The Lost Art of Listening, Part 4: Chew the Cud

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[Editor’s note: click here to read Part 3: Precious Impermanence by Jennifer Trafton.]

Recently I was struck by the surprisingly earthy language used by 15th century Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cramner to describe the ancient—and at first glance, rather lofty—practice of lectio divina. This practice consists of reading a passage of scripture aloud three times and meditating on various prompts between each reading. How could something like that be anything other than airy and “spiritual”? Ah, but read how Cramner described it:

Let us ruminate, and, as it were, chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort and consolation of them.

Homily on Scripture, Archbishop Thomas Cramner, emphasis mine

Wow! “Chew the cud”? “Sweet juice”? “Marrow”? Am I the only one who thinks this sounds more like a homely chef instructing you on how to taste his hearty stew, eyes crazed with rapturous delight in the aromas and flavors of his concoction? Taken out of context, the very last thing I would think he’s talking about is. . . lectio divina.

So, why? What height of revelation would lead a student of scripture to use such base language to articulate his experience? To confound my pretentious heart with such foolishness? Indeed, let’s lower the bar further—is there anything (aside from delicious food itself) that I regularly taste with such intention, deliberation, and conscious savoring as Cramner tastes scripture?

Well, my self-conscious persona aspires to savor all of life with a zeal like that—knowing the name and song of every bird, quietly consulting my vast inner library when a friend needs help thinking of a quote from some writer, observing with unwavering comprehension every last intricate detail imbued in an obscure work of art.

But alas, I’m afraid the awkward self-consciousness of my aspiration disqualifies it immediately from authentic devotion. Because as you can see, there’s no self-consciousness involved in Cramner’s description of how we ought to “ruminate” on scripture. His tone is rather more like the self-forgetful delight of a child with a mouthful of wild blueberries, or sitting rapt with attention at the climax of their favorite story.

Yes, maybe that’s more like what it means to taste.

We are no strangers to the notion of consuming. Our entire commercial economy is built on the cornerstone of consumption. We live our lives under its devouring shadow. And when we run out of physical things to “consume,” we consume media. But for all our consuming, we don’t taste much of what we consume. In fact, it’s in the interest of Netflix for us not to taste the media we consume, because tasting comes too close to savoring, which comes too close to an awareness of the limits of our appetite; the worst thing would be for our hunger to finally reach satiation. It may be that we “hear, but do not understand; see, but do not perceive” (Isaiah 6:9), and consume but do not taste.

If we are going to recover our sense of taste—that awareness that leads us to savor, pay attention, and listen—we’ll need to ask ourselves where the seeds of that awareness were first planted in us and how they continue to grow. And believe it or not, for this member of the millennial generation, it all began with the iPod. And oh, how I dearly miss it.

I know, I know: digital music = bad. Physical music = good. Surely the only noble way to listen to music, to “chew” its proverbial “cud,” is to put a vinyl on and scour its liner notes, absorbed in the real sound coming out of real speakers. Right? No. To the contrary, I am a passionate adherent of Neil Postman’s haunting insight that the medium is its own kind of message. To put James K. A. Smith’s liturgical spin on it, there are nuances embedded in the many ways we experience music as embodied creatures. These nuances are intimately bound up with how we hear it, and the story is always more complicated than we think.

Live to chew the cud of what brings you life. It won't make you a good consumer—but it will make you a good human.

Drew Miller

In our last “Lost Art of Listening” post, Jennifer shared her childhood instinct to preserve all her favorite songs by writing down their lyrics and internalizing them, lest they should ever vanish from her life. And there was planted in her the seed of taste, the posture of savoring, visiting and revisiting, listening and re-listening. I deeply relate to that anecdote because I had a similar inclination when I was in about the eighth or ninth grade—the desire to memorize my favorite albums from front to back. The logic went something like this: sometimes, during extended time with extended family, or long days on vacation when my iPod was out of reach, I could cure my boredom by knowing so intimately the contours of every song on Why Should the Fire Die? that I could effectively listen to it in my head, thereby getting myself through 47 minutes of unoccupied time! It took practice, of course, and repeated listening, so that I could remember every detail, every instrumental flourish. But practice makes perfect (I also managed to memorize Continuum and the ineffable Under the Table and Dreaming).

This skill came in handy in other contexts, as well—doing chores, taking walks, zoning out in class (oops), and trying to fall asleep. On some restless nights even now, I start to doze off right around the middle of “Can’t Complain,” track 5 of course.

Perhaps to the disapproval of my principled elders, it wasn’t even the car stereo that taught me to savor music like that. It was the enticing, far-reaching library of my iPod, whose alphabetical list of artist names became so ingrained in my memory that I could still recite the gist of it to you twelve years later.

In the broad sweeps of technological history, it’s tempting to lump the iPod together with the advent of streaming, regarding it as a sort of voice calling in the wilderness to prepare the way for Spotify. But that is far from the truth, because my lived experience of Spotify is qualitatively different from my lived experience of the iPod. It’s like comparing apples (pun intended) to oranges. And my theory is that this distinction arises primarily from the fact that Spotify is inherently an online experience, while the iPod is not.

There is a reason that our primary analogy for encountering the internet is one of surfing and not diving. The internet is by nature surface-oriented. In no other area of life is our experience of one thing so determined by the fact that we could be experiencing any other conceivable thing instead, and with a single click. Hyperlinks beckon us ever onward, skipping across vast distances of data, but hardly ever stopping to taste what we’ve consumed. Just think: how many times have you logged into social media, lost yourself for about five minutes, put down your phone, then struggled to remember what you even saw while scrolling? It takes real effort not to have your memory hijacked while on the internet.

With every song I play on Spotify, I listen with the silent but pervasive awareness that I could be listening to practically anything else. As Chris rightly pointed out, that’s an astounding resource to have at my fingertips, and I’m quite grateful for it. But in the absence of any limits on what I can listen to, it takes far more effort to stay absorbed with just one album or artist for long.

Contrast this now with the iPod, which is an offline experience. My options in this case are determined not by the endless availability of a streaming service, but by the music I have loved enough to buy, download to my iTunes (RIP), and then sync to my iPod. There’s an investment level there—a literal ownership—that profoundly influences my experience. When I turn on my iPod, I don’t see the pure potentiality of a search bar; I see the list of beloved artists whose work I have tasted enough to make my own, to enshrine in my own personal canon of music. And it’s even worth mentioning that once I press play on the album of my choice, it will play from beginning to end, then stop—unlike Spotify, which propels my listening experience from what I have chosen to what their algorithms have chosen for me. Listening to music on the iPod is a bounded experience, whose kind limitations elevate rather than diminish my experience.

I don’t want to end this post lost in the weeds of various media and their idiosyncrasies, debating which is better and which is worse. It’s by accident that I am of the iPod generation, and so I claim it just as Andrew has claimed the tape cassettes. To bring it all the way back to the beginning, I think the analogy of eating, tasting, and savoring can remind us of what is at the heart of this discussion. However alarming our cultural trend toward attention illiteracy may feel, the need to stop and listen is not a luxury; it’s a hunger. And hunger must finally be filled—not with ever more distractions and advertisements, but with nourishment. As long as there are humans, they will be hungry to lose themselves in something bigger than themselves, to taste and not come away empty.

So everyday and everywhere, tend to your sense of taste. Stop and savor what is before you. Live to chew the cud of what brings you life. It won’t make you a good consumer—but it will make you a good human.

Click here to read Part 5: The Case for Nostalgia by Leslie E. Thompson.


3 Comments

  1. Shandon Mullet

    Drew, your experiences mirror mine, and this was a fantastic addition to this great series of articles. I love the admonition to “chew the cud” by selective limitation, allowing ourselves to become intimately acquainted with the music we imbibe. One tiny note, as I am a pedant – I believe it was Thomas Cranmer.

  2. James

    Excellent post, Drew. Cranmer’s words and Postman’s insights are certainly needed in the age of streaming. I have never heard the phrase “attention illiteracy,” but it is a perfect description of something I feel is a major issue in our culture today. Your thoughts on how the streaming platforms cultivate inattention are insightful. I wanted to add that I think poetry is a potential remedy to this problem since poems demand that we “chew the cud” to even enjoy or appreciate it at all. Perhaps it is because of an increasingly attention illiterate culture that reading poetry has gone out of vogue, but it is hard to know whether the chicken or the egg came first.

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