Sorting by

Skip to main content

Sounds of the Season

By December 20, 2014 No Comments

In the first week of Advent—no, make it a good week before Advent, sometime in the run-up to Thanksgiving—the first sound came to me: rum pum pum pum. Oh no, the dreaded drummer boy! It was only a little less irritating than the endlessly repeated tagline of the radio station pumping this and other Christian muzak into my work-out space, the fieldhouse of the Christian college where I teach. It’s Christian, the station reminds us every ten minutes, because it’s “family friendly.” Also because its Christmas mix omits any kind of secular seasonal tunes with an edge. No Springsteen warning of Santa’s visit here. The haunting lyric from Meet Me in St. Louis is rendered theologically correct: “Through the years we all will be together, if the Lord [not ‘the fates’] allows….” Nice soft stuff like Gene Autry singing click click click does make it into the mix, that being the sounds of ol’ Saint Nick tap dancing up on the housetop. “Family friendleeee! Your home for the holidays!!

But out in the real world other sounds intrude. Can you hear what I hear? The ex-Marine in southeast Pennsylvania getting even in his child custody dispute. Bam bam, he kills his ex-sister-in-law and her husband. Bam, their daughter too. Bam bam, there goes ex-mother- and grandmother-in-law. And finally bam, his ex-wife herself. That’ll show ‘em.

And how shall we render our chief renderers, the CIA and the past vice-president who defends their deeds with words worthy of Nuremberg testimony after World War II? For waterboarding, maybe splish splash muffled scream? Let’s cue in the line about earth hard as iron for the cold rooms where the prisoners were hung nearly naked, deprived of sleep.

Moving abroad, we hear rat a tat tat from the Taliban in Pakistan, mowing down the schoolchildren. No, they say, we are not acting out “The Coventry Carol” verse about “Herod, the king, in his raging,/Charged he hath this day/His men of might, in his owne sight,/All young children to slay.” That, they insist, is what the Pakistani air-force has been doing to our children, boom boom boom, out in borderlands with Afghanistan, where the satanic Americans have been blasting away these thirteen years.

So, what do we have? Rum pum pum pum, rat a tat tat, click click click, boom boom boom, splish splash scream, bam bam bam. Forgot to add crack crack crack of the policeman’s weapon firing at that weaponless “demon” Michael Brown in Ferguson. Or did that crack comes from Eric Garner’s larynx in New York? No, his was an asthmatic wheeze turned into the panicky whistle of a constricting throat turned into the sound of silence.

Do Christians have anything to say amid this cacophony besides family friendleeee? The pastors among you will note something of the rage of the past vice-president in my barely cloaked wish that he have done unto him what he had done to others. That makes me deserving of the same, perhaps. I guess I have to credit that logic ethically, though it doesn’t convince emotionally. But I’ll take your word for it. Repent. Better yet, let’s take Cranmer’s word for it from Advent I: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

OK, so the problem is in me. Also in me. But not only in me; out there too in this very mortal life, with second helpings all around. “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence.” There’s that ‘r’ word again. What is the sound of the heavens being rent apart? A cloth tearing really loud? Thunder? A tornado, said to roar like a locomotive coming through your living room? A trumpet?

When agitating this line of thought I’m always called back to God’s appearance to Elijah after his smack-down with the prophets of Baal. Poor old Elijah, hiding on the mountain from the vengeful queen, all alone, his cause—no, God’s cause—lost, and that after all his extra-special effects on Mt. Carmel. In response God sends him three torrents of super sound, perfect for IMAX or the big pageant coming to the megachurch near you: mountain-splitting wind, earthquake, fire. But after that “a sound of sheer silence.” And out of the silence, the voice of God.

Happy silence.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Leave a Reply