“The VOICE is the speakers great instrument,” is the first line typed on two 3” by 5” cards stuck into my granddad’s hardcover NSAB New Testament. You can tell it’s my granddad’s New Testament because it’s been repaired with blue duct tape. The two cards (probably typed by my mother) contain advice on vocal exercises for public speakers. They give advice like: “Do not begin in too high a key,” and “Keep the lungs filled” (presumably with air). My grandfather had regular preaching appointments, and was self-conscious about his voice. It wasn’t very good, really. He sang like a basset-hound with an upper-respiratory infection. He didn’t enunciate very well. There were words he couldn’t coach himself to pronounce correctly – “famine” was “phantom”, and “Batsell Barrett Baxter” was “Batsell Batsell Batsell.” But his voice was no more a hindrance than his lack of formal education. He knew the word. He loved the Lord. He was patient and loving with everyone he met. When he preached, everyone listened.
Lafcadio Hearn once wrote: “It is a curious fact, certainly, that a human voice is, of all things, the hardest to remember….once silent we cannot even imagine we hear it again.” I disagree. I can still hear my grandfather’s voice as clearly as if he were at my side. I can hear him reading I John 4, hear him singing his basset hound’s version of “Young at Heart” along with Frank Sinatra and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, hear him telling me to keep my head down when I swing a golf club. I can hear the voices of nearly all the friends and dear ones now gone. Hearn wrote the above quote in 1880, before Edison discovered how to mechanically reproduce the voice, before someone in Spear Fish, South Dakota could put a disc on the Victrola and hear Enrico Caruso singing Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera. No one still alive can remember a time when recording and preserving the human voice wasn’t possible. Could it be that the technology which allows us to record voices, has allowed us to better remember them?
In advertisements, the symbol of the Victrola was the picture of an American Staffordshire Terrier sitting at attention before the great trumpet of the music machine. Below it the text read, in explanation: “…his master’s voice.” The notion was that a recording of the master’s voice was so good it could fool even hyper-sensitive dog-ears. I have several old 78’s from the 1920’s and earlier – and one imagines while listening to them that even in pristine condition, their sound quality could never compare with the most cheaply made listening devices nowadays. But there is something special, even haunting hearing a voice from 1918 singing “Chicken Scratch Blues”. You think, “Wow, the person singing this song had no knowledge of the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, lunar landings, or pop-tarts – and yet, here they are, singing me a song and playing the banjo.”
John accomplishes something like this in John 20 using nothing but the written word. Mary Magdalene is in the Garden of Gethsemane confronting an empty tomb where she expects to find the body of Jesus. In her panic and despair, she doesn’t recognize the person speaking to her is Jesus, himself. She suspects that he is the gardener. And then Jesus calls her name. As you read along in the Greek text, she is “Mari”, and her conversation with Jesus is in Greek, translated from the Aramaic they would have been speaking. But when Jesus says her name, he says “Mariam” (John 20.16). Jesus says her name in Aramaic. We hear the same sound she hears when Jesus calls her name – we hear Jesus’ voice exactly as she does! It is an amazing effect, and I wonder why our English translations don’t reproduce it.
Then again, the miracle of the Bible is it bears translation from one language to another without diminishing the Voice that speaks. We understand completely when Mary exclaims “rabboni” (my dear teacher) – her joy transcends the limits of translation. Some translations, like some recordings, are obviously better than others – but the voice is still recognizable. Whether you are listening to an Okeh 78, or a digitally re-mastered recording – there is no mistaking the voice of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five doing “Heebie Jeebies.” So also, when we hold the Bible open in our laps – whether it is a KJV, an ESV, or a Geneva Bible – we are hearing our Master’s voice. Unlike the attentive terrier in front of the Victrola, we aren’t being fooled by a reproduction. We are like Mary Magdalene in the garden – hearing the very voice of our dear teacher.