The Tension between Sound and Silence

Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch (New York: Viking, 2013)

MacCullochThis book is based on the author’s 2006 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburg. Its format and subject matter parallel his earlier book, Christianity, The First Three Thousand Years, in that it begins with a thousand-year prehistory and then offers a sweeping presentation of the history of Christianity. Since I have not read the earlier book, I can only assume that Silence differs from the earlier book by focusing attention upon a specific topic rather than the larger story.

The new book concentrates upon the intersecting and often conflicted intertwining of sound and silence in the theological, political, and liturgical life of Christians, their churches, and other religions institutions. I became aware of the book because of a positive reference to it by Dean Jane Shaw in a sermon preached at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, late in 2013.

I have two reasons for reading and reviewing this book. First, Silence provides a succinct, constructive, and readable narrative of the Christian story, from its beginnings in Judaism a thousand years before Jesus until now.  This narrative can be useful both to people with little previous knowledge of the narrative and to others (like me) who are familiar with the story but would benefit from hearing it told in a new way.

Second, MacCulloch offers a distinctive set of criteria for interpreting the Christian story and deciding how Christians can move forward in an era when cultural and religious conditions are perplexing, therefore making it difficult for people to develop helpful patterns of faith and piety.

MacCulloch’s detailed Table of Contents provides a synopsis of the narrative that he offers in this book. The titles of the four parts and nine chapters suggest the range of his survey and give hints of the stimulating expository style of the book. Part One, The Bible: 1. Silence in Christian Prehistory: The Tanakh; 2. The Earliest Christian Silences: The New Testament; Part Two, The Triumph of Monastic Silence: 3. Forming and Breaking a Church: 100–451 CE; 4. The Monastic Age in East and West: 451–1100. Part Three, Silence through Three Reformations: 5. From Iconoclasm to Erasmus: 700–1500; 6. The Protestant Reformation: 1500–1700. Part Four, Reaching behind Noise in Christian History: 7. Silence for Survival; 8. Things Not Remembered; 9. Silence in Present and Future Christianities.

A few lines from the final pages of the book provide a partial statement of two themes that MacCulloch weaves together as the plot line of this narrative and that suggest the author’s mood. “My message in this book might charitably be seen as standing alongside the classic negative theologies of silence devised in the early Church: that apophatic approach to divinity which portrays what God is not, rather than what he is. Another way of viewing my report on silence within Christian history is as a necessary penitential work of stripping the altars, or, more cheerfully, the anticipatory clearance of the house before the party begins” (234).

When presenting the theological aspects of his subject, MacCulloch appears generally to be favorable toward the silence side of the tension. When discussing the darker side of silence, he seems ready to shout out the reports in order to reveal shameful facts and bring about change.

As he draws to a conclusion, MacCulloch celebrates whistle-blowing as version of the modern breaking of silence. He describes the importance of historians who follow “the Enlightenment practice of history, part science, part story-telling and pragmatic observation of human nature.”

These factors have enabled the church to develop a new frankness concerning sex, including homosexuality, slavery, and anti-Semitism (226). The “travails about sex” reveal that Christianity has always had problems with authority: “Historically, Church leaders have loved to claim a particular authority to make pronouncements on society, doctrine and the Church, and they have done so by reference to another sort of authority, that of the biblical text” (226).

The problem is that when historians study earlier periods, especially the origins of a movement, they are likely to find that the facts differ from the remembered past, which creates strong emotions and tends to bring out claims by authorities as to what has to be accepted.  Read more . . . Tension

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