Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Book Review - Silence a Christian history by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Silence : a Christian history by Diarmaid MacCulloch

New York : Viking, 2013                     ISBN 9780670025565

This book was not what I expected it to be... it was much more. Picked up on a bargains table at my favourite bookstore, in its handsome dustjacket with an Angel (or is it Mary?) gazing beatifically out from under a golden halo, I was expecting this book to focus on the Christian ascetics and monks of the Middle Ages, and their continuation on into today. Of course that subject is discussed, but this book paints a much larger canvas, exploring the concept of silence itself in all its facets through Church history.

MacCulloch starts before the birth of Christ, investigating silence as it was seen in the Jewish books of the Bible, and finds that initially silence was seen as a bad thing, invoking the devastation of post-war, and of death. Under the influence of Greek thought and philosophy, silence as a sacred state began to enter Jewish thought, via Job and others, and the Temple in Jerusalem would have used silence as part of its ritual.

It was hundreds of years after the death of Christ before the idea of the pursuit of God through silent prayer took hold. The Desert Fathers were, by their very nature, not part of the mainstream Church, and it took some time for their views to break into the mainstream. The institutional Church - especially in the West - was fearful of individuals praying for themselves by themselves as the priests wanted control over people, and so monasticism grew as a way that the hierarchy could control silent prayer. In the East the iconoclastic battles occurred for similar reasons, the difference being that the institution lost and the individuals won, which is why the individual ascetic experience is much more common in the Orthodox world.

As it was the Protestants that opened the Bible up to more people via vernacular translations, it is ironic that MacCulloch shows us that for Protestants silence was usually seen as wrong, or at least suspicious. And yet silence became very important for some for mere survival. Nicodemism in many of its forms is well represented in this book, as the silences involved often were a matter of life and death, when the Inquisition or Elizabeth's Secret Service were asking questions. Gay clergy falls into this section of MacCulloch's book and in some ways is a slightly separate issue, as there was not only often silence on the side of gay clergy, but silence from the Church as well - a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy, with those that did tell made to be silent.

The last section of the book deals with more disturbing uses of silence within the Church, if not within Christianity in general. MacCulloch delves into Church silences that surround the Holocaust, sexual abuse, and slavery. For those, like me, who thought that the Church was one of the institutions that helped rid the (Western) World of slavery, MacCulloch provides a corrective, when he describes how various Churches provided those who engaged in the practice religious cover for their activities. While the abolitionist story is well known, this murkier relationship of Church and slavery has been subsumed into silence.

This brief description does not do justice to this book: extensively researched (excellent apparatus and bibliography), lucidly argued and packed with information, it is truly a mind-expanding work. This is surely the masterpiece on this subject and will be the foundation of any future work in this area.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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