Silence and Noise

Probably the defining characteristic of the Desert is Silence. Not the total absence of sound, but the absence of human and artificial noise. And surely the defining characteristic of the City is not just sound, but noise, endless human and artificial noise. In the City it seems human beings cannot cope with silence; they must talk, they must make or listen to noise….

For the Hermit, Silence is an integral element of the eremitical life….silence in the sense of neither unnecessarily making or listening to noise.
“Christianity has a deeply ambivalent relationship with silence. While one hymn exhorts the believer “Tell out my soul”, another warns “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”; Psalm 62, in the New King James Version, begins “truly my soul silently waits for God”, while Psalm 109 starts “Do not keep silent, oh God of my praise”. Jesus silences the evil spirits in Capernaum, at Mark 1:25, but remains silent himself in the face of his accusers, at Mark 14:61; in Luke’s Gospel he rebukes the Pharisees during the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem saying that were he to silence his disciples, the very stones would cry out; yet in the period beforehand he strictly admonished the disciples to keep silent about his ministry….

Diarmaid MacCulloch charts this problematic and often contradictory relationship with aplomb in Silence: A Christian History. Expanded from his Gifford lectures, it is, as one might expect of the author of A History of Christianity and Reformation, intellectually robust, and without the prevarications and self-qualifications that sometimes stymie academic prose. Indeed, MacCulloch is by turns precise, poetic and righteously indignant.”

“Diarmaid MacCulloch, acknowledged master of the big picture in Christian history, unravels a polyphony of silences from the history of Christianity and beyond. He considers the surprisingly mixed attitudes of Judaism to silence, Jewish and Christian borrowings from Greek explorations of the divine, and the silences which were a feature of Jesus’s brief ministry and witness. Besides prayer and mystical contemplation, there are shame and evasion; careless and purposeful forgetting.

Many deliberate silences are revealed: the forgetting of histories which were not useful to later Church authorities (such as the leadership roles of women among the first Christians), or the constant problems which Christianity has faced in dealing honestly with sexuality. Behind all this is the silence of God; and in a deeply personal final chapter, MacCulloch brings a message of optimism for those who still seek God beyond the clamorous noise of over-confident certainties.”

“This is a specialist book for non-specialist readers — by which I mean in part that it is made highly accessible to anyone seriously interested by excellent and lively writing rather than by any dumbing down. It may be an odd thing to say about a history of the intersection of platonic philosophy and Christian and Judaic spiritual theologies, but actually it is great fun. A good read….

But the real reason it is an odd book is because it is really two different books not quite seamlessly stuck together. The first is a history of the philosophical roots of silence within the Christian tradition and I found it wonderful. Because of its intellectual and conceptual interests we are spared another run through of sweet anecdotes about the Desert Fathers (whom I love — but there have been a lot of books recently telling us how sweet they were and this does not need rehearsing yet again). Instead, the early chapters of the book address the slow start to ‘silence’ in the Hebrew scriptures, and the crucial Hellenisation of both Judaism and early Christianity and how and why that led to a more distant and silent deity.

This is so well done, and makes really pretty obscure material entirely available and tasty for the interested lay reader. There is a fascinating passage on the somewhat obscure non-Chalcedonian churches, especially in Syria, along with an intriguing speculation (freely admitted to be speculation) as to what, if anything, they might have been learning about apophasis from the Hinduism and Buddhism, given how strong their trading connections eastward were.”

An interesting alternative to “Silence” is “Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening”
by David Hendy.
David Hendy.jpg
“…each chapter is a response to a particular sound from a particular place, so that we are asked to listen to the echoes in caves, the tenements of Edinburgh or the rumblings of a stethoscope. But the overall historical narrative is more satisfying than the individual chapters, perhaps because of the truism that sound is open to a wider variety of interpretations, so that Hendy is freer to make more convincing links.”


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