This morning, I woke up to the grinding buzz of landscaping equipment. There’d been an email about it, but it was before 8 a.m. and I’d been hoping to sleep in. Now I was awake, groggy, and disgruntled. One point noise, zero points Josh.
Later, I sat in a coffee shop, trying to write this essay. I struggled to hear my sentences over the conversations and coffee grinders. I sketched out a few ideas, but the real drafting was going to have to wait. Two points noise.
Noise and I have never been friends. When my parents took me to Holland’s Tulip Time parades as a child, I had to run inside before the siren-blaring firetrucks came through at the end. And I’ve never really grown out of it. Put me and too many decibels in the same room, and I bluescreen.
And modernity provides nothing if not decibels. We have airplanes, subwoofers, megaphones, and, yes, gas-powered landscaping equipment. We have the more metaphorical noise of political pundits, reality TV, and a truly infinite array of mediocre podcasts. We have those inexplicable people who carry boomboxes around college campuses. And we still have all the older sounds too: woodpeckers and thunder, howling wolves and howling wind.
There’s a tendency for Christians to spiritualize this omnipresence of noise, to turn it into a symptom of the world’s clanging and chaotic brokenness. We fill our worship services with moments of silence or quiet music. We point to Christians of the past who sought to cultivate places of silent serenity. We long to hear to replace the earthy ringing in our ears with the still, small voice of God.
Cardinal Robert Sarah makes exactly this argument in his 2017 book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. “God himself dwells in great silence,” Sarah writes, and humans come closest to God when they too “drape [themselves] in silence” (21). Modern society’s noisiness is a “serious, worrisome illness” (27), and the only cure is for enough of us to “withdraw into solitude and silence” (23).
I feel in my own ears a deep sympathy for this call to silence. Recently, though, the work of ecomusicologists and sound scholars has started to retrain my thinking and hearing. I’ve written before about how ecomusicologists encourage us to listen to more-than-human music, to sing with the croaks and gurgles and chirps of creation. But another stream of sound scholarship urges us to hear noise as more than a nuisance.
Sound scholar Luc Peters, for example, points out that even silence is never truly silent. It is always haunted by noise. Turn off the TV and you can hear the air conditioning. Turn off the air conditioning, and you can hear the electric whine of the lights. Turn those off, and you hear your breathing, your joints, and then—inevitably, ineradicably—your heartbeat. If you’re outside, you’ll hear other heartbeats, other breaths, other movements. If you’re in an apartment building, you’ll hear other people’s lives. Noise is “there, always, everywhere”.
Peters calls noise “the vernacular of life”—it is the language of everything that is, the only real Esperanto of creation. Wouldn’t it be an appropriately Protestant move, then, to see this noisy vernacular not as lowly or crass but as the very tongue in which God speaks?
This is resonant, I think, with what the Bible teaches us about God. Sure, God speaks to Elijah “not in the wind [or] in the earthquake” but in the “sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:11-13). But Adam and Eve hear “the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden” (Genesis 3:8) and God appears to Moses and the Israelites more than once as a crackling, heaving fire. God is associated with trumpets, with flowing water, with birds and babies and storms—all indisputably noisy things.
Noise does not appear in the Bible as a metaphor for sin; instead, it’s often a sign of celebration. In 1 Samuel 4, the arrival of the ark of the covenant is greeted with a “mighty shout” that makes the “earth [resound]” (4:5). This noise, the enemy Philistines know, is a sign of divine presence. Similarly, in 1 Kings 1, Solomon’s anointing prompts a party loud enough to make the “earth [quake] at their noise (1:40). Noise means victory, community, life.
And, of course, the Psalms over and over urge their readers to “make a joyful noise” before the Lord (66:1, 95:1, 95:2, etc.). I’m just as guilty as anyone else of turning these verses into jokes about mediocre church choirs. But what if the Psalmist’s idea is even more radical than that? What if the gift of noisy praise is not only for children’s ensembles and amateur musicians but for crying infants, malfunctioning hearing aids, and even the buzzing tools of the landscape workers outside?
At a church I attended a few years ago, guest musicians from the congregation often provided the prelude. One Sunday, a long-haired elderly man approached the microphone without an instrument. He delivered a spoken-word poem, I think—something between speaking and singing that, to be honest, sounded a lot more like noise than like words. But as much as I cringed at the time, I’ve started to think that it wasn’t such a bad prelude after all. What better way to introduce the mysteries of God than with what Peters calls the “unsolvable mysteries” of noise?
To be sure, there are noises that are not life-giving. There is noise pollution, sonic torture, propaganda, and gunshots. There are industrial noises that interfere with other people’s and other creatures’ habitats and ways of life. The sonic world needs as much justice and deliverance as any other part of creation.
But I’m more skeptical than ever that that deliverance can come through the veneration of silence. Aspiring to silence means that some creatures—the noisy ones—are off-limits. It means that someone gets the volume knob, the conducting baton, the key to the soundproof room. It means that our piety is for well-trained, able-bodied, neurotypical adults and no one else. And at its worst, it tips into the fascist belief that the world can and should be stripped of its impurities.
Embracing noise, then, is a way of embracing life. All of it: the ancient and the modern, the human and the non-human, the pleasant and the unbearable. It’s a way of saying that a creature of God doesn’t have to please us in order to be good. God isn’t as picky as we are.
For me, embracing noise might be as simple as going to a party where I know the music will be too loud because a friend really wants me there. It might mean refusing to roll my eyes when people cough too much in classical concerts, or getting less stressed out when the ambient coffee shop sounds impede my precious writing time. But it might also mean speaking against classist noise ordinances in my local community, or shouting “no justice, no peace” until my voice is hoarse.
Silence is an illusion, an imagined ideal that we will tape up other’s mouths while trying to reach. Noise is a given: the way the world is, the way life is, the way God is.
The search for silence, in other words, might be the real dictatorship. Noise might be freedom.