Wednesday, March 18, 2020
Silence: A Christian History Review by Sutton
Geoffrey W. Sutton
I come from a noisy church tradition—a place where young Christians like their music loud and pulsating. The notion of silence in Christianity struck me as odd when I saw it on the new books’ shelf of my local library. But as I flipped through the Table of Contents and checked a few pages, many thoughts came to mind. Perhaps like historians, psychologists and counsellors can learn much from silence. Silence helps interpret noise.
Diarmaid MacCulloch work is scholarly, intriguing, insightful, and masterfully written. MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University and an award-winning author. He has also produced a multi-episode video series on the history of Christianity (this is also worth viewing) as well as a New York Times Best Seller on the same subject.
MacCulloch organized Silence into historical eras creating nine chapters to describe four epochs. The first chapter of The Bible era offers a look at the contrasts between silence and celebration in the Hebrew Bible. When God speaks, the Israelites cry and celebrate with a loud noise. And there are times when people are hushed before the Lord. Chapter two reveals the back and forth of noise and silence. Jesus ends a period of silence. He gives a voice to the poor. And at times Jesus retreats into silence. Paul deals with noisy, and sometimes cantankerous, Christians.
The Triumph of Monastic Silence embraces a thousand years. MacCulloch describes the rise of asceticism, the formation of the first monastic orders, and the silence of those who did not join the early martyrs. We learn about both Eastern and Western church traditions.
We approach the modern era in Part Three, Silence through Three Reformations. In two chapters we learn of the context for reform in a sweeping review of icons and mystical notions through 1500. As readers will know, the noise of the Protestant Reformation dominates church history in the era 1500 through 1700. Amidst the loud calls for reform are those promoting tolerance and peace. And in this context, Quakers quietly meet.
Finally, Tridentine Catholics rise to defend their traditions. Part Four, Reaching behind Noise in Christian History, is different from the historical narrative. And it is this section I consider most relevant to those of us interested in the Psychology of Religion because here we encounter the Christian context for silences that continue to rock the lives of contemporary Christians. We learn about gay churchmen under cloaks of silence yet networked by efficient undercover communications. As clinicians are aware, silence is a contemporary reality for many sexual minorities. Women are silent too. Of course, they are present. But as is true today and throughout Christian history, the voices of women are largely missing. MacCulloch notes the exceptions. And wonders what the future will hold. Shameful themes are not ignored. Penetrating the silence are the voices of abused children and slaves. And why was the church so silent during the Holocaust?
As MacCulloch recounts the stories I am left to wonder: Who heard the voices of the victims? Where was the voice of the church? In the final chapter, MacCulloch looks at the contemporary church and offers a more personal and optimistic view. He shows us how to embrace silence in worship and respect as when we observe a moment of silence when recalling a deceased friend. He reminds us of the joy that comes from varieties of music and does not seek to silence the enthusiastic voices of Pentecostal Christianity. I found the author’s vibrant prose and command of Christian history helpful in navigating such a wide expanse of noise and silence in the biblical and church eras. However, despite valuing the historical context, I found it difficult to decide how the selected examples from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and church history linked together to provide a framework for the arguably more disconcerting silences of the modern era.
MacCulloch artfully juxtaposes silence and noise. But silence does not easily lend itself to interpretation. Still, the negative contrast in the biblical texts and church history offer an ample basis for thinking about the importance of silence and voices in worship, moral matters, and the consulting room. Silence almost begs for interpretation and is often interrupted by cacophony at church and in relationships. Silence: A Christian History quietly calls for social justice—a time for silence and a time to speak. One of his images stands out against the rest. Loud voices of strident Christians appear like a child’s sand castles on a beach—soon to disappear when the inexorable tide washes ashore.
MacCulloch, D. (2013). Silence: A Christian History. New York: Viking.