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The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction

By Adam S. McHugh

–Review by Landrum Leavell III                                                                                                   


I read The Listening Life on the recommendation of another member of Sweet’s posse, David Wahlstedt. He raved about it, and he was right on. I’d never heard of Adam McHugh, though I do remember somewhere seeing the title of his first book, Introverts In the Church. His background includes Presbyterian Church ministry, hospice chaplain, and campus staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

McHugh starts the introduction with this poignant observation: “Listening comes first. In this life, you listen even before you are aware of it.” (9) We are actually listening before we leave the womb. After we get whacked by the doctor, we begin to hear words as they are spoken, whispered, and sung until the day comes when we begin to echo those words. “Listening is foundational to what it means to be human.” (10)

The Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, the centerpiece of Israel’s prayer life, begins with the word “hear.” You become a disciple by hearing. Look at the disciples. “Listening is the first act of discipleship as fishermen drop their nets and follow when Jesus calls, and listening is the core of their apprenticeship as they listen their way from Galilee to Jerusalem.” (10) Paul talked in Romans about the relationship between faith and hearing (10:7). Jesus’ half-brother James told us to be quick to listen. (James 1:19) “This is the pattern that life commands. Listen before you speak. Learn before you teach. Hear the call before you lead. Absorb the word before you preach it.” (10)

As we well know, the problem begins when we reverse the pattern. This violates the natural order of things. We’d rather speak our minds and assert ourselves than listen. Many of us are world-class interrupters. We have to assert our identities via our verbal stands. Parenthetically, it was observed that the vitriol and caustic commentary of the 2016 presidential campaign season was the result of twenty-years of talk radio. Echo chambers and truth tunnels allow us to avoid any dissonance that would ensue from contrasting voices.

McHugh knew listening had the (power to heal divisions, bridge the divide between people in conflict, transform stalemates into learning opportunities and unearth solutions from seemingly intractable situations.” (15) But admitting a peculiar kind of nerdiness, he writes that an etymological dictionary showed him that listening can heal the rift between the proverbial enemies hearing and doing. When pitted against each other in Scripture, doing is usually billed as the heavy favorite. Jesus wrapped up the Sermon on the Mount comparing those who hear and don’t act to a house built on sand.

The words listen and obey have the same root. The English word “obedience” coming from Latin literally means “listening from below.” Thus obedience is a deep listening. This connection between listening and obedience is also found in Greek and Hebrew. The root for the words in the Greek New Testament translated as obey and obedience is listen. As Howard Hendricks said, “Biblically speaking, to hear and not to do is not to hear at all.”

Quoting a neuroscientist, McHugh points out how sound can command us. We don’t have “earlids.” Our brains process threatening sounds and elevate the heart rate. These are involuntary responses. Sound calls us to attention. Music can be an imperative to which our bodies and emotions respond. I loved his line, “Dance is our obedience to music.” (17)

McHugh made a great point related to our call to servanthood. He wrote of “servant listening,” which is an practice of presence, an act of humility, and an act of surrender. “We release our grasp on the terms and direction of the conversation.” (22) We like to talk more about listening than we do actually listening, because it’s much easier to just talk about it.

Noting the impressive arsenal of communication tools God uses throughout the Old and New Testaments, God speaking to us is a given. Yet this makes us nervous, so we overcompensate and have safeguards for interpreting God’s voice. I liked his use of “filters.” “We are unfiltered in our receiving of God’s self-communications, but we are finely filtered in our responses to them.” (62) “The collective wisdom of our ancestors emphasizes three filters for testing the authenticity of what we have heard: harmony with Scripture, confirmation of community and pause of reflection.”

This book is full of tremendous insights. You can virtually tweet your way through it. I liked the mention of God singing into the silence of Genesis. “The genre of the creation story is poetry, and song is poetry put to music. All the lyrical components are present—the metaphors, the short phrasing, the alliteration, the refrains of ‘And God said’ and ‘And God saw…’” (69)

There are so many good distinctions and directions here: “communicating versus wooing,” God’s revelation to us, listening to the Bible-from a two- to a three-dimensional encounter with God, listening in-a prayer of the senses, how themes and propositions can kill a story, having the heart of a listener, slow listening, having good ears, the discernment of voices, listening to emotions, listening to our scripts. His words on listening for the questions are so needed.

Chapter titles: The Listening Life, The King Who Listens, Listening to God, Listening to Scripture, Listening to Creation, Listening to Others, Listening to People in Pain, Listening to Your Life, and The Society of Reverse Listening.

When asked to submit a book review, The Listening Life immediately came to mind. It hits the trifecta: recommended from a fellow, trusted reader, I loved it and have recommended it profusely, and the night before I wrote this review, I saw that it was awarded Christianity Today’s 2017 Book Award in the Spiritual Formation category.

This book is worth your time. It will speak to your heart, inform your mind, and at times shred your spirit.