I was drawn to this book because I am interested in silence. Having previously encountered Sara Maitland's rather more contemplative and autobiographical Book of Silence, I was intrigued to know what else I could learn about silence in relation to religion and spirituality. This is an informative and enlightening read. I particularly enjoyed reading about the noisy God of the Old Testament in contrast with the silent suffering of Christ on the cross. Other highlights are MacCulloch's discussions around the word 'logos', about women being denied access to the altar while menstruating and his own personal experiences of silence in relation to his homosexuality. There is a great deal of food for thought. Despite being an academic, MacCulloch has written in simple English to appeal to the majority. He gives plenty of suggestions for further reading and provides comprehensive references for the more serious reader. Definitely worth checking out, in my opinion.
If one claims to be a Christian, surely it is important to know what it is into which one is investing faith. Christianity has been around for two thousand years and, inevitably, man has interfered with the very basic message of the Lord. Sometimes, this human input has been for altruistic reasons and sometimes, from a desire to achieve, or retain, power.
Diarmaid MacCulloch has written a very concentrated overview of many of these hidden 'aids' to the Christian faith. In the wrong hands, this could turn into a sensational anti-Christian assault: not when those hands are MacCulloch's. This book is written with a sympathetic believer's view but, one that is convinced that the truth must be out in the open - even when it would be far more convenient for us to forget.
This book examines these 'silences' from the way in which a unified Catholic church was instigated, with fringe groups, such as the Gnostics, being painted out of the picture for many centuries through to the silence in many areas when Nazi outrages were inflicted upon the Jewish community and right up to date with paedophilia within some Christian care homes. In places, this book is exceedingly uncomfortable reading, particularly for a believer, but one never gets the feeling that the shock is gratuitous and the object is to expose the wrongful action and not to create characters onto whom blame can be conveniently laid.
This is a book which, having read, I need to put on my bookcase for a couple of months whilst I ingest the information and then, I shall re-read it. It is one that I would recommend to every believer.
on 8 April 2013
In MacCulloch's history of Silence (a Christian Witness) we have a companion to the his magisterial (or just plain long) 'Christianity: The First 3,000 Years'. Whereas the latter dealt mainly with the physical history (with some doctrinal and intellectual history thrown in) this book is very much an intellectual history of Christian spirituality, reads through the lens of silence. The silence, therefore, does not relate just to the absence of noise (i.e. a meditative silence, e.g. as employed in Lectio Divina), but to the silence that comes either through hidden action, suppressed action/ belief or through the absence of protest, thus he not only covers how silence has been used in spirituality, but also how Christians (and the Church) have been silent, e.g. on homosexuality, child abuse or slavery.
Unlike Eamon Duffy, whose published work does not seem to have developed much from his seminal 'Stripping of the Altars' one gets a sense that MacCulloch is involved in a lifetime's discovery, a process he is happy to share and engage in with the interested reader. However, where this book may appear to fail is that it is too immediate (too much of its time) allowing itself to concentrate on the hot topics of the age: clerical homosexuality; clerical child abuse (and silence about both) amongst other issues. As with the silence of the Church over slavery and the holocaust, these silences are often easily condemned, but highly contextualised - caught up in the Church politics and self-understanding of that period. However, MacCulloch avoids the mistake of easy condemnation, showing how and why such issues have been (and should be) properly read. Thus without resorting to the overeasy condemnation and opprobrium often piled on the Catholic Church, he shows how complicit they and others have become in being silence in the face of evil. I would disagree wholeheartedly with his estimation of Pope Pius XII, whose supporters he sees as hailing from the Ultramontane party in the Catholic Church. Pius XII has his faults (as do all Popes) but the criticism of his as a quiescent Nazi stooge is to easily made and does not, in my estimation really hold much water. Again, his own story is highly contextualised and thus easily misunderstood or misrepresented.
As with all MacCulloch's books it is very readable, esp. for the intelligent/ educated reader, though it is also challenging and the well stocked reference list provides further reading for those wishing to persue areas of particular interest. It should be read alongside his earlier history of Christianity, though can easily be read alone with little violence being done.
Christianity has had a struggling relationship with silence. We have a wordy faith filled with volume that finds difficulty to accept anything less.
Pascal wrote that "all of man's misfortunes come from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room". Diarmaid MacCulloch here charts this problematic and often contradictory relationship with power, sensitivity and insight in Silence: A Christian History. Expanded from a lecture series, it is intellectually weighty and without the prevarications and self-qualifications that sometimes spoil academic prose. Comfortingly, it's not overwhelmingly dense!
The final quarter for me is the most applicable and provocative. MacCulloch explores the diverse uses of silence: the silence surrounding the global suffering, slavery, abuses, the silencing of non-heterosexual, non-male voices within the church and more. There is an astonishing cadenza on "Nicodemism", the term John Calvin left for us derived from Nicodemus, who only dared visit the tomb under cover of darkness.
This is a highly informative account of the nature and application of silence in the Western Church and parts of this in the East with rigorous engagement of the associated theologies that accompany this.
We speak more than we ever should, this is a substantive, important and sure-to-be classic on the subject. A valued counter-foil, so ssssssssssh!
on 13 December 2014
It is characteristic of my introvert spirituality that I would avow waiting on God in silence and preferring said to over-dramatically sung acts of worship. Perhaps it comes from my upbringing when, I was told, that `little boys should be seen and not heard'.
Judaism is quite a noisy religion, which makes you wonder how some forms of Christianity have embraced silence. Judaism tends to see silence as negative
It's a shame that the author spells out the divine name which, although popularised by the Jerusalem Bible, is ever pronounced by Jews.
Diarmaid is mistaken in asserting that `scriptures' was only applied to Christian writings in the Second Century CE. 2 Peter 3:16 refers to Paul's letters as `scripture'.
Jesus is silent when charged. He also withdraws but this isn't a reference to later monastic withdrawal but a simple move to avoid trouble.
The so-called `messianic secret' in which Jesus enjoins silence on people is more about tensions between the Jerusalem Church and the Pauline churches and the polemic between them.
Paul silences prophets, not because silence is good in itself but in order to make Christians appear more respectable in a Roman world, where decorum is valued
Silence seems to have become part of Christianity via the Greek philosophers.
It's interesting that the rosary may have originated from monks plaiting ropes while listening to readings and that the Muslim minaret may have originated in the pillar used by Simon the Stylite.
A frequent theme of this author is that the Western churches are limited in their understanding of history and miss other times of reform in the East: Each deserves to be given the name 'Reformation' which is generally reserved for the last of them, despite their three very different outcomes.
The protestant reformation marked a return to pluralism and tended towards noise - preaching and hymn-singing, though the Quakers brought quietude and some went in for `standstill' - an inner receiving of the sacrament rather than any physical reception. Meanwhile, the Counter Reformation encouraged the silence of the confessional and the silencing of books by censorship. It was suspicious of contemplation.
But in the world of the Inquisition, silent prayer was safer.
His description of the culture of Anglo-Catholicism, in which we both grew up, is painfully accurate.
I was shocked to hear of the immorality of my hero Paul Tillich but glad that he suggests that my nemesis Karl Barth deserves similar scrutiny.
I like the author's cavalier dismissal of scripture, saying that `it got it wrong'. After all, if Martin Luther could dismiss `'an epistle of straw', why can't we, for example, when it comes to issues like slavery?
Overall, the church has covered up much. Chalcedon marginalised many in the ancient churches (who still exist to this day). The role of women as leaders has been airbrushed out as have the sexual proclivities of some male leaders. Clerical sex abuse was swept under the carpet.
I didn't know that the origin of the title `arrow prayer' is the javelin - to deter demons.
The author, rightly, does not dismiss the seekers who buy book from the `Mind, Body and Spirit' section of bookshops and it's a pity that the churches usually fail to offer, from their great resources, what these people desire and need.
on 24 August 2013
McCulloch is one of Britain's most famous writers on Christian history: he wrote a groundbreaking biography of Thomas Cranmer, and since then has written an important survey of the European Reformation, and a major new history of Christianity which was aimed at the general reader. This time, he looks at a theme that runs through and behind the story of the Church, that of silence.
He begins by looking at the idea in the Bible (demonstrating on the way an in-depth knowledge of the texts and what scholars have said about them), and then builds on this as he charts the idea of silence and silent prayer through Christian history down to the Reformation. This section effectively becomes almost an account of Christian mystical spirituality. Then he turns to what he calls 'Nicodemism', effectively the way that people hide behind silence, and deals with some fascinating examples: the Family of Love, a secretive religious sect who took over at least one English country parish, and the way that Anglo-Catholicism protected gay clergy by silence. McCullouch then has some hard words for Christian leaders who have remained silent when they should have spoken out (child-abuse and the Jewish Holocaust, among them), and then has what he calls a whistle-stop tour of varieties of silence (which I found a bit diffuse).
The book originated as a series of lectures, so the writing is relatively easy to understand, and McCulloch has the ability to explain complex ideas in a way that everyone can understand. I found it fascinating. Much of the story I knew (or thought I knew), but McCulloch manages to make it seem fresh and interesting (hence the five stars). If there is a weakness, it is the way that each of the sections doesn't quite follow into one another, and I was rather hoping for more of a discussion on the idea of silent prayer in more recent mainstream Christian history (no mention of Evelyn Underhill, for example). But still, this is a thought-provoking book that I know I will return to again.
The eminent historian Diarmaid MacCulloch was given the accolade of being invited to give the Gifford Lectures (one of Scotland's most prodigious academic awards focused on the discussion of natural theology in its widest sense). These are normally a series of lectures which when completed are edited and published in book form. This is the background to this book.
A series of meditations/speculations and theorising on the topic of silence in Christian History, whether biblical, monastic, reformed or shadily intentional. Mr MacCullochs obvious learning and experience densely support his arguments which are delivered coherently, passionately and with a gentle humour and grace which is a real joy (think David Starky but nice!).
Being neither a professional scholar nor Christian, just of the ordinary variety in both respects, some of the very crowded historical theorising was a bit above my head to be honest. This, however, did not necessarily interfere with following the flow and thrust of the ideas. Nor did it impinge much on the sheer delight of encountering new ideas and vistas. The noise of pre New Testament worship and the view of silence as curse and divine disfavour leading on to the almost enigmatic use of silence by Our Lord in the New Testament, to give just one example.
The actual sensation of history flowing dawns on you as you are swept along with Mr MaCulloch's rhetoric. Through the early monastic era, through the reformations (note plural) and into more contemporaneous history and thorny issues. All with "silence" and its multiple meanings and usages as the consistent thread which weaves the arguments into historical tableaux's which flash almost cinematically by.
I enjoyed this book very much and although I will need to re-read it to get the most from it I can happily recommend it.
I doubt this book could be made into one of those 20 minute TED talks as there doesn't appear to be one particular point or theme, but rather a set of intermingling streams of thoughts and reflections taken from the motif of silence and Christianity.
The first set of reflections looks at the theological and devotional meaning of silence. In early Judaism there appear to be no silent aspects of God - even the rest of the creation "Sabbath" is seen as a time of celebration rather than inactivity, prophets do not sit in silence but hear from God and speak his word. A similar view is taken in much of early Christianity, but by this time the Greek or Platonist view of the original or highest God being silent has started to be included and we get some minor acknowledgements that God may sometimes be silent too, and being silent - for example Jesus going into the desert - may be a spiritual activity.
In early Christianity the Pauline and subsequent Catholic church had little place for silence but it was valued by the gnostics who had a stronger Greek element to their theology. However by the fourth century Christian mystics and monks had begun to be accepted by the church and the idea of living "apart" from the world came to be seen as a higher form of spiritual life - such a life eventually being demanded by Catholic priests, even if the demand of celibacy was not strictly enforced until after the Reformation.
During the middle ages however the spiritual life was valued with important mystics such as St John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich writing reflections on contemplation and an inner experience of the Spirit.
Protestantism did not have a place for silence apart from a few groups such as the Quakers whose roots come more from the medieval mystics than Martin Luther. Among Protestant Christians the value of silence, meditation and contemplation has only recently come to be valued again, with visits (or pilgrimages if you like) to holy sites now seeing an increase in popularity, spiritual music such as by Sir Michael Tippett, John Tavener and Arvo Part and spiritual retreats also more in tune with contemporary spiritual needs than "wordy" church services.
Wittgenstein's quote that "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" is seen as appropriate here - that the nature of the sacred remains ineffable and mysterious, and therefore cannot be mastered with dogmas, creeds and doctrines, but instead must be approached quietly, cautiously, sensitively through art, reflection and silence.
Such - I would say - is essentially the theme of the first and last part of the book - of course there are many fascinating examples and discussions, in a sense this is a rerun of the author's earlier "Christianity" told at a faster pace with more filtering being done on mysticism and contemplation. This can feel a little like a train rushing through too many stations and never stopping, you get a page on one thing and a couple of pages on another but if we stopped I guess the book would be a lot longer. However because I don't really see the point the author is making overall here, apart from a general look at the history of silence and spiritual meditation in Christianity - I suspect he didn't give himself a helpful filter in which to decide what to keep in and what to take out. At times he seems to need to give so much context to what is happening in a particular period we don't even find any mention of silence for a number of pages. So in summary for this section, lots of interesting information told of course very well, but I wasn't clear if I was being told more than just a history - was he using these examples to make a point about spirituality and God? If he was I wasn't clear what it was.
The same cannot be true of the second set of reflections - found more in the middle part and towards the end of the book. Silence in this sense is a covering up, a hiding, a hiddenness of something that needs to be said. Here we have hidden (hi)stories of the Church and homosexuality, women, child abuse, the Jews, Slavery and just historical truth.
There can be the (sometimes metaphorical) burning of books - the wish to make disappear an inconvenient truth, or just unacceptable opinions. There is a passage in the Biblical book of Acts in which the Apostle Paul oversees the burning of magic books and this is sometimes taken as justification for other destruction or banning of books. The other side of this is the silence of oppression - those without a voice, who did not get a chance to make a historical record, but through detailed research today they can still whisper to us .
Regarding the book burning form of silence - persecution of criticism. This isn't just the Catholic church of course. Both the (Protestant) Seventh-day Adventists and Mormons have sought to stop academics publishing books about their origins. All they can actually do of course, since they don't control the state - is to excommunicate members who write such books - nevertheless it is a clear theme through history that one way of dealing with opinions or arguments that one disagrees with is to silence such people. Hence right from early in Christian history we have examples of one group of Christians persecuting another group, in particular of course early Gnostic Christianity was exterminated through such methods.
Diarmaid MacCulloch looks at a number of such examples but spends more time on three particular issues - child sex abuse, which it seems has been happening since the seventeenth century, with one notorious early abuser - Joseph Calasanz - ending up being made the Patron Saint for Christian schools in 1948 by Pope Pius XII. Other examples are anti-semitism and the holocaust and racism and slavery. In each case he finds attempts to silence the truth from history and create revisions of a more acceptable version of what happened.
Clearly where those in power seek to silence those who speak the truth we need to fight the power and give voice to the whistleblowers - in this sense silence is the oppression of truth. And it doesn't just happen in Christian history as Edward Snowden is discovering today.
Any history of women tends to have to deal with the "history written by the victors" problem, and the history of Christianity is no exception - women regularly get written out, starting from the New Testament where a number of women in positions of authority are referenced, but subsequent translations and copying of texts have tried to remove or silence them - MacCulloch gives us more examples through history of the erasure of women from the story of the church.
There are also the cases of what MacCulloch calls "Nicodemites" - the silence of survival. In the Gospel of John a Pharisee called Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night as he did not want to be seen with him during the day. In Spain during persecutions of Jews and Muslims in the middle ages many of the persecuted pretended to be Christians, but secretly kept to their original faith. Today it is estimated there are around 120 million "crypto-Christians" who are prevented by Government power or hostility of non-Christian neighbours from practising their faith openly - such a number - 6% of the world's population - would be the world's fifth largest religion in its own right.
So perhaps ironically we get two views of silence in this book - a spiritual silence of contemplation which MacCulloch is clearly sympathetic with, but frustratingly he does not go much beyond describing and identifying it as a Good Thing, and the political silence of oppression and cover-up within (and beyond) Christianity which MacCulloch is clearly against and where he would like to see a continued speaking out on.
Strangely he does not seem to consider the link between the modern spiritual value on silence and the political attempts by religious authorities to impose silence. Although he does mention on one occasion that often the church would like to stop talking on the issue of homosexuality but people won't let it, he doesn't seem to see the logical corollary that perhaps the church values silence as there are many things today it doesn't want to have to deal with, and silence is one way of doing this.
While it is understandable for individuals today with spiritual needs to not use words but instead to engage with music, art and meditation this is in part because of the failure of religion to come up with words which make any sense to people today. This isn't to say there isn't something important and valuable with silence - as a Quaker I certainly don't want to ignore the immense spiritual depths that silence contains - but we also need to acknowledge that much religious silence today is not because we will not speak but because we cannot.
At first glance this is, as the title suggests, a history of the role of silence in Christian worship and practice, and indeed it deals very comprehensibly with that. However, the author goes on to discuss another kind of silence, the covering up of aspects of church history which might prove embarrassing. Homosexuality, slavery, and anti-Semitism are the main topics covered here, and Professor MacCulloch, well-known to be slightly provocative at times, can draw conclusions, or near-conclusions, which some may consider unwarranted (a suggestion about Cardinal Newman springs to mind as an example). Another type of example is the reference by St. Paul to Junia (presumably a woman) as an apostle in Romans 16:7, though there are translation problems here. The author has a lot to say about "Nicodemism", after the character who visited Jesus at night. He also has an intriguing suggestion as to why the Virgin Mary kept silent during her apparition at Knock in Ireland, unlike her other apparitions at various places.
As one who would love more silence in life and in worship, I am a bit surprised (unless I missed it) that the author does not refer to the common practice of an "offertory hymn" and "communion hymn" during Mass, often one of those jolly "worship songs" which one could well do without. However, that's just a personal moan of mine. This is a useful reference book, more to dip into than to read from cover to cover (which I did for this review), and is recommended for any interested person.
I ordered this volume as I was impressed with Professor MacCulloch's 2009 TV series on the history of Christianity.
His argument is that we have too long ignored the idea of silence in our spirituality. There have also been times when the church should have been louder but was strangely silent. MacCulloch sees three main areas where Christianity has failed in a historical sense: anti-semitism, the treatment of homosexuals and the church's stance against slavery. There are other areas as well but these are his personal emphases.
There are about 200 pages of text and then over a 100 pages of notes and indexing. In my opinion this helps the reader to assimilate the ideas without looking at the minutiae all the time. It is intelligent, imaginative and interesting.
It will repay careful reading and thought. MacCulloch has stated in his 2009 TV series that he is a `candid friend of Christianity' and some of his ideas put forward there are developed in this book. With his background as an ordained deacon, and an academic he is in a good position to offer his views.
The ardent fundamentalist or inveterate literalist will not, I suspect, be happy with what they read. However I think they should; I came from that end of the theological spectrum and in my spiritual journey I have found that it is possible to read the bible better and with greater understanding and clarity if we clear away some the accumulated baggage we bring to our reflections. Much of what we do bring is `noise' and we need to celebrate the silences but also to look afresh at what we read and understand to appreciate our faith in the 21st century. I find those, like MacCulloch, who try to look at our faith with a different lens are helpful, even if we may not agree with all they say. He raises some questions but as has been said perhaps it is better to state that God is the question?
I recommend to all - whatever their faith: those who have had faith for years, those who have struggled with faith, those who wonder if they ever really have had faith and those who think they have no faith. It will not give you answers but will start you on the next phase of your personal spiritual journey.