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 project emerges in Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decline of Dialogue, where he points out that almost all of our intellectual terms are essentially visualist: composition entails putting objects together, implication folds objects into one another, definition sets boundaries, and so on. Indeed, so pervasive are visualist analogies for intellection that sometimes it's tempting to follow Richard Rorty's lead in damning the epistemological project altogether. But Webb's acoustemological ecclesiology doesn't (in Rortyan fashion) seek solidarity at the expense of truth, because the church admits an obligation to the divine fiat from which we came and the Christly summons by which we wend towards the eschaton.
I felt the slightest bit smug when I saw Ong's name show up early in Webb's work. After all, no one gets out of my introductory communication course without hearing Father Ong's name invoked. What I hadn't known until I read Webb is that Karl Barth had been exploring the theological importance of sound two decades before Ong got around to it. In many ways, The Divine Voice seeks to carry on Barth's theology of the word, in the stead of those second-generation proponents of neo-orthodoxy who vainly tried to ground theology in metaphysics or historiography.
Webb's own project is much more modest: to draw on communication scholarship to rehear theology, ecclesiology, and discipleship in terms of performance. God, he argues, is a public speaker, and Jesus is what God sounds like. Christ is also what we sound like when our broken resonance is redeemed and our echoes of the divine resumed. To round out his theo-acoustics, Webb traces the role of aurality in and around the Protestant Reformation, especially in the theology of Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin, echoed more recently by theologians David Tracy, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Stanley Hauerwas.
But it is the homiletician Barth who has the most important voice in Webb's Word of God theology redivivus. Naturally, then, the sermon becomes Webb's essential site for hearing God's speech and the model for workaday proclamation. Just as the sermon is more than a liturgical additive, so witnessing is not something we wait around to do until we know that we know that we know that we're going to heaven. There is a sense in which we do not know what we believe till we see what we say. "We do not perform what we know;" writes Webb, glossing Barth, "instead we only know what we can perform."
But can we perform at all? Webb makes that question integral to evangelical experience, especially in the rhetorical struggles of St. Paul, Martin Luther, and George Whitefield, for whom the defeat of topophobia, or stage fright, became something of a proof of regeneration. Today's public speaking textbooks, on the other hand, treat stage fright as a technical or therapeutic concern. Take deep, diaphragmatic breaths. Don't lock your knees. Envision successful delivery. Offering this kind of advice, the speech instructor becomes a kind of death therapist who doesn't believe in the afterlife.
Still, even if the textbooks don't get it, something in public speaking doth make cowards of us all. The voice, we can't help but feel, must be more than an instrument. Learning to speak with others is not a skill on the same order as learning to click through a Power Point slide show. To reduce rhetoric to technique, says Webb, disembodies the voice. Following the vocal theory of Kristin Linklater, he argues that "the voice can be said to embody the body, because all parts of the person, from feelings to thoughts and impulses, are expressed through the voice." Speaking isn't merely something we do, but something we are. No wonder, then, that public speaking shoves us, in Auden's words, "out on the ultimate wind-whipped cornice that overhangs the unabiding void."3
So, the voice is the flesh made word, and it's not an easy incarnation. Webb describes our vocal fallenness this way: "We tighten our jaws and tongue, breathe shallowly, and force our speech into a narrow band of pitch. Rather than letting our body be a musical instrument, resonating with sound, we project our voice from the upper regions of our body, ignoring what lies below."
Much as I hate to admit it, my picky college speech instructors were onto something in their traditionalist curriculum, which Webb would catalog with those "old-fashioned speech departments (those that have not yet succumbed to communication studies)." We students called the voice and diction course "Voice and Affliction," because for two very long semesters our vocal condition underwent the severest sanctification. We walked around that recital hall, humming and holding our diaphragms, tightening our articulation, enlarging our respiration, freeing our resonation—and feeling bored, amused, and annoyed by turns. What we didn't notice was that our efforts to reacquaint ourselves with our natural timbre became a parable of a sanctuary. "We go to church to sing together and to listen to the Word," writes Webb. "We go, in other words, to find our voice." Perhaps ecclesial life should be as much preoccupied with voice and diction as it is with vice and affliction.
Webb's last chapter is about music and Kingdom Come, which brings this little essay back to Lake Wobegon. When Garrison Keillor garners guffaws at the expense of earnest churchgoers, I laugh, too—abrupt, barked-up mirth, the laughter of startled self-recognition. It feels good to be so mellifluously mocked. And then the monologue is over, and it's time for the Hopeful Gospel Quartet to take the program out. Many's the Saturday night, I've looked up from the supper dish-suds and wondered what Keillor's audience was making of these crooning renditions of "Tell It to Jesus" or "Where Could I Go but to the Lord?" To sentimentalize what you ironize doesn't seem quite fair—even though I have to admit that my wife, children, and I (strong, above-average, and good-looking, respectively) can't resist cranking our little kitchen radio as far as it will go.
Alasdair MacIntyre has observed that "the relationship of our beliefs to sentences that we only or primarily sing, let alone to the music which accompanies those sentences, is not at all the same as the relationship of our beliefs to the sentences that we primarily say and say in an assertive mode."4 Perhaps A Prairie Home Companion is a heartening reminder that what our public culture can no longer say, it can still sing. But Webb's book (especially in his comparison of church and community theater) suggests that the religionists Keillor ironizes are among the most important preservers of our public culture's capacity for irony. Catechisms, memory verses, and sermons—these things are easy to make fun of, but hard to replace. Without Sunday morning sermons, Saturday night irony isn't finally sustainable. Icy pump handles are funny, until you put your tongue on them.
Craig Mattson is associate professor of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.
1. Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos (Picador, 1983), p. 30.
2. A profile of Ong appeared in these pages last summer: Jeet Heer, "From Homer to Hip-Hop," Books & Culture, July/August 2004, pp. 3435.
3. W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (Vintage, 1991), p. 444.
4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2d ed. (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 37.
Copyright Â© 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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