The unseen (but not always silent) audience

A few years ago I took a class in Biblical hermeneutics (how we interpret the texts of the Bible) for an MA degree. One of the things that hadn’t really occurred to me until then was to consider not only the intended audience for a text, but also the audience who might be “listening in,” and what their reaction might be. So, for example, the writer of a psalm might address his composition to a king. But when it is recited at court, there are others – courtiers, ambassadors, the king’s family – who also listen and receive a message from the text. Similarly, Paul might write a letter to an individual (say, Timothy) or a congregation like the one at Ephesus (OK, I’m taking a viewpoint on authorship here I know, but bear with me). He has things to say which apply to a particular situation. But he is also aware that others may also read or hear the contents of the letter and apply it to themselves, maybe in a slightly different context. Whether he had any inkling that, almost 2,000 years later, people hundreds or thousands of miles away might try to work out a meaning to apply to their very different context is, I would suggest, rather unlikely.

The Gospels depict Jesus in conversation with individuals and with groups like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. But very often we are aware that there is a large audience surrounding them. Sometimes the audience sides with Jesus, at other times they are put off by what they hear. Sometimes their reaction is in marked contrast to the primary audience. A disabled man has words of forgiveness spoken to him, is healed and goes off rejoicing, while another group starts muttering about the implied theology of what they have just witnessed. A group comes to score debating points off Jesus, but go away to the jeers of the crowd.

But this post is not really aboutĀ Biblical hermeneutics at all. The question of the “unseen audience” is one that we need increasingly to be aware of in these technologically driven times. On a personal scale, we need to be aware that that photo we posted on Facebook of us being rather silly on a friends’ night out might have an audience that includes our employer, and that it might be interepreted in a way we might not particular wish. Or that tweet we posted that mentioned that we were off for a three month jaunt around the world might as well have said, “Please burgle me.”

When we hear politicians speaking, we often ask just who it is they speak to. Is it a home audience – their own electorate – or a foreign government or global enterprise? These days, there is an increasing awareness that if an MP gives a speech locally, say, concerning her views on some aspect of Islam, those words may well be reported not only in the UK but in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

So when it comes to blogging we need to remember the unseen audience, too. Whether posting on our own blog or ocommenting on someone else’s, we need to remember that our words are becoming public. They are not simply a private conversation between two people. This needs especially to be remembered if the two people actually know one another in real life. Other people are “listening in” to the conversation. And, being a public medium, they are perfectly entitled to join in the conversation themselves, whatever their point of view. And if you don’t feel they have quite understood, correct them gently and factually and don’t assume they have nothing of value to contribute if they don’t agree with every word you say.