Notes of Silence
If there is one thing that modern people are surrounded by, it’s music. Radio for the car (if you’re not plugging your phone into the speakers), streaming services for home and office, music piped through coffee shops and shopping centers – it’s not that difficult to live with a steady diet of music.
In my own experience, spending the last month and a half in the middle of nowhere highlighted just how much music I consumed on a daily basis. Talking about this as a group, my thoughts went back to a section from Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.
We are certain (it is a matter of first principles) that each member of the family must in some way be making capital out of the others—but we can’t find out how. They guard as jealously as the Enemy Himself the secret of what really lies behind this pretence of disinterested love. The whole house and garden is one vast obscenity. It bears a sickening resemblance to the description one human writer made of Heaven: ‘the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence’. Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since Our Father entered Hell—though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express—no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end.1
Lewis is not alone in tying together music, conquest, and Hell. In Paradise Lost, Milton describes the demons as moving “In perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood/Of flutes and soft recorders; such as raised/To highth of noblest temper heroes old/Arming to battle . . .” (b.1 l.550-553)2 What both authors suggest is that music has the potential to be used for evil as well as for good. This matches what we see in the rest of the world. Evil cannot make new things; it can only deform what was originally good. If this is the case, then music cannot be categorically lumped into either the good or evil. However, rather than evaluate different music styles and pronounce them good or evil, I’d like to focus our attention to how we use music in our lives. The thoughts from Screwtape in particular give rise to several questions that can help us.
The first of these questions is how does my music help me love my neighbor? An alternate phrasing might be does my music get in the way of loving my neighbor? In Screwtape, it is interesting to note that Hell’s noise contrasts with the love of the family mentioned in the quotation. There are two facets that play into answering this question. One is the question of whether my music distracts me from the needs right around me. Even further, do I find my music to be more valuable than the people around me? The other actually forms part of our second question: Does my music consumption negatively impact my music production? This is really a question about how well I’m stewarding the talents I’ve been given. One could expand this to ask whether music negatively affects my ability to use my creativity to benefit others. Not only is this part of loving my neighbor, but it is also part of bringing the world under God’s rule.
The third question we ought to ask is does my music consumption hinder opportunities for thought, meditation, and prayer? That is, do I listen to music merely to fill empty space? It is worth noticing again that Screwtape sees noise as that “. . . which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples and impossible desires.”3 Avoiding serious thought is something that Matthew Lee Anderson has noticed in our culture. As he points out, “Our tendency is to avoid, to inoculate ourselves against unsettling questions with an endless titillation of trivialities.”4 Granted, he is looking a different way of skirting deeper thought, but the same root issue is in his sights.
Finally, and perhaps a bit more controversially, I think there is room to ask is the music I listen to glorified noise? Before we get too up in arms, this isn’t a question pointed at specific genres, though there are some which might deserve this question. Instead, I’m focused more on the quality of the music. Are the artists really creating quality art, or is it cheap work? Most contemporary Christian music, I’m looking at you. If the quality of the art we produce reflects our love for our neighbor and our desire to glorify God, then what we support should be held to a similar standard.
What should we conclude from all of this? While answers might be different from person to person, by-and-large it seems clear that our culture’s use of music often resembles Hell’s noise rather than Heaven’s counterpart to silence. Perhaps it’s time to take a look at where and when we start cranking our tunes. Perhaps there are new habits we could consider to balance our mix of music and silence, providing a fuller demonstration of God’s love to the rest of the world.
What does my music accomplish when I listen to it?
What are some habits that we might consider putting in place to be more intentional about our music consumption?
2. John Milton. Paradise Lost edited by Scott Elledge. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975. 21-22
3. Lewis. Screwtape Letters. 120.
4. Matthew Lew Anderson. The End of Our Exploring. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013. 17
Photo courtesy of Todd Quackenbush