Noise... and Discipleship? Part I

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning noise and discipleship part 1 225x300
Photo Credit: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" A Grinch Cake, by "schmish." Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.

"There's one thing I hate, all the noise, noise, noise, noise!" From the television adaptation of Dr. Suess's How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

"[Sound amplification destroys intimacy] by drowning out conversation, or else it counterfeits intimacy by making physical proximity irrelevant to social intercourse. This is glaringly at odds with the classic, nearly universal religious tradition of a teacher imparting wisdom to pupils who sit, literally, at his or her feet. Yeshivas can be noisy places, but I have not encountered any anecdotes of rabbis teaching Talmud with megaphones. A religion of microphones and loudspeakers is a religion of leaders and followers, which is not the same thing as a religion of teachers and disciples. The goal of the latter is to raise the disciple to the level of the teacher; the goal of the former is to keep the followers ‘informed,’ and in formation."
- Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book about Noise as quoted here.

I imagine there's not a reader of this blog who is not familiar with the first quote above or who does not hear it intoned in the voice of Boris Karloff! Well, maybe some of our younger readers may hear it instead in the voice of Jim Carrey?

However you hear it in your head, you probably almost immediately sympathize. There simply is too much noise about us. Some of it actively distracts us. Some of it has become such a permanent soundtrack or soundscape in our lives that we find ourselves distracted if we don't hear it. Even for people who are hearing impaired, noise itself doesn't go away. It just manifests itself in different forms.

"All the noise, noise, noise, noise!"

Maybe it wasn't that the Grinch's heart was "three sizes too small." Maybe, just maybe, the very thought of all the noise that would rise from the valley below was simply too much for him. And maybe, it was because there was not noise, but music and melody, singing... maybe that's what caused his heart, ultimately, to grow "four sizes that day" and his strength to become that of "ten grinches, plus two!"

What if it really was all about the noise?

The second quote is probably much less familiar, unless you, as I did, happened to read an article in Religion Dispatches this morning by Peter Laarman ("Noise in the Hood: Raising the Volume and Losing Our Bodies") reviewing Garret Keizer's new book in which this quote appears. Or unless you (as I have not yet done!) have read Keizer's book. (And I plan to!).

Laarman simply drops the quote, noting it may be of particular interest to RD readers, and then moves on.

I'd like to explore the implications of it a bit further.

God of the Thunderhead, the Conversation, and Silence
First off, I need to say that as compelling as the contrast Keizer makes between the classical model of the preparation of disciples and the phenomenon of the megaphone to move vast crowds into military action (grainy and noisy images of the Hitler rallies are perhaps inescapable here!), like many compelling comparisons, it misses some more subtle points.

Noise (loud sound) can legitimately be a part of the preparation of a people and of disciples. Well, at least the Bible seems to bear testimony to that. God does not only "speak" in "sheer silence" (I Kings 19:12), but also quite regularly from disorientingly noisy and dangerous phenomena like thunderstorms and earthquakes (Exodus 19:16 ff.), whirlwinds (Job 38:1) and a rushing mighty wind (Acts 2:2), as well as in conversations in more of a "face to face" mode (much of the teaching of Jesus with his disciples in the gospels).

And even Jesus himself did not limit his teaching and ministry to a conversational tone. When he was teaching crowds, he would have taken advantage of the "natural megaphone" effects of buildings and geological formations to allow his voice to be heard clearly at a distance. When he addressed demons or winds and waves or called Lazarus from the tomb, and even when he was dying on the cross (in Mark's account, at least), Jesus "cried aloud." The Greek verb (ekrazen-- he cried aloud) refers to a full-bodied shout! And many times the verb is accompanied with the prepositional phrase "with a great sound/noise." And about the only time we see Jesus actually silent (though not in all accounts of the events!) is when he faces Pilate and Herod while they were determining how to dispose of him.

So we can't (and from what I understand, neither does Keizer) simply idealize silence or even conversational speech as "the one right way" to approach sound levels in the process of worship or preparing disciples. There are many appropriate levels-- for different things! Each can have its proper place.

Here, and in the next three entries, I'd like to offer some historical reflections and suggestions about which sound levels have gone where-- in worship (this and the next two) and in teaching (the fourth)-- assuming our desired end is indeed the preparation and sending of disciples who become like our Master.

Thunderhead Sound
Taking our cues from the scriptures we've cited above, and some we haven't, big sound generally correlates with big groups and/or big, decisive moments for those groups. While Keizer's quote seems to suggest that big sound for big groups only has the effect of putting them into a physical formation for something violent, like a battle or a holocaust (and we know full well it can help do both!), perhaps a more helpful way of describing this phenomenon is that "Thunderhead Sound" helps form a people as a people, especially if there are many people present, for those moments when they most need to function as a people rather than a collection of otherwise self-directed individuals.

Historically, each of the four movements of the basic pattern of Christian (and United Methodist) worship (Entrance, Word and Response, Thanksgiving and Communion, and Sending) has included in it at least one "Thunderhead Sound" moment.

One of the (literally!) striking elements of the liturgy at Christ Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, Maryland, is the Entrance, the beginning of worship. I say "literally striking," because it is. A lay worship leader starts the service by striking a large gong full force three times, one in the name of the Father, one in the name of the Son, and one in the name of the Holy Spirit, Three in One. The very next action is the strong beating of a drum while the choir processes in dancing and singing (signing) in ASL, and the congregation joins with both the signing and the sometimes the beat of the drum and the choir as they march in. Those present who are deaf may not hear the gong or the drum (which are both very, very loud), but everyone can feel the strong vibrations which move through the air, off the walls and ceiling, and through the floor into everyone's bodies. The effect-- visually, aurally and bodily-- is arresting. Something different is happening now. Something important. And we are all-- the deaf and the hearing, the blind and the seeing-- being called into one body, one action, synchronized in body, heartbeat and breath to offer ourselves as one to God in worship.

Within the movement of Word and Response, Christians at least as far back as the fourth century have loudly celebrated the bringing out and reading of the gospel with processionals and Alleluias (except during Lent). Worshiping communities who "go Thunderhead" at this point are indicating that the words about to be heard, and then the words just heard (as Alleluias and another processional accompany the gospel book back to its place of honor) are as significant and powerful in their lives as the voice of God speaking in thunder on Mount Sinai.

The presentation of the gifts at the table of the Lord has been the "Thunderhead" moment for Thanksgiving and Communion. The original "offertory procession" didn't bring plates of money for a blessing, but a plate of bread, a cup, a flagon of wine and a small container of water, a bowl, and a towel for the presider and other servers to wash their hands. In the Orthodox tradition, this was known as the "Great Entrance," while the gospel processional was known as the "Little Entrance."

Finally, the Sending Forth is itself envisioned as a culminating "Thunderhead Sound" moment all its own. What happens in the assembly at this moment is not a recessional -- we are not "backing away" from anything! It is instead a bold processional into the world to serve as Christ's representatives in the power of the Spirit wherever we go. Christians thus have often ended worship with processionals, loud and joyous singing, and perhaps more instrumental music after the singing, not actually to end worship with a bang (rather than a whimper) but to rather to begin our missional service, entering the world no less (and indeed, if fed at Christ's table, much more!) as the one body of Christ redeemed by his blood "than when we'd first begun."

How do you make room for and handle these or other "Thunderhead Sound" moments in your worshiping community? Feel free share your experiences in the comments section below.