Reading and Listening

Written on: September 30, 2023

Article by: Thayer Salisbury

The late Mortimer Adler was a fascinating man, a highly successful professor, editor, and author. He taught history and philosophy at the University of Chicago. He edited the Encyclopaedia Britanica and the “Great Books of the Western World” series. As an author, his most famous works were How to Read a Book (1940), and How to Think About God: a Guide for a Twentieth Century Pagan (1980). In 1983, Adler published a sequel to How to Read a Book. Titled How to Speak, How to Listen, the sequel was intended to do for oral communication what the earlier work had done for reading.

Adler makes the point that good listening is difficult, yet we spend little effort teaching it or trying to master it. He points out that we read and listen well occasionally, but that we often fail to do our best as readers and as listeners. Two illustrations of this point stood out to me.

First, Adler points out that a lover reading a letter from his beloved reads very carefully, as well as repeatedly. Later, he points out that, if we know that our lives depend on our listening, we are capable of listening well. He asks the readers to imagine that they are passengers on an airplane travelling over water.

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“The pilot comes on the intercom and says; ‘This is your captain speaking from the cockpit. We are compelled to make an emergency landing twelve minutes from now. I will describe the procedure and prepare you for it. Please listen carefully. When I am finished, the cabin attendants will walk down the aisle. There will be plenty of time left for you to ask questions. Do not panic. If you understand and follow instruction, there need be no injuries or loss of life.'”

Adler then concludes, “Would you not listen with rapt attention and try to understand perfectly; or, failing that, would you not try to ask clear questions and listen to the answers given?”

As I read these two paragraphs, it occurred to me that Adler has, inadvertently perhaps, identified why so many people do not read the Bible and do not really listen to sermons. Do you see it?

The lover reads carefully. The person who believes that his life depends on listening well listens carefully. It is the person who does not love the author who does not read well. It is the person who does not really believe that his life depends on it who ignores instructions.

Those who love the Lord will study his word as a lover reads a love letter. Those who believe that their eternal destiny depends on God’s instructions will listen carefully and ask questions regarding any critical point that remains unclear.