the new life Christ offers.

Over time, the Church, especially in Europe and North America, used Paul's usual mode of communication as their model and not that of Jesus. Preaching became propositional.

So long as the prevailing mode of mass communications remained Gutenberg's printing press, that was okay. Western people were, to use McLuhan's phrase, "linear thinkers."

But with the advent of movies, radio, and television, we--like our ancient ancestors sitting around campfires--became less linear in our thinking, more oriented to stories.

I never cease to be amazed at the reactions of people when I tell the story of David's adultery with Bathsheba or his murder of Uriah from the Old Testament or Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son.

And people aren't just intereste in the Biblical stories, either. Last week in my Sunday message, to drive a point home, I told a story about a time when I put my own priorities ahead of God's will in my life. You could have heard a pin drop.

Why is that? Stories have always had power. Someone reminded me on Tuesday evening as a group of us began to delve into the Old Testament book of Genesis. "I think we like to have windows for looking into other people's lives," he said. "When we do that through their stories, we can project ourselves into their situations and consider how we would react."

I think he was 100% on-the-money. One of the things that won me over from atheism to faith in the God of the Bible is that the Bible is so honest about the faults and failings of the people of faith whose stories are told there. And yet, it conveys hope too, as it shows how God was able to love and affirm and use imperfect people when they turned their lives over to him. That message comes through in their stories.

Today, I think, most of my colleagues introduce their propositions with stories, anecdotes, or analogies. Those who don't are losing their listeners.

None of this is to say that I think we've entered a post-literate era. I think it's just a more variegated era. There will always be a place for sitting down and reading a book. There will always be a place for philosophers and theologians and other lecturers presenting propositions. But there will also be times when we pay heed to a story by listening to a book, watching a movie, or viewing a TV show. Each will stir our imaginations and spirits in different ways, I think.

But we are in a different era: The era of the narrative. Audio books fit right in and I think that their popularity will grow.

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