Doing the voices

December 12th, 2014

“Do the voices, Daddy.” It’s a common request that kids make of their parents when it is bedtime, and the parent has been dragging through the bedtime ritual, longing for sweet, sweet sleep. The parent starts reading a bedtime story in a listless monotone, and the child corrects the parent: “Do the voices.” If she were an acting coach or a movie director, she might say, “Put your heart into it!”

Christians often debate what the Bible means or how to interpret particular passages, but one thing we don’t often talk about explicitly is how we do the voices. The voice we use to read the Bible makes a big difference in how we hear it, whether we read it publicly in church or at home during devotional reading. It’s one reason I enjoy watching religious movies, because how different directors choose to shoot the same scene tells you a lot about their theology. Is Jesus speaking in a serene “spiritual” voice? Or is he speaking with an edge, or even snarky sarcasm? How are characters cast — their ethnicity, size and age? Do they have loud or soft voices, reedy voices or gravelly voices? Does God boom from heaven like James Earl Jones? You can tell a lot about somebody’s implicit theology by the voices they choose to represent different characters.

I also note what kind of characters speak with what kind of accents in Bible movies. For some reason, Roman and Egyptian leaders often speak with English accents and soldiers speak with Scottish ones. But nobody speaks with a Boston accent or a southern drawl! We are so used to these conventions that we don’t question them, or consider what they tell us about class or ethnicity, or who we consider exotic and “other.”

I often suggest that people read the Bible out loud, even during devotional study. Sometimes reading out loud is the only way you can follow the convoluted phrasing of Paul’s longer sentences, or hear the choppiness of Mark’s writing, or hear the parallelism or wit of Psalms and Proverbs.

I also suggest that people try out different voices. Imagine that you are a director of a movie, casting different actors to play different roles. What if Jesus looks and speaks more like Chris Rock or Danny DeVito, instead of Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ,” 2004) or Jeffrey Hunter (“King of Kings,” 1961)? How does that change how you hear the gospel? Who would you cast as Jesus, as Pilate, as Mary or as Peter? Why? When you ask these kinds of questions and play this game with friends, you are beginning to dig into your own implicit theology. Why do we feel that God “should” speak with a certain voice?

It’s no secret that we bring a lot of baggage into our reading of Scripture, both from pop culture and church culture, but we can begin to identify these biases when we talk about tone and voice. For example, consider Galatians 3:1-4:

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?” (NRSV)

Paul says he only wants to learn one thing, but then he asks no less than five questions. He’s clearly flustered, but you could choose to read this in any number of voices. Paul could be pleading, or he could be exasperated, or he could be so angry he spits out the words. Maybe he pauses, trying to search for the right words, or maybe he’s so angry he plows forward and the sentences become one long rant.

Unfortunately, when we read Scripture in church, we often put on the “Bible voice,” which reads everything in the same pious monotone. But whenever we read, we are engaged in active interpretation even in the tone we choose. Some folks in one Bible study I lead talk about my “sarcastic, badass Jesus” voice. It’s not a voice that they are used to hearing in the church traditions they come from, but it’s the voice I use to read Matthew 21:25, when Jesus defends his authority against the religious leaders: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” I imagine Jesus leaning forward, jabbing his finger into the air. When they can’t answer, he leans back, arms folded across his chest. “Then neither will I answer you, Mr. Smarty-pants.”

No, Jesus doesn’t ever say “Mr. Smarty-pants.” But when I do the voices, it’s implied.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

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