What Do They Hear? | Review & Notes

Mark Allan Powell. What Do They Hear?: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit & Pew. Abingdon Press, 2007. (107 pages)


Leveraging critical literary theory for the homiletical task is a perspective I wish seminaries would emphasize in their curricula. The “contexts” we learned in school were limited to the text itself, and primarily through the theological belief that it was a “divine” text. We rarely considered the “social location” of our hearers or even of ourselves. Add to this the dynamics of race, wealth, and cultural virtues, and there are huge lacunae in my education as a speaker and exegete.

So, this is an important read for anyone wishing to understand what’s really going on “underneath the hood” of communication, though designed specifically for pastors. This book is far from comprehensive, and it is quite limited in scope, but it will give a good introduction to polyvalence, “resistant” and “compliant” reading, and meaning as “message” and/or “effect.” In addition, it may whet your appetite for deeper reflection by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Walter Ong, and Paul Ricoeur. Most hopefully, it will provoke a more thoughtful and intentional preaching, one that considers carefully the full dynamics of the art.



1. For Those Who Have Ears to Hear

…many of us who preach and teach for a living have encountered a different kind of misunderstanding: people hear our words correctly but take them in ways we do not intend. They find implications we might not endorse and draw conclusions we might not recommend. …listeners have the power not only to accept them or reject them but also to define them contextually, to decide what our words mean to them and for them. (2)

I believe it is the Holy Spirit–but that does not necessarily mean there is anything supernatural going on. Communication theory can account for serendipity. (3)

polyvalence refers to the capacity–or, perhaps the inevitable tendency–for texts to mean different things to different people. (3)

The potential for polyvalence may be a bane to authors of instruction manuals, medical prescriptions, or legal documents, but it is surely a boon to poets. Preachers and politicians fall somewhere in between: they depend upon a (3) degree of ambiguity, but only a degree. Yes, we preachers share that hypocrisy with the politicians–for all our complaining about being “taken out of context,” we want our words to achieve a greatness beyond what we instill in them. We want them to exceed our expectations, to accomplish purposes beyond our purview. Indeed, we want our words to accomplish the very purposes of God (Isa. 55:11), which by definition lie beyond anything discernible within the context of our own thoughts and ways (Isa. 55:8). Truth be known, we want to be taken out of context–but only when that is a good thing. (4)

We want our sermons to be meaningful to people and for people, but we do not actually make that happen. Most of the time, our role is simply to provide people with the raw materials out of which they can make meaning for themselves. We provide the materials, but we are impotent to control the final assembly. We are fortunate if we even get to witness that construction, to inspect it when it is done. (4)

| Wouldn’t it be great if we could maximize the possibility of our words finding widespread application in ways that meet our approval and minimize the possibility of them being taken in ways that don’t meet our approval? Polyvalence within parameters–that would be perfect. (4)

| In my work as a literary critic, I have tried to distinguish between interpretations that are invited by the text (though not necessarily intended by the author) and interpretations that are not invited by the text (almost certainly not intended by the author). (4)

Literary criticism is attentive to different elements within texts that allow for “polyvalence within parameters,” and literary criticism is also attentive to different factors within readers that account for responses that resist or defy what the text seems to invite. (7)

Sermons are usually texts about texts. (8)

A colleague of mine says that exegesis is like underwear: your congregation wants to be able to assume it is there, but they don’t want you to show it to them. (9)

2. Social Location: A Matter of Perspective

When literary critics talk about social location, they mean the complex of factors that can be used to distinguish groups of readers from other readers who differ from them in some respect. There are many factors on which such a distinction can be based: race, gender, age, nationality, economic class, political affiliation, and so forth. (11)

Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32


100% mention squandering

6% mention famine
Russians: 34% mention squandering 84% mention famine

Basically, we have two different versions of the story that is told in Luke 15:13-14. The American students tended to tell that story according to what is printed in boldface type below:

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country and he began to be in need.

But the Russian students tended to remember the story this way:

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country and he began to be in need.

In a phrase, his sin was wanting to be self-sufficient (18)

How revealing it is that Americans think the great sin was wasting money. … But in a socialist state, the sin is self-sufficiency. This boy’s sin was that he wanted to make it in (18) the world on his own. (19)

Obviously, the text of Luke 15 mentions both squandering and famine–but readers tend to prioritize one element over the other, often to the point of dropping the minor element from consideration altogether. … Literary critics would say that readers create meaning for themselves by selectively sorting and organizing the data that the text provides. Readers always do this, often while remaining oblivious to what they themselves are bringing to the process, unaware that the sorting and organizing of data is influenced by particular factors of their own social location. People who hear our sermons do the same thing–they sort the auditory data, prioritizing, organizing, remembering, forgetting: they create a meaning that seems appropriate to them with little awareness of the extent to which their social location has influenced that process. (19)

Wicked or Foolish?

Western commentators have not generally understood this parable by way of comparison with the Genesis tale, and even when they have done so, they have found the point of contrast to be not wisdom vs. foolishness but righteousness vs. immorality. (20)

The Greek word that is translated dissolute in this vers is asōtōs [ασωτως] which can have two basic meanings. …wasteful–it denotes the opposite of a commitment to “saving.” …unhealthy–it then denotes the opposite to a commitment to what is “salvific.” (21)

Western Commentaries Eastern Commentaries
1. “The prodigal wastes his inheritance on sexual misconduct.”

2. “He went the whole route in sinful indulgence.”

3. “He wasted his money on ‘wine, women, and song.’”

4. “He goes abroad and lives a sinful life.”

1. “He was enamored of a love of luxury and splendor.”

2. “The boy wasted his possessions living luxuriously.”

3. “He pursued a life full of entertainment and amusement.”

4. “He was trouble-free.”

The authors of the Eastern commentaries make no such assumption and simply present the boy as spending his money on things that would not necessarily be immoral but that revealed no thought fo the future. Thus, again: in the West, the boy is wicked; in the East, he is merely foolish. (22)

Bridging the Gaps

Western readers have been more likely to prioritize squandering over famine, to ignore allusions to Genesis, to take asōtōs figuratively, and to accept the older brother’s allegation as valid. Taken together these decisions lead them to regard the story as a quintessential tale of moral repentance, a story that depicts sin as personal irresponsibility, illustrates the consequences of such sin, and then locates the key to redemption in an individual decision to reverse one’s course through humble confession and capitulation to the authority against which one formerly rebelled. Eastern readers, by contrast, have tended to give more attention to the famine, to read the story as antithetical to the biblical narrative of Joseph, to take asōtōs in the literal sense of “wasteful,” and to disregard the brother’s comment as irresponsible slander. Those decisions lead them to regard the story as a tale of divine rescue: it is a story that depicts (23) independence as a foolish choice (given the vicissitudes of life), and it is a story that locates redemption in the safe haven that God provides via family and community. (24)

…for Western readers the overall accent has been on reform, while for Eastern readers it has been on recovery. (24)

Anytime “clergy” address “laity” there is a divide between two social locations, each of which processes the date of texts in distinctive ways. (26)


It says, “he squandered (26) his property” in verse 13, and it says, “a severe famine took place throughout the country” in verse 14, and it says, “no one gave him anything” in verse 16. 927)

This story, the Tanzanians told me, is less about personal repentance than it is about society. Specifically, it is about the kingdom of God. It contrasts the father’s house with the far country. The father’s house is the kingdom of God that Jesus keeps talking about, but the far country is a society without honor. (27)

3. Empathy Choices: Casting the Scriptures

The Good Samaritan

The moral of the story, they [the Tanzanians] told me, is that people who have been beaten, robbed, and left for dead cannot afford the luxury of prejudice. They will (and should) accept help from whoever offers it. Indeed, the main point of the story is that God helps us in unexpected and surprising ways. … To the extent that the story raises the question, “Who is my neighbor?” the answer it provides is not “Whoever needs my help,” but “Whoever helps me.” (35)

So, I hope we can take two things with us from this discussion: an awareness of how our subconscious empathy choices affect our experience of stories and an appreciation for how alternative choices can open stories to levels of meaning we might otherwise miss. (38)

Mark 7:1-8: Eating with Defiled Hands

Empathy Choice: Clergy: Laity
Jesus 40 0
Disciples 0 24
Pharisees 4 18
Other 6 8

The zeroes in the table are particularly striking. Is it not remarkable that almost half of the laity would read this story from the perspective of Jesus’ disciples, but none of the clergy would do so? Or that four-fifths of the clergy would identify with Jesus in this text, while no layperson would do so? FOr that matter, why would laity, who are not leaders of religious institutions, be four times more likely to empathize realistically with the Pharisees than clergy who (like the Pharisees) are leaders of religious institutions? (55)

Surveying the Gap (Empathy Choice)

First, let us note that clergy do seem to be more likely than laity to empathize with the character of Jesus when they read or hear Gospel stories. (56)

A second and possibly related point is that we may note a greater propensity toward realistic empathy on the part of laity than clergy in this study. The clergy seem more inclined toward idealistic empathy, which, of course, could be one reason they were more likely to identify with the character of Jesus. (57)

Finally, I think the most important thing to take away from this study is a solid realization that empathy cannot be assumed, predicted, or controlled. Preachers need to realize that the people in the pews may be hearing the story from a different perspective than they do. … The bottom line, of course, is that no sermon can effectively address so many far-flung concerns. Some homiletical triage is necessary–choices must be made. So: polyvalence is a reality, and it can be a problem. (59)

Bridging the Gap (Empathy Choice)

I offer three specific suggestions. (60)

Cast the scriptures. Begin sermon preparation by employing a reading strategy I call casting the scriptures. I mean casting in the sense of dramatic production: casting a play. (60)

Be explicit, if necessary. (61)

Allow for multiple responses. (62)

…the diversity of empathy choices holds more promise than peril for preachers who are aware of the reality. By exploring (63) different empathetic possibilities, we can uncover avenues to meaning that we might have neglected. (64)

4. Message or Effect: The Meaning of Meaning

Literary critics maintain that distancing oneself from a text is as much an act of interpretation as embracing it: they address this phenomenon under the heading “resistant reading,” according to which a reader more or less intentionally chooses to defy the rhetoric of a narrative and creates a meaning for the story by responding to it in ways contrary to what the author apparently intended. (66)

[via: This describes exactly what Amy-Jill Levine writes about in her book, The Misunderstood Jew: “I recall one relative asking me years ago, when I was working on my Ph.D. on the Gospel of Matthew at Duke, ‘Why would you want to read such anti-Semitic stuff?’ ‘Have you ever read it?’ I asked. ‘No, why would I want to read such anti-Semitic stuff?'” (p.15)]

Literary critics sometimes speak of “compliant reading” as the opposite of resistant reading–and this is what most of us probably practice most of the time. Unless prompted to do otherwise, we seek to receive narratives (or sermons) in the manner that appears to be expected of us. (67)

Here are two different conceptions of meaning:

a. meaning as message.
b. meaning as effect.

Message and Effect

…you might just pause to ask yourself, Are sermons more like Bible commentaries or popular movies? Is the meaning of a sermon to be found in the message that it conveys–or in the effect that it has on its audience? And is the meaning of a sermon ultimately defined by its sender (the preacher) or by its recipients (the congregation)? (70)

Words and Pictures

Stories are hermeneutical hybrids: they may have morals, but their meaning cannot be expressed through simple summaries of those morals. (71)

Compare Luke 11:5-8 & 18:2-5.

My point is just this: the fact that Luke includes such “doublets” in his Gospel implies that he was operating with a concept of meaning inclusive of effect as well as message. (75)

Luke 3:3-17: Preaching of John the Baptist

Analysis of Responses

  Mark 7:1-8

What does this story mean to you?

Luke 3:3-17

What does this story mean?

CLERGY: author-reference 1 26
LAITY: author-reference 0 0
CLERGY: self-reference 46 20
LAITY: self-reference 48 50

The two words to you made a significant difference for clergy in determining how they responded to the story… (91)

The clergy default, if you will, is to read stories from the perspective of the author: when asked, “What does this story mean?” the clergy tended to tell me what they thought it meant to the author. Laity did not do this–indeed, not a single one did this. The laity simply assumed that when I asked, “What does this story mean?” I meant, “What does it mean to you?” (92)

Surveying the Gap (Message or Effect)

The point, I think, is that clergy prefer a two-stage process: first, identify what the author meant to communicate, and then extrapolate meaning for the present that is compatible with the author’s intent. (93)

The reader-oriented perspective tends to regard meaning as effect, while the author-oriented perspective tends to regard (94) meaning as message.

Message or Effect: Some Points to Remember

  • clergy are more likely to consider meaning in terms of authorial intent
  • laity are more likely to consider meaning in terms of reader response
  • clergy are more likely to look for meaning related to historical, comprehensive, or typical situations
  • laity are more likely to look for meaning related to contemporary, particular, or personal situations
  • clergy are more likely to construe meaning as a message (what they learn from it)
  • laity are more likely to construe meaning in terms of impact (how it affects them)
  • clergy are more likely to identify relevance through contextual analogies
  • laity are more likely to identify relevance through unmediated application

Bridging the Gap (Message or Effect)

1. Recognize and celebrate that laity want to be affected by scripture.

2. Realize that message-oriented sermons fail to connect with the primary concerns of many laity.

3. Be intentional about crafting sermons geared to produce specific effects.

The (99) pertinent post-exegetical question may be, “Which of the potential ‘gospel effects’ that this text might have on its readers do I want to see produced in my congregation?” That is a different post-exegetical question than, “Which of the messages that this author intended to convey to his original readers do I want to convey to my congregation?” (100)

4. Allow the story to work for you.

If we want to preach sermons that will impact people’s lives we should get in the habit of first looking for the story that is being told in any text and then (101) looking for ways of retelling that story so that it can do a lot of the transformational work for us. (102)

5. Become familiar with exegetical methods that operate with a reader-oriented hermeneutic. …disciplines of historical criticism (e.g., source criticism, form criticism, and especially redaction criticism) all of which are oriented toward the goal of determining the authorial intention behind ancient texts. Such methods may be valuable and necessary for a proper interpretation of scripture, but even their most enthusiastic advocates often note a downside to their use in pastoral ministry. Their application involves a necessary distancing from appreciation for the relatively timeless effect or impact that stories can have on readers who receive them in contexts and under circumstancs the author never imagined. (102)

6. Prioritize performance: delivery is as important as content. …if we want to preach sermons that will affect people’s lives, then the sermon becomes a performance event. (104)

“Do we spend as much time practicing a sermon as we do composing it?” Delivery is as important as content. (105)


The study presented in this chapter indicates that laity come to the Bible expecting to be affected by what they encounter there. Such an effect is not simply, or even primarily, cognitive: it tends to be more aesthetic or emotional. Clergy, however, tend to be more interested in identifying and communicating messages in the text that are both relevant to the present congregation and compatible with the original intent of the author. Given this reality, two types of problems may occur: (1) laity who are prone to construing meaning as effect may respond to the (105) text in idiosyncratic ways; and (2) clergy who are inclined to equate meaning with message may end up answering questions that no one was asking. (106)

Your task as a preacher, then, is to proclaim the story in a way that encourages certain effects. (106)

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