Listening Beyond Consensus: A Receptive Disposition

In this post I want to suggest a way in which film can utilize what C.S. Lewis called “the narrative qualities of the [in this case, moving] picture” to teach listening as a significant hermeneutic posture.[1]  I want to draw attention to the way in which narrative qualities of art can theologically instruct us to go beyond consensus so that we might listen more carefully to the outside voice.

Nearing Easter Sunday of Holy Week 2014, I sat down with my children, as they were watching Derek Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov’s 2000 film, The Miracle Maker.[2]  I was suddenly struck by an exchange between Jairus, the Jewish Temple priest and Cleopas.  Witnessing the unfolding of Jairus’ family crisis concerning his daughter’s weakening vitality, Cleopas carefully, yet with a subtle confidence suggests, “I think we should listen to this Jesus [fully aware that Jesus stands far removed from the consensus].”[3]  Without refrain he continued: “no one ever lost their soul by listening to a lie .  Only by believing it and following it.  But if he [i.e. Jesus] speaks the truth; we have nothing to fear from the truth, do we?”[4]  Immediately, a second temple priest asserts in a resonant tone of suspicion, “we must question Jesus and see how he defends himself.”[5]

One may sympathize with the second priest in the film, who wants nothing more than consensus to provide a means for discerning truth, but as the story unfolds, his hermeneutic of suspicion lacks the very openness that is essential for reception, reminding one of D.Z. Philips’ promptings to be “suspicious about suspicion.”[6]

Keeping this in mind, David Brown has put the right amount of pressure on Jürgen Habermas’ “consensus theory of truth” for failing to take into account past developments, not to mention creating little room for voices outside of consensus.[7] For Brown, “even if this is the best way of discovering the truth, there is more to truth than simply human agreement.  Not only is there a world independent of that consensus, there is a God independent of that world.”[8] In a stronger sense, we hear the words of the character, Cleopas and realize that cultivating a listening disposition is a more promising way forward regarding hermeneutic theory in theology and the arts.

It was Hans-Georg Gadamer who argued that hermeneutics not only touched on areas of interpreting art, but more emphatically, that hermeneutics “embrace[s] the whole sphere of art and its complex questions.  Every work of art, not only literature, must be understood like any other text that requires understanding, and this kind of understanding has to be acquired.  This gives hermeneutical consciousness a comprehensiveness that surpasses even that of aesthetic consciousness.  Aesthetics has to be absorbed into hermeneutics.”[9]

But how does such understanding take place?  For Gadamer, listening was primary for understanding.  Following  Gadamer, Anthony Thiselton relates that in the practice of hermeneutics “what one has to exercise above all is the ear, the sensitivity for perceiving prior determinations, anticipations, and imprints that reside in concepts.”[10] Closely associated, is the way in which C.S. Lewis proposed surrender as a key turn towards reception: “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender.  Look.  Listen.  Receive.  Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out).”[11]

The type of listening I am advocating in hermeneutical discussions between theology and art is aptly described by Sarah Coakley as “more subtle,” “more difficult,”  “less hostile and triumphant,” “a form of practiced dispossession in the Spirit to the emergence of a truth which may surprise, inform, or disturb by terms just as the interruption of the speech by the Spirit in prayer.”[12] Perhaps, we can learn to say along with the cinematic character Cleopas, “I think we should listen.”[13]

[1] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961). 16.
[2] Derek Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov, “The Miracle Maker,” (United Kingdom: Icon Film Distribution, 2000).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] D.Z. Phillips, Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 2001). 23.
[7] David Brown, Continental Philosophy and Modern Theology:  An Engagement (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987). 147.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2011).  Earlier in TM, Gadamer attempted to establish the “ontology” of the picture. 137.  He observed:  “the divine becomes picturable only through the word and image.  Thus the religious picture has an exemplary significance.” 137.
[10] Anthony C. Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007). xvii.
[11] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism. 19.
[12] Sarah Coakley, “Reconceiving ‘Natural Theology’:  Meaning, Sacrifice, and God,” in Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology (YouTube Video, 1:14:39, 2012).
[13] Sokolov, “The Miracle Maker.”



  • Tim earned his PhD (2016) as a member of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland under the supervision of Dr. George Corbett and Prof. David Brown. Tim's forthcoming book project is based on his dissertation research with the preliminary title: Heaven and the Popular Imagination; due to be published sometime in late 2017, or early 2018 by Wipf and Stock Publishers. Tim currently serves as an adjunct professor of theological studies at Multnomah University/Seminary Reno-Tahoe campus and will assume the position of Senior Pastor of New Life Foursquare Church at Incline Village, Nevada in April 2017.

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  1. says: Michael Stach

    My field is not theology so it would be an error for me to comment on that part of your article. I would suggest some reflection on ideas from media studies. It seems to me that Lewis is making reference in part to ideas from Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan posited two types of media, hot and cold.
    Hot media, which requires little of us, is all around. It bombards us everywhere we go. We can’ turn it off and we can’t decrease the amplification. The voice of God is cold media. It requires that we interact, that we reflect, that we internalize. This becomes more difficult for us. How can we hear a still small voice in the cacaphony of modern life?
    But when we reflect on what God would say to us our lives can change forever!
    Very thought provoking article. Thank you for this.

  2. says: Michael K. Stach

    Great article, I found it thought provoking. I am not qualified to comment on the theological aspects of the article but I did have some comments about the multitude of voices we hear and how that hinders our reflection on the messages God has for us.
    Marshall McLuhan classified media as being either hot or cool. Hot media, the types we are bombarded with every waking minute, require little interaction from us. They are over amplified and nonstop. We can’t turn them off as they try to sell us everything we don’t need. The popular media doesn’t require much from us except consensus and consumption.
    Cool media requires our participation. When we read a book we need to turn pages. I would suggest that Lewis is telling us to stop listening to the cacophony of the consensus and to actively participate in hearing a message from God. Because of the nature of God’s message and the cool nature of the medium, we can’t just be hearers of the Word, we need to be doers as well. This requires us to take up our cross.
    Can we turn off electronics and special effects to hear the voice of God? Today we don’t have someone crying in the wilderness but single voices in the crowd telling us to turn away towards a straight and narrow way.
    sorry that this is so inarticulate but I express myself better when I can wave my arms.

    1. says: Tim M. Allen

      Dr. Stach – great to hear from you and thank you for your thoughtful response to my post! You raise an important point that I think Lewis would agree with and would probably push against my use of what he might consider in film, a too literal device that drowns the imagination from the important possibilities you raised. At the same time, I think in religion, consensus too often pushes against the outside voice for various reasons (including fear, protection and security…), but in turn, often misses opportunities to see and hear the Spirit working in voices other than the consensus. Film is an important way in contemporary culture that can (not always) open up some of these narrative possibilities for the imagination. Lewis would certainly not throw reason to the wind just to hear the new thing. As you know, he had a great disdain for many things new. But he would find ways to explore how narrative points us to deeper wells. The radical nature of the cross you mentioned is always trying to break through to open our ‘eyes,’ even when our consensus has decided against such possibilities. Again, thank you for reading! Your ‘Religion and American Society’ course taught me a great deal about the relationship between religion and culture. I will always be thankful for the way you spoke into my life! I look forward to more conversations to come! Many blessings!

  3. says: Anya Johnson

    Beautiful. A message in the making. Intertexuality to the core. The other night I could not sleep. I asked Holy Spirit if he had something to say to me. I heard in my spirit “eye has not seen ear has not heard.” I had to look it up as I knew those words were in Scripture somewhere! Isaiah 64 and I Corinthians 2. You delightfully circle the wagons with your poignant words to lay down the weapons of skepticism – take the wax out of ears and let the fun begin of seeing the other through listening eyes. . .

    1. says: Tim M. Allen

      Thank you for your thoughtful and encouraging response, Anya! Great scripture references, as well!

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