Hearing Things

Paul Harvey

Our blog routinely promotes reviews and discussions of new books, including the don't-miss post just below by Ed Blum on two new religious biographies.

To supplement this, I thought it would be nice occasionally to feature older books, either older classics or books published in the last decade but no longer hot off the press; or to highlight reviews published in places where historians and religious studies folk probably would miss them; or just to publish reviews that we enjoyed writing. Contributions are welcome.

So, to kick this off I'm reprinting below a review of mine of Leigh Schmidt's Hearing Things. I'm reproducing this here for several reasons. First, I've been facing terrible pain in my family recently, a terminal cancer that will soon take a loved one, and at such times the inexplicably cruel nature of such deaths, and the apparent silence of the gods, strike one hard, and the questions we contemplate in the Humanities become less academic and more internally pressing (and no more answerable). With this in mind, I read this book, and my review, more personally than I did when I wrote this several years ago. (I should add that my absence from the blog lately, and in the coming days as well, is due to the personal energies taken up by this situation; my thanks to my co-editors for filling in in the interim).

Secondly, as will be obvious from the review I admired the book, and this blog seems to be a good place to plug books we admire, whether current or older works.

Finally, this review appeared in a theological journal (Spiritus) that historians would typically not read (I had not heard of it myself until asked to do this review). Moreover, I just enjoyed writing this as much or more than just about anything I've ever done. So, without further adieu, I give you . . .

Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment. By Leigh Eric Schmidt. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii + 318. $37.50; ISBN 0–674–00303–9.

“You called up in the sky
You called up in the clouds
Is there something you forgot to tell me... tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me.”

(from Joan Osborne, “St. Teresa,” 1995).

For much of Christian history, the ear was the way to God. “Hearing things” meant hearing God’s voice, directly, unmediatedly. One could not see God, but one could hear the voice of the divine.

Now, of course, “hearing things” is a colloquialism that suggests mental instability, and perhaps the need for a quick dose of some psychotropics. The street people I stepped over every morning on my way to the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, during graduate school, heard things, and talked back in response, but everyone else ducked their heads and walked along quickly, at once embarrassed and disheartened at the collapse of state mental health services and the consequent intrusion of psychoses into the public square.

Along the way, as well, God has stopped speaking––or at least it seems that way to many, both Christians and non–Christians. The street corner St. Teresa, the dealing street-corner angel of Joan Osborne’s Grammy–winning song, cries out to the sky, vainly importuning God for leaving her in her situation, without so much as a sentence of explanation or comfort. The “talkative” God of the Bible has fallen silent, frustrating those who await the still, small voice. “Is there something,” we want to ask God, “you forgot to tell me?”

But of course Christians and others still hear the voice of God. He has not fallen silent for everyone, even if the presence of God might be represented in Hollywood by the avuncular George Burns or the hipster Alanis Morissette. Meanwhile, postmodern theorists have “unmasked” the ethnocentrism implicit in the valorization of the eye over the ear, the visual over the auditory, that came as part of the whole package of false promises of the Enlightenment. Reliance on the ear was characteristic of the primitive and the African, Enlightenment thinkers asserted, hence the western emphasis on the visual as the surer road to knowledge. The eye could not be fooled as the ear could––by ventriloquists, spiritualists, and all manner of illusionists who delighted in deception, and whose relentless assault on the unreliable ear is chronicled in fascinating detail in Schmidt’s brilliant book.

Leigh Schmidt gives an extended and wonderfully entertaining intellectual history of how “hearing things” underwent such a transformation. Along the way, we learn a great deal about fascinating but relatively unknown characters from the Enlightenment era and the nineteenth century, who developed the field of acoustical studies, delighted audiences with Mickey-Mouse voice effects produced by inhaling hydrogen gas, and played around with sound trumpets and other means of transmitting sound. In western thought, hearing the voice of God moved from being a divinely spiritual moment to being inevitably trapped in the world of illusion (at best) or the asylum, the home for those who heard things. Schmidt traces the evolution of our contemporary understanding of hallucination (defined in the 1880s as “perception without an object”) and illusion (a false perception). “It is this breakage of the sign, the loss of any presence in these experiences,” he argues, “that marks the real undoing of God’s listeners . . . disembodied voices . . . had no actuality except in the memories, imaginations, desires, and agonies of those who heard them.” In sum, Schmidt’s work explains the process of the “normalization of God’s silence” (198).

“What would you ask if you had just one question,” Joan Osborne sings in another tune about God, suggesting again that God’s silence is so normal that asking God a question is a fantasy along the lines of “what would you do if you won the lottery?” or “who would you meet if you could meet anyone?”

The twist in Schmidt’s analysis, however, lies in his recognition, in the epilogue, that the “desire for a ‘holy listening’ has hardly subsided in American culture.” Rather, as he concludes, “the noisier and more frenetic the contemporary world is perceived as being, the stronger that spiritual longing becomes.” So today we have the increasing popularity of music therapies, or the “heightened attention to contemplative silences, evident in New Age appropriations of Zen Buddhism and Eastern Orthodoxy,” as well as the recurrent fascination with angels and “their whispers of consolation.” Apparently, then, God’s silence has never been as normalized as the Enlightenment skeptics, scientists, and stage–performing illusionists would have had it.

Schmidt discusses “sound Christians” of the modern era, discussing in depth their perceptions of God’s voice. Methodist preacher Lorenzo Dow, the black Methodist female exhorter Jarena Lee, and the noisy evangelicals of the camp meeting era of the early Republic all receive extended discussion. But as Schmidt points out, “extraordinary calls and sudden leadings continued to flourish in popular Protestant piety, and evangelical ways of hearing hardly lost their resonance; if anything, they radiated even more widely in modernity’s wake” (76). Schmidt concludes the chapter on “sound Christians” with the story of Oral Roberts’s healing and call to preach. The audible call Roberts heard was hardly surprising to him, “given the enveloping devotional culture of these sound Christians,” but at the same time “that very intimacy with divine speech proved a two–edged sword, imperiling his standing in the wider society and ultimately turning him from evangelist to laughingstock” (77).

In the following two chapters, “oracles of reason” and “how to become a ventriloquist,” Schmidt follows the stories of those who pulled the curtain from the Wizard of Oz, exposing the tricks and manipulations and deceptions behind God’s apparent speech, whether that speech come from ancient oracles, from nineteenth–century spiritualists, or from other disembodied voices. Contemporary figures who devote full–time to exposing fraudulent mysticism––debunkers of spoon–benders, UFO sightings, angelic presences, and the like––carry on the tradition of the acoustical experimenters of the eighteenth and nineteenth century that Schmidt discusses in detail. The newly emerging science of acoustics demystified what previously had been divine sound, and (evidently) left behind “sound Christians” in a cultural backwater of irrelevant religious mystics and eccentrics. Even with the triumph of the acoustical scientists, however, the sound of the divine yet remained real for many who continued to hear “Voices from the Spirit–Land,” the title of chapter five.

Chief among these was Emmanuel Swedenborg, part of a panoply of figures who restored apostolic speech and “made part of a communications network [into] a wonderland of good vibrations” (202). While Enlightenment figures “had been dedicated to the proposition that the technological disembodiment of the voice and the artificial propagation of sound were useful means of exposing the absences in the oracular,” others (including Henry David Thoreau) found instead that “mechanical mediation became instead a vehicle of presences, a salvific force alive with vibrational and telegraphic connections” (239). Thoreau famously heard God in the “sonorous revelations” of nature, but he also “discerned a universal harmony, a music of the spheres, through telegraph posts and wires” (241). Walt Whitman sang the body electric, because for many nineteenth-century Americans the electric transmitted the spiritual, as unseen forces moved over the wires.

Schmidt’s work will leave the reader with a greatly heightened sense of the interplay of the oracular, the auditory, and the visual in religious understanding. Many of the questions that perplex us now, he makes clear, were fully in evidence already in the eighteenth century. The postmodernists are late to the game of contemplating the fractured and disembodied self. At the same time, and unfairly, some readers may grow frustrated as Schmidt raises, elaborates, and so deftly plays around with fundamental questions, without proposing any solutions other than that “suspicion can be turned on the suspicious,” and the unmaskers will inevitably themselves be unmasked.

Thus, the “ ‘midnight of absence that now haunts much of religious studies and the humanities generally” (251) also haunts this book, and it is a testament to Schmidt’s brilliance (and to the intractability of the questions he studies) that the reader will await anxiously, but unsuccessfully, for the author to provide some resolution to street corner St. Teresa's cri de Coeur to God, “is there something you forgot to tell me?”


Kelly Baker at: May 19, 2008 at 9:31 AM said...


This a wonderful review of one of my favorite books. The auditory still proves fascinating in the realm of religion as well as the American fascination with the supernatural. Thanks for posting it here.

Edward J Blum at: May 19, 2008 at 11:28 AM said...

now that's a book review!

christopher at: May 19, 2008 at 11:47 AM said...

Excellent. Thanks, Paul. Reviewing older books is helpful for young grad students who either haven't read them or haven't read reviews that critically engage them.

Tracy at: May 19, 2008 at 11:57 AM said...

Paul, I am so sorry for your grief. Your post and your review put me in mind of a favorite poem by Denise Levertov that I came across again yesterday:

Human being - walking
in doubt from childhood on: walking

a ledge of slippery stone in the world's woods
deep-layered with wet leaves - rich or sad: on one
side of the path, ecstasy, on the other
dull grief. Walking

the mind's imperial cities, roofed-over alleys,
thoroughfares, wide boulevards
that hold evening primrose of sky in steady calipers.

Always the mind
walking, working, stopping sometimes to kneel
in awe of beauty, sometimes leaping, filled with the energy
of delight, but never able to pass
the wall, the wall
of brick that crumbles and is replaced,
of twisted iron,
of rock,
the wall that speaks, saying monotonously:

Children and animals
who cannot learn
anything from suffering,
suffer, are tortured, die
in incomprehension.

This human being, each night nevertheless
summoning - with a breath blown at a flame,
or hand's touch
on the lamp-switch - darkness,
silently utters,
impelled as if by a need to cup the palms
and drink from a river,
the words, "Thanks.
Thanks for this day, a day of my life.'
And wonders.
Pulls up the blankets, looking
into nowhere, always in doubt.
And takes strange pleasure
in having repeated once more the childish formula,
a pleasure in what is seemly.
And drifts to sleep, downstream
on murmuring currents of doubt and praise,
the wall shadowy, that tomorrow
will cast its own familiar, chill, clear-cut shadow
into the day's brilliance.

Denise Levertov

Hang in there.

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