Listen Up!
Our Post-Reformation Approach to Music and Literature
Josh Langhoff

In the 1970 “Beethoven” issue of Revue L’Arc, the French essayist Roland Barthes tried to figure out what happens when we listen to music. He proposed there were “two musics: one you listen to, one you play.” Barthes claimed music for playing—physical, “muscular,” performed “alone or among friends”—had already disappeared in favor of music for listening, as performed by professional interpreters. But listening to Beethoven’s music, he still found what he called an “unknown praxis,” in which listeners projected themselves into Beethoven’s creative activity, composing and performing it vicariously while they listened. “Operating” the music, Barthes called it, as though Beethoven’s musical texts were contraptions of some sort (Barthes 1970). What might those operations look like? Maybe you’ve surreptitiously conducted Beethoven from your theater seat, or felt your step buoyed by humming the Eroica, or complained that the Fidelio overture sounds like the work of an anal retentive man determined to wring the life from any musical idea unfortunate enough to enter his head. These are all reasonable responses to Beethoven.

Several years later, Barthes, writing with Roland Havas, dug even deeper into what it meant to listen. As an effort to decode meanings from sounds, listening meant communion, not just with the makers of sound but with “the hidden world of the gods.” “To listen is the evangelical verb par excellence,” wrote the two Rolands; “Luther’s Reformation was largely made in the name of listening; the Protestant church is exclusively a site of listening, and the Counter-Reformation itself, in order not to be left behind, placed the pulpit in the center of the church… and made the faithful into ‘listeners’” (Barthes and Havas 1976, 250). They were alluding to the doctrine of sola scriptura, the idea that the Word is the final authority in matters of faith, accessible to anyone. By teaching the church how to listen to the Word, the Reformation began a centuries-long process of teaching the Western world how to read and listen to everything else. (When we say a certain book or passage “strikes a chord,” we realize how closely reading and listening are linked.) And as often as not, after we listen, we find ourselves acting out those hidden meanings we’ve deciphered. “Go in peace,” says the priest to end the Mass; and so we go.

Or, as the American critic Richard Meltzer wrote in a 1971 pan of the Rolling Stones’ classic album Sticky Fingers: “There’s creation and there’s listening—one has eight letters and one has nine.”

But what happens if we mishear? If our listening is off, does that mean all our subsequent communing, acting, and creating is somehow wrong?

The critic Michaelangelo Matos tells a remarkable story about his mother listening to Diana Ross and the Supremes’ song “Love Child.” Matos was born when his mom was fourteen years old. She originally planned to put him up for adoption, but changed her mind just before signing the papers, deciding instead to raise her son by herself, in poverty. When Matos was a baby, she would sing him “Love Child”—as it turns out, incorrectly. In the song, Ross’ narrator sings to her boyfriend, refusing to sleep with him because she won’t raise their potential child alone. Mishearing a crucial line, Matos’ mother thought Ross was singing to a baby, not a boyfriend; she assumed Ross was endorsing single motherhood, when in fact the song’s message was the complete opposite. Matos concludes:

“I think ‘Love Child’ told Mom what she needed to hear, at a time when it seemed that no one else would. And that’s difficult to accept, because by all rights no one else should have told her that. I don’t think fourteen-year-olds should be having children… [but] I have little choice but to feel indebted to ‘Love Child.’ If a pop song can change your life or save it, this one feels like it helped to enable mine” (Matos 2007, 18).

Few misheard lyrics have such life-or-death consequences. Mostly they become fleeting jokes, to be compiled in bathroom books like Gavin Edwards’ ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy. More commonly, listeners hear songs correctly but repurpose them, projecting themselves into the lyrics and music, grappling with or mutilating the texts to suit their own needs—“operating” them, Barthes might say. Sometimes this renders listeners ridiculous, as when Ronald Reagan tried to pump up crowds with Bruce Springsteen’s desperate character study “Born in the USA,” or when generations of suburban white kids (including yours truly) learned to walk like superheroes while listening to rap music. Sometimes listeners grapple as a survival strategy, using more imagination than the texts they wrestle. In 1971, confronting a suffocating wave of smug sexism in rock music, the critic Ellen Willis proposed a test: “take a song written by a man about a woman and reverse the sexes.” By this reckoning, she found the Rolling Stones’ openly hostile “Under My Thumb” less sexist than the simpering condescension of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” because women could better imagine themselves singing the former to men (Willis 1971, 136).

And sometimes we realize musicians are telling us more about themselves than they intend. In Barthes’ words, fans listen to decode “the ‘underside’ of meaning.” “To be gay requires watching for hints,” wrote the critic Alfred Soto in his moving eulogy for the long-closeted pop star George Michael. “When nearly 100 percent of pop songs aren’t about or for the queer life, gay fans learn to study shifts in emphasis, to stay alert” (Soto, 2016). We also hear this phenomenon in songs where the singers assure their listeners they don’t care about us or our love. If they don’t care, why did they take the trouble to record a song about it?

We are post-Reformation listeners. We prize the text, the “Word,” but we take from it what we need, or what we think its author needs to give us; and these different listenings exist in perpetual motion.

Compare this with how we listen to scripture; specifically, with how one set of listeners has traditionally listened to—misheard?—one familiar parable.

In Matthew 25’s Parable of the Talents, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a master entrusting his three slaves with large sums of money called “talents.” Two of the slaves put their talents to work and double their master’s money; the third, a nervous man, buries his single talent in the ground to preserve it. When the master returns, he applauds the two investors—“Well done, good and trustworthy slave”—and invites them to share in his happiness. The third isn’t so fortunate. “You wicked and lazy slave!” cries the master. He gives this man’s talent to slave No. 1, and consigns lazy slave No. 3 to outer darkness for weeping and tooth-gnashing. The master delivers his stark moral, “For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

Protestant church musicians are always hungry for approval, so we tend to zero in on the first words of the master: “Well done.” This has been true at least since the eighteenth century, when John Wesley wrote the hymn “Slave of God, Well Done!” In her nineteenth century adaptation of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, Cecil Frances Alexander taught Anglican congregations to long for “the sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour,” and in modern gospel and Christian pop, “Well done” has become a trope, used in song after song. Earlier this year, the Christian R&B singer Erica Campbell released her own fine single called “Well Done,” in which she imagines herself meeting Jesus after a life spent devoting her gifts to his service. “I just wanna hear you say WELL… DONE…” she sings, her voice layered and stretching into dissonant harmonies, searing the message onto listeners’ brains like a cattle brand.

“Well done” songs represent a highly complex, if common, method of “operating” scripture. Acknowledging only half of Jesus’ parable, Campbell extracts the master’s “well done” and wraps it in heavenly visions from a different book, John’s Revelation. Her song mentions John the Revelator’s streets of gold, but not Matthew’s wicked and lazy slave; she sees the company of saints but not the outer darkness, nor the master who would consign to it another human being, stripped of what little he had. For Campbell’s song and for many Christians, listening well to the Parable of the Talents means using our earthly gifts to serve God, with the promise of a divine reward at the end. This reading makes for a good song. After all, who doesn’t long for some kind of ultimate recognition and rest?

But this is not the only way to listen! Thanks to the Reformation’s legacy of vernacular Bible study, everyone—you, your pastor, the neighborhood theology professor, and Erica Campbell—can listen to the same scripture and come away with a different message. If you chafe against one another’s readings strongly enough, one of you can simply start a new Protestant denomination. Difficult passages like the Parable of the Talents hover somewhere between Rorschach test and shibboleth: who are you, and whose side are you on? Do you follow the prosperity gospel, turning to Jesus for investment advice and creative visualization techniques? Does the parable prize the master’s grace (the gift of the talents) or the slaves’ works (what they did with those talents)? One Lutheran scholar suggests the harsh master doesn’t represent a divine figure at all; rather, Jesus’ parable is a parody, designed to subvert his followers’ messianic expectations (Carey 2014). Sola scriptura, sure; but which scriptura are we listening to?

Matthew’s surrounding chapters offer a clue. Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives when his disciples ask him how they’ll know the end times are nigh. Jesus answers not with words of comfort or explanation, but by unsettling them. His disciples have some ideas about what the end of the age and the Son of Man will look like. Jesus suggests most of what they know is idolatrous junk. Serving the Son of Man means serving other people—even poor prisoners, “the least of these”—as though they are your king or master. Furthermore (Jesus doesn’t mention this but I will), if the commutative property of the parables holds true, not only do “the least of these” equal the Son of Man; the master in the Parable of the Talents also equals “the least of these.” Who entrusts us slaves with talents to build the kingdom? Who judges the proper use of those talents, and doles out rewards and punishments accordingly? It might be the woman you served at last month’s community meal—the one who described, at some length, the bizarre revelations God had laid on her heart, and then finagled a ride to the train station.

Jesus’ visions of the kingdom of God represent a great leveling of authority, and if we’re listening correctly, they should deeply unsettle or exhilarate us—maybe both at once. The Body of Christ is a swarm of people from every rung of the social ladder. We meet the Son of Man through our joy and praise, our struggles and service, but not through any single tradition of biblical education. Isn’t it possible that someone with whom I profoundly disagree has a better grasp of Jesus’ teachings than I do? Isn’t it possible I’ve misheard the Word? On the other hand, they might be a false prophet. Who the heck knows?

Despite that uncertainty, we find exhilaration in the Reformation’s other solas. The gifts of grace and faith mean God can use me and all my squabbling spiritual siblings, along with our disputes and mishearings, to build the kingdom. We might never settle our differences before the Son of Man appears, but that’s not our deal; our calling is to invest our talents with a quickness, because the master could show up at any moment. Whatever that means.

Protestantism is a paradox, a tumbling “-ism” devoted to undermining itself. Theologian Paul Tillich called the Protestant principle “the expression of the victory of the Spirit over religion,” making the idea of a “Protestant religion” something of a conundrum. But here’s one thing Protestantism is not: some kind of purity march toward correct, unsullied doctrine. Sola scriptura doesn’t mean we can burrow deeply enough into a passage of scripture to find its one true meaning, as though “one true meaning” could exist in a body with billions of members, hearing the Word in thousands of languages, listening amid circumstances most of the others cannot hope to understand. The divine genius of the Word is that it meets every person where we are and operates on us, offering to toss us into the Spirit’s grasp regardless of how we might have misheard the text.

So we continue to listen, burrowing toward something. One joy of music listening is discovering other people have heard the same text in a completely different way, and then struggling to hear through their ears—operating the music as though we were someone else. At this point the musical canon is less settled than the scriptural one. (I still dislike most Beethoven, and though I enjoy Sticky Fingers, I also hear Meltzer’s point: “Without ‘Brown Sugar’ there’d be no excuse for this album.”) But after thousands of years
people continue hearing new things in the Word, inspiring creative new ways to go in peace and remember the poor. If you come to scripture listening for doctrinal certainty…well, let’s just say you can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.


Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to regional Mexican music.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  “Musica Practica,” 1970. In The Responsibility of Forms, translated by Richard Howard, 261-266. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

Barthes, Roland, and Roland Havas. “Listening,” 1976. In The Responsibility of Forms, translated by Richard Howard, 245-260. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

Carey, Greg. “Commentary on Matthew 25:14-30.” Working Preacher. November 16, 2014. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2208

Matos, Michaelangelo. “A Double History of the Supremes’ ‘Love Child.’” In Best Music Writing 2007, edited by Daphne Carr and Robert Christgau, 10-18. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2007.

Meltzer, Richard. “The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers,” 1971. In A Whore Just Like the Rest, 129-132. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2000.

Soto, Alfred. “Let’s Go Outside: How George Michael’s Sexuality and Music Never Stopped Maturing.” Billboard. December 26, 2016. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/7633317/george-michael-gay-artist-sexuality-career

Willis, Ellen. 1971. “But Now I’m Gonna Move.” In Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis On Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz, 135-139. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

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