Mission & Ministry - Book of the Month Review: Silence, A Christian History

The Bishop's Institute Book of the Month - October

"Silence: A Christian History" by Diarmaid MacCulloch reviewed by The Rev. Chris Capaldo

     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 History

     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 worse. 

     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 Gethsemane. 

     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 wider church. 

     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.