We find ourselves in a world that is
surrounded by noise, from our phones, our televisions, our mouths.
Noise is primarily something that can easily define our lives, and
so what do we make of the absence of it, silence, especially in the
context of our Christian faith? Diarmaid MacCulloch tries to bring
us, if not an answer, at least a ton to chew on, with Silence: A Christian
Coming to you from the maker of Christianity: The First Three Thousand
Years, (my church history textbook) I was
expecting something slightly more academically inclined, and
heavily steeped in a perhaps slightly drawn out explanation of the
theology of apophatic prayer. I couldn't have been more pleasantly
surprised to find the contrary.
MacCulloch's book is indeed on the practice
of silence, yes, but not necessarily limited at all to musings on
pious Egyptian anchorites dwelling in caves 800 years ago. His is a
book that is on every type of silence, and how silence, from
silence as a form of prayer, to silence as a form of inaction, have
helped to shape the reality of our church, for better or for
MacCulloch starts out delving through the
Tanakh, where silence in many cases was more an absence of praise,
in the world of a God who, even when speaking in a still, small,
voice, still speaks. From there he moves on to the New Testament,
of a Jesus who ends the silence of waiting for a messiah, those one
who embraces the power of silence during his retreats into the
wilderness, and those moments in the garden of
MacCulloch also dwells for a moment on
silence in the early monastic tradition. From of course the first
anchorites, who used silence as a kind of ascetic martyrdom, to the
Hellenistic attraction to silence. From there he moves onto
Augustine, and the practice of Lectio Divina, through Benedict and
the Carthusians, and of course the great mystics such as St. John
of the Cross and Theresa of Avila.
I enjoyed that MacCulloch wasn't also
completely focusing on the developments of Western Christendom. He
regularly looks toward the East, and comments on silence from such
a perspective, from the Gnostics, to the practices of the monks of
Athos, to a silence found in the theology of the iconoclasts. He
continues this jumping back and forth until we hit the reformation.
There is mentioned the Protestant obsession with noise, from a
profusion of preaching to a lack of chanting, and the encouragement
of silence in private devotions in the home.
Something I really enjoyed, was that about
this point in the book, he made seemingly a switch from silence as
theology, to silence as practice. MacCulloch talks of silence as a
fom of survival, from Iberian Jews to recusants on either side of
the reformation. He even mentions the role of silence in the early
followers of the Oxford movement, and how it played out in the
MacCulloch then reaches what I feel to be
the pinnacle of his book, and perhaps the hardest hitting part.
Silence as what can be called, the absence of a prophetic voice,
when one is needed. He touches on the role that silence has played
in the part of women in the church. What it meant when women had to
be silent in church, and then what occurred when the silence was
finally broken. Silence as a practice of shame, such as the silence
of much of the church through the Holocaust, and especially the
deafening silence of the Roman church throughout much of the
clerical child abuse scandals. He then finishes with the role the
silence might play in our current expression of the church, and
where it might lead in the future.
All in all, I really was pleasantly surprised by
this book. MacCulloch writes in an engaging style that keeps the
attention, and manages to hit many salient points about a topic we
really seem to box into something that only occurs during centering
prayer. By engaging silence not only as a theological concept, but
an actual action of inaction, Silence: A
Christian History, leaves you having shattered
your assumptions about it, and having you instead pondering how
silence, prayer and inaction, plays out in your church, your
community, and your life.
"Silence: A Christian
History" is available for purchase on Amazon.com. Click
here to see the page on Amazon.