Book Review - The great silence

Silence in Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Allen Lane)

Reviewed by Lucy Beckett

The Gifford Lectures for than a century have delivered a series of distinguished books. The list includes William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, Owen Chadwick’s The Secularisation of the European Mind in the 19th Century, Alasdair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry and several more indispensable classics. Diarmaid MacCulloch, however, is dauntless. After half a dozen excellent books on the Tudors and the Protestant Reformation in England and Europe, in 2009 he published A History of Christianity: The first three thousand years, a remarkable achievement which, at nearly 1,200 pages, was throughout an exhilarating read. His Gifford Lectures for 2012 again take on the whole of Christian history and its Jewish back-story. The topic is silence, and silences of various kinds, in that history, and the book that has emerged from his addresses is once more unfailingly interesting and readable, with informative notes and no academic jargon.

Silence, in ordinary life as in the story of Christianity, has a wide variety of connotations. There is the silence of mystery evoking awe, the silence of attention or respect, the silence of desolation, the silence of what is forgotten, the silence of what is concealed: silence good, bad and indifferent. All of these, and more, appear in MacCulloch’s book. He begins with the Tanakh, the Hebrew name for the scriptural books which Christians call the Old Testament. The writers of these books over many centuries found little that was positive to say about silence. God speaks to Israel, through his prophets or in other ways: his silence is felt by his people as dire punishment, either deserved or as ‘an inexplicable affliction of the innocent’. The dumbness of idols is an important sign of their unfitness to be worshipped. Silence marks death, natural death as well as death in battle, defeat in war, devastation of cities and land. As for the response of the people of Israel to their God: public worship was extremely noisy – as in Psalm 150 – and almost all prayer was full of words. Silent prayer in the ancient world was suspect. Exceptional in the Tanakh are the silent prayer of Hannah, thought by Eli to be drunk, and, laden with significance for Christians, the silence of the second Isaiah’s suffering servant. And MacCulloch finds in later Jewish writings, influenced by Plato, a ‘fascination with the silence of the divine’, in particular a sense of the silence of God both before the creation of the world and in the Sabbath rest of its completion.

MacCulloch’s chapter on silences in the New Testament is a careful, swift presentation of the chronology, provenance and patchiness of the writings that tell us about the life of Jesus, what it came to mean after his death, and the atmosphere in which the earliest churches developed. Different kinds of silence emerge. Jesus often asks his disciples to keep quiet about his miracles; at critical moments during the Passion stories, Jesus says nothing; in his silent, because internal, contention with Satan in the wilderness, he defeats what MacCulloch nicely calls Satan’s ‘chatter’ with brief quotations from the Tanakh: the silent prayer of ancient words. MacCulloch, recounting the story of Zechariah’s temporary dumbness followed by his “praise and prophecy” at John the Baptist’s birth, points out that this is a familiar Jewish transition. His assertion that it is recounted in Luke’s Gospel also to ‘discredit’ the old dispensation is surely too negative. It is, after all, to Luke that we owe the three great Tanakh-derived prayers – the Magnificat, the Benedictus and the Nunc dimittis – which have for centuries been part of the daily liturgy of the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican Churches. These are Jewish prayers spoken by Jewish people.

At the same time, at a deeper level and most of all in John’s Gospel, there is Jesus as the Word of God, speaking his being that until the Incarnation has been hidden in the silence of God, although premonitions are heard in the Tanakh. This is the beginning of centuries of complex effort to find words in which to describe the person of Christ (a process with which MacCulloch has little sympathy, seeing its partial – not accepted by all the Churches – resolution at Chalcedon in 451 as not much more than imperial diktat).


All this is perceptively set out, as is Paul’s need to deal with undisciplined noise in the early churches, alternative apostles, glossolalia, and random prophesying even by women. Paul’s concern for orderliness among his new Christians has recurred down the ages whenever loud enthusiasm, whether among seventeenth-century Ranters and assorted visionaries, or eighteenth-century Methodists singing hymns in fields, or twentieth-century Charismatics, has threatened to make what MacCulloch usually calls “mainstream” Christianity look dull. But the sober and predictable liturgy favoured by Paul and his mainstream successors is not silent: it is word-filled.

If we want to listen properly to something we are hearing only dimly, we ask anyone else present to be quiet: we need silence to hear clearly, and even more to listen. MacCulloch in the second quarter of his book tracks the complicated development of the monastic notion of prayerful silence, among much else that took place in Christian history from post-scriptural times until the high Middle Ages. As in his History of Christianity, he finds centrifugal oddities hard to resist: Gnostics of varying degrees of battiness do deserve a place in the history of silence; Manichees – it is over-indulgent to say that ‘their answer to the problem of evil in God’s world has not yet been bettered’ – do not. Evagrius Ponticus is important to this story for his early (fourth-century) writing on prayer, while at the very heart of it is one of his followers, the late fifth-century Syrian who achieved the most successful confidence trick in European literature by calling himself Dionysius the Areopagite. Thought for a millennium to be St Paul’s Athenian convert mentioned in the Book of Acts, this hugely influential describer of the higher reaches of contemplative prayer was actually too much of a Neoplatonist to avoid all eccentricity and was an opponent of Chalcedon; MacCulloch doesn’t explain why we need ‘Miaphysite’ to replace the familiar term ‘Monophysite’…

Lucy Beckett’s books include In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western tradition, 2006, and A Postcard from the Volcano: A novel of pre-war Germany, published in 2009.

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