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A Theology of Sound
No preacher in my Baptist childhood ever rendered temptation more vividly than Garrison Keillor did one Saturday night with a story about a frozen pump handle. The icy arm was a summons, a frosty whisper, to children to press their tongues on its dangerously alluring length. Stephen Webb's The Divine Voice can be read, I think, as an exploration of the temptations of speechlessness. That sounds odd, because as Walker Percy has pointed out, we fear nothing quite so much as silence, especially on stage: "The escalating terror of such silence is a public phenomenon: five seconds of such silence is a very long time, ten seconds is almost intolerable."1 Still, wordlessness can be seductive. Saying nothing feels like a refuge, even from God, who (we can't help thinking) ought to be more sympathetic with us who are slow of speech and of a slow tongue.
But Webb's book turns us away from the frozen pump handle of wordlessness. He searches out a "theo-acoustics," a theology of sound heavily indebted to Walter Ong, the late rhetorical scholar who has done so much to recast our notions about sound.2 In works like Orality and Literacy and The Presence of the Word, Ong argued that we moderns privilege sight over sound, because we traffic in the manageable surfaces of things. Contrarily, sound confronts us with interiority. To hear is to relinquish our place as sovereign spectators and managers in the world and to position ourselves in medias res as morally obligated and mortally vulnerable hearers of the word. Perhaps the dread appeal and secret relief of speechlessness originates in our visualist disposition to stand at a remove from things. St. Paul said he believed and therefore spoke. We sometimes hope the inverse is true: if we do not speak, we need not commit.
This hope runs athwart the Great Commission, if Webb's "acoustemological" understanding of the church is accurate—acoustemology being the project of theologizing in aural, not visual terms. The difficulty of this ...