The Lost Art of Listening, Part 7: Can I Get a Witness?

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[Editor’s note: click here to read Part 6: A Scarcity of Mind by Shigé Clark.]

Several weeks ago when we began this series on the “lost art of listening,” I don’t know that any of us knew exactly where it would end up. But it’s been a delight to watch the topic develop and gather steam.

Andrew, Chris, Drew, Jennifer, Shigé, and Leslie have all articulated valuable facets of why and how we listen to music and carry it with us. It’s my turn now, and I came into this weekend, challenged to write something but honestly having no idea what I might be able to add to such a rich conversation.

Like Jennifer and Andrew, I grew up before the digital age and I look back fondly on the charm of those analog systems and the precious scarcity of music in an age when it could be so elusive and impermanent. And like Chris and Shigé, I’m thankful for the marvel of the streaming age and the multiplicity of options and perspectives to which it gives me access. I, too, like Leslie, cherish a massive catalog of beloved music that I recognize leaves a lot to be desired, but I’ve made peace with those deficiencies and give thanks for the good I’ve taken away in spite of them (looking at you, Meat Loaf). And as Drew says, I enjoy chewing the cud of all this goodness, savoring the flavors I’ve come to love over the years and cherishing those tastes as they grow deeper and richer.

But what do I have add to all this? Is there anything left to say? A few days ago, I didn’t have any ideas and I told the team I’d probably pass. 

But then George Floyd. But then Minneapolis. But then Seattle and LA and Atlanta and New York and Charlotte. 

But then Nashville. 

I have something to say after all.

Listen:

Several years ago, I wrote a play called The Battle of Franklin. It was based on the Civil War battle that took place a few miles down the road from where I’m sitting, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’m not a historian. At that point I wasn’t even a playwright. I didn’t even know where to start until Matt Logan, the director of the play, handed me several books containing the collected letters of the townsfolk during the Civil War. So I went home and spent hours and days quietly sitting and listening to the people that lived through it, listening to them talk in their own words to their own families about their fears and hopes and anxieties. 

Out of those letters, a voice and a story slowly emerged. At its heart, I think the play is ultimately about the lost art of listening. It’s about what happens when we cannot hear one another in the midst of our own cacophony. I went on to use those letters as the jumping off point of my writing, and I’m thankful for them and for those who preserved them. But tragically, of all the letters I read, every single one of them was written by a white person. Most slaves, you see, could not read or write, and certainly couldn’t use the postal service. There are no letters left behind to tell of their fears and hopes and questions (at least not in Williamson County, Tennessee). How can we listen to those who cannot speak? One of my hopes for that play was that it would give voice in some small way to those who had been silenced, and based on the reception of the show, I think we did achieve that in some respect.

A few years later, I was asked to adapt Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place for the stage. Hers is a tale of courage, sacrifice, suffering, and forgiveness amid the horror of Nazi Germany. But in the process of living with her book and her story, I finally came to understand that one of the most important aspects of it was the nature of witness. Corrie saw and lived through things that we can scarcely imagine, and she dedicated the rest of her life to testifying to what she’d seen to anyone who would listen. That’s what a witness is, someone who proclaims what they’ve seen to whomever will listen. And we need witnesses because none of us have a complete understanding of one another, much less of the world beyond our doors. We need witnesses like Corrie to call us to account and make us look into the darkness if we’re ever to see the light that shines from beyond it. But a witness alone isn’t enough. Someone must listen.

To hear is only to collect information; to listen is to follow that information as it leads you into the mystery of another person, of another image of God, of an experience precious beyond words because it is one you cannot access through your own actions or understanding.

Pete Peterson

The trouble is this: humankind loves to hear, but struggles to listen. And that struggle is getting harder all the time. Social media lets us curate our personal view of the world so we can shut out the voices we don’t want to listen to. And even if we’re not shutting people out, our often insular circles of friends can be entirely excluded from the voices and witness of others we might need to hear in order to have a more complete understanding of those around us. Add to this a 24-hour news machine that has largely given up the honorable calling of journalism in favor of policital opinions and finger-pointing and the peddling of emotion to keep readers clicking. Even those who are trying to listen have trouble knowing who to listen to. When everyone in the room is yelling, is listening even possible?

So I think this is what music does. This is what art is for. It bears us witness of mysteries when we have lost the art of listening. When we cannot see the bigotry in our own hearts or actions and cannot bear to hear ourselves mocked on twitter, it may be that Marvin Gaye is the only voice we’re able to hear, maybe for the groove, maybe for the soul, maybe for the nostalgia, but “something’s happening here” and we can’t escape it altogether.

I keep thinking about those missing letters. The never-written letters of slaves whose voices are long-lost to the sands of time. Oh, how I wish we could listen to them. Of what deep sorrows might they tell? But then I realize that we are everywhere haunted by their ghosts. The groanings of those voices echo through halls of our history. They took root in jazz and blues and rock and roll and have left no corner of American music untouched by their cry. And now in rap and hip-hop and R&B they have taken on flesh from beyond the grave. They bear witness in a thousand notes and rhymes. They testify to realities that many of us cannot fully know or percieve, yet we have largely deafened ourselves to their testimonies so that we can live in the relative quiet of our incomplete understanding.

And so in the absence of a willingness to listen, we have given ourselves over to a cacophony of self-defense that cannot possibly be a joyful noise to anyone.

What then are we to do?

In the Rabbit Room, for the past few years, we’ve taken on an intentional posture of listening for unheard voices. We’ve recognized that for the most part, we listen primarily to people who look like us, sound like us, think like us. Yet we’ve grown into the conviction that if we’re going to be a community that truly and bodily reflects the Kingdom of God, we need to listen for those unheard voices and welcome them into the room. We also need to look for opportunities to be guests in their rooms.

The fact of the matter is that we’re surrounded by witnesses everyday, witnesses to bigotry, systemic racism, poverty, economic inequality, sexual abuse, and a hundred other evils, yet we often only hear rather than listen. To hear is only to collect information; to listen is to follow that information as it leads you into the mystery of another person, of another image of God, of an experience precious beyond words because it is one you cannot access through your own actions or understanding. Indeed, there is loving in listening. 

A song may lead you out of yourself for three-and-a-half minutes and into the fresh universe of another’s mind. A musical composition may, through the miracle of vibration and resonance, open up a well of empathy that can be accessed in no other way in the world. And for those who have ears to hear, the simple witness of a fellow human may be the difference between life and death, not just for one, but for everyone. And if that’s so, that’s an art that we cannot afford to lose. I want that high and holy art of listening for myself, for my community, for my country.

This past year at Hutchmoot, Buddy Greene and Odessa Settles held a session called “We Help Each Other See,” in which they discuss (and sing about) some of the ways in which music has helped them each to better understand the other. Odessa grew up in Nashville amid segregation and she has a wealth of stories to tell and bear witness to. I once asked her how things had changed since then, and she said “Not much.” Here’s an opportunity. Listen: click here to download.

Also at Hutchmoot, Mark Meynell and Ruth Naomi Floyd held a discussion called “Music for the Broken: How African-American Spirituals and Shostakovich Sustain Us in the Midst of Suffering.” Do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in Ruth’s otherworldly voice as she sings the testimonies of lost voices. Listen: click here to download.

Do you enjoy podcasts? Listen to Jemar Tisby’s Pass the Mic for a wealth of African-American Christian discussions of how to make sense of what’s going on around us every day. Start with this retelling of the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, a name you probably know and a story you probably don’t. Listen to Jemar tesitfy to the passion of a modern saint.

You may or may not have seen the movie, but I urge you to read the Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. It’s a window into a world of justice system nightmares that many of us don’t want to admit exists, and unless we start listening, innocent men and women will continue to die right under our noses. It’s terrifying and tragic and beautiful and deeply Christian.

To date, I consider Toni Morrison’s Beloved the finest novel I’ve ever read. It’s a triumph of structure, language, and image and I’ll never forget it. It’s a “ghost story” but don’t let that throw you off. It’s about the traumatic effects of slavery and every adult ought to read it at least once. Both Beloved and Just Mercy are availalbe in the Rabbit Room Store.

This all began with music so let me bring it back around with this. A few years ago I discovered the music of an artist named Propaganda, and no sooner had I discovered him and started to dig into his music, than he released a new record called Crooked. Here’s what I wrote about it back then:

“It’s an album about problems and anger and frustration and the complicated nature of relationships, but it’s not only about how crooked the world is, or about how crooked our hearts are, it’s about making things right.

Prop’s ability to paint a landscape of America in all its darkness and light reminds me of the best of Springsteen, and his ability to diagnose social issues with appropriate anger yet without losing hope recalls the best of U2. And it’s all done in his own unique and articulate style mixing spoken word, rap, and R&B together into a symphony of sound and words. If you love poetry and wordplay, you owe it to yourself to pay attention.”

That record shook me to my core and I still listen to it on a regular basis. I chew its cud. I listen to it from beginning to end because it’s a beautifully cohesive series of songs put together into an album with an emotional arc and something important to say. The whole album is a testimony. Right now I’m doing my best to be quiet. I’m doing my best to listen. It’s on Spotify, go immerse yourself, and then go look up Sho Baraka and Jackie Hill Perry and so many other voices.

But if we’re to reclaim the lost art of listening, in the end we’re also responsible for what we do with it. After all, hearing is passive, but listening is active. To listen is to be moved not only emotionally or empathically, but to action. I cannot receive the testimony of witnesses and remain silent, doing nothing.

When I worked with Walt Wangerin to publish a new, expanded, edition of his Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace, a beautiful collection of stories that recount his experience working as the pastor of a predominately African-American church, I listened carefully to the testimony of Walt’s tales, but I noted the absence of a voice. Walt’s stories are, of course, brilliantly told and they honor and hallow the community out of which the come, but ulimately, I thought, here are stories of color painted solely in white, and so I asked Walt if we might give the book a fuller sense of itself by commissioning an African-American artist to illustrate the cover and interior. Walt nodded emphatically and a few months later the acclaimed print artist Steve Prince graciously agreed to the work and delivered a handful of exquiste prints that give Walt’s stories back to the silent voices out of which they arise. 

Some, however, saw those works of art and worried that they were too ethnic, that they would offend those they attempted to depict. So we sent the book to multiple people of color and asked for their reactions, fearing to make a misstep. But “This is us,” they told us. “We feel heard,” and “Thank you.” I talked to Walt about the varying reactions to the artwork and he told me that when he gave the book to his daughter, who is African-American, she was “over the moon” about the pictures. The point is this: had we not first heard the absence of that voice, and then actively included in the process those for whom it spoke, what good might we have failed to do?

So listen, yes, but let our listening be as rest before the day’s labor begins—whether that means writing, or playing music, or fighting injustice, or caring for the poor, or serving your church, the Holy Spirit will surely answer. 

And so, O Lord, let us listen, that we may be listless no longer. Amen.


Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


5 Comments

  1. Kara

    @karajanechase

    Confession: In January I began reading Just Mercy and put it down. I got uncomfortable.
    In my experience, going from passive hearing to active listening requires humility and numerous and frequent deaths to self.
    Your words, Pete, are a gentle rebuke to a listening ear. Thank you.
    “Oh mercy, mercy me…” you did have something to say after all.

  2. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    “To hear is only to collect information; to listen is to follow that information as it leads you into the mystery of another person, of another image of God, of an experience precious beyond words because it is one you cannot access through your own actions or understanding. Indeed, there is loving in listening.”

    This, over and over again.

  3. Kristin Kjorlaug Dobrowolski

    @kristinkjorlaug

    Thank you, Pete. When conversations around my community began to get heated and I realized that my first move was education, I clicked here to the Rabbit Room. I trust the resources you all have put out and it’s been a safe place to run with questions for many years now. I just wanted to say thank you for all I’ve learned and most recently for these current observations.

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