How does one tell a history of silence? After all, silence encapsulates everything not said—the elisions and the possibilities, the inchoate, unexplored universe beyond the hard limits of our language.
Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch’s latest book Silence: A Christian History achieves this feat; and silence, as what might easily be construed as the “underside” of church history, is seemingly as important to the formation of the present and future as the most bombastic stretches of the Christian story.
MacCulloch begins his exploration of silence with the Bible, first with Hebrew Scripture, the Tanakh, and its often more negative treatment of God’s silence as a sign of divine judgment and disapproval, then with the New Testament. Especially intriguing is how the Jesus of the Gospels, in MacCulloch’s view, strategically and often positively conscripts silence in his own self-revelation. In Mark, for example, the “Messianic secret” belongs to Jesus’ instructions to his followers to keep silent about his Messianic identity so clearly evidenced in his miraculous healings.
Jesus’ resurrection itself, MacCulloch goes on to argue, is “a mystery which might be described in more senses than one as the vanishing heart of the classical Christian message—for it is the silence at the heart of Christian literature.” (I find this insight most provocative for what it might imply about the perennial task of witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.)
Part 2 of MacCulloch’s book traces the development of monastic silence and its expression and function up through the burgeoning of church reformation (Part 3). Notably, the Protestant Reformation seems to usher in a noisier form of Christianity, one that eschews traditional practices of meditation, such as lectio divina: “the problem,” MacCulloch goes on to write, “was that in the course of their efforts to rid the Church of what they saw as the great clerical cheat perpetrated by late medieval Catholicism Protestants had destroyed the institutions which had cherished contemplation, and they had no idea how to replace them.” The impact of this lamentable turn can still be found today in “the inveterate Word-centered noisiness of Evangelical Protestantism, and equally in the constant striving after joyful Spirit-filled celebration which has so far characterized the worship life of worldwide Pentecostalism.” I applaud MacCulloch here for the constructive critique.
Maybe ironically, whereas contemporary forms of evangelicalism and Reformed Protestantism tend to err on the side of words and more words, present-day approaches to worship in interfaith settings and across religious lines (such as, for example, those we saw in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing) have now conscripted silence and silence’s other wordless partner, music, as helpful midwives in times of public grief.
Part 4 of Silence traces the use and functions, for better or worse, of silence from the Reformation up until today. Most relevant to my own current interests are MacCulloch’s observations on that generation of seekers and “spiritual but not religious” types to whom my imminently releasing book, Grace Sticks, is dedicated. MacCulloch admonishes the reader to consider how a quest for silence unites these seekers, and how the church can respond (as it has already begun to) with more and more efforts to support this quest for silence in an age of unrelenting noisiness. (My own calls, in Grace Sticks, for more “holy spaces” in the church align with these observations.)
This book is a fascinating, beautifully rendered look at silence and its many permutations across the life of the church. I could not put the book down without being struck by the enormous potential of silence for the church in her current context. That promise lingers gently, with subtle, unfinished brush strokes, leaving the reader to grapple with the possibilities.