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detail of a sound-form depicting Hungarian fiddle music

The Sacred Bonds of Sound

Sarah Ruden

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We are no longer used to letting sound touch us. Perhaps this is because we are no longer used to silence. As a Quaker, belonging to a community that worships in silence, I’ve experienced how it is the surrounding stillness that gives the spoken word its power.

Sound cradled in silence has been essential to me in understanding scripture more deeply. The translation of ancient literature is my livelihood, and Bible translation reform is my passion. Why is it that to so many today, the Bible comes across as dull? Much of the blame seems to rest with English translations, which still carry the momentous seriousness of Reformation piety and a vast accumulation of elite scholarship, and so do not communicate anything of the original Hebrew and Greek texts’ earthy delights. But these delights themselves sprung from the fertile ground of ordinarily quiet lives, like those of small children; this, I think, is what made the sounds so vivid and precious.

To give my lecture audiences a sense of what listening to the text was like when it was fresh – and most of scripture’s first audiences did only listen; physical books were precious, and shared through reading aloud – I sing a little of a Sunday school song. This is the sort of composition people embrace, and remember – impulses essential to sacred literature’s place in our hearts and communities:

The Lord said to Noah, “There’s gonna be a floody, floody.”
The Lord said to Noah, “There’s gonna be a floody, floody.
Get those animals out of the muddy, muddy,
Children of the Lord!”

The adult listeners tend to chuckle and stir in their seats. I always have a hard time establishing that they are hearing not just an appealing vestige of childish goofiness (which is perhaps even disrespectful to the story in which it is situated) but the essence of the Judeo-Christian tradition as expressed in literature: the joyful words, the beloved words, the shared words, the words that are unforgettable because of their overt patterning. In making my argument, I like to quote the most accurate translation that scholars have been able to come up with, in the face of the silly pun, for Genesis 2:25–3:1: “Now the man and his wife were nude … but the snake, he was shrewd. …” This isn’t a bizarre exception, I insist; and I make an effort, once I have people’s attention, to adduce more solemn but equally striking examples of the Bible’s patterned words.

A sound-form of the sound waves made by a US soldier overseas singing for his wife

A visualization or “sound-form” of the sound waves made by a US soldier overseas singing for his wife. By Ashik and Jenelle Mohan.
All images used by permission from Ashik and Jenelle Mohan.

The folk-dance and campfire qualities of the Hebrew Bible extend into the Greek New Testament, with its poetic stunts, apparent fragments of popular hymns, and tongue-in-cheek interpretive quotations from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that served as the contemporary Jewish Diaspora’s scripture.

Are these memorable sounds something to put away with childish things, to be left behind in the church basement or Scout hall? The ancients certainly wouldn’t have thought so. They listened to literature the way we look at an Old Master painting or a pixelated puzzle-image: with lively and prolonged engagement.

Classicists and biblical scholars have known about the importance of sound for a long time. The vagueness of color words in the Greek Homeric epic poems – sonic masterpieces in themselves – must reflect this hierarchy of perception. Glaukos covers green, blue, gray, and maybe lavender, xanthos brown, tan, yellow, and maybe orange. Besides black and white, only the word for red, eruthros, the color of a warrior’s streaming blood, is an unambiguous descriptor. Compare the visual discernment expected today in someone choosing wall paint or a prom dress, identifying a butterfly, or just describing a sunset: “teal,” “chartreuse,” “millennial pink,” “eggshell,” “burnt umber,” “burgundy,” “saffron.”

The ancients listened to literature the way we look at an Old Master painting.

Biblical Hebrew is even less interested in what colors things are, and in general less interested in any visual details – which makes sense. While the visual arts flourished on all sides of the Holy Land, Jewish culture held representative images and even finery suspect: they were suggestive of idolatry, frivolity, and disruptive inequality. Joseph’s “coat of many colors” (Gen. 37:3), the description in standard translations, gets him into a lot of trouble – but the Hebrew actually says nothing about color: it is literally a “coat of the flats of hands or feet,” probably either with sleeves or a train luxuriously impeding heavy labor, or a block or striped pattern woven or stamped in. It doesn’t take a couture rainbow (which would have necessitated a variety of dyes that weren’t available) but just some elaboration of the ordinary type of garment to violently upset a family’s equilibrium.

But patterned sound – the kind we tend to look down on as “empty rhetoric” or “jingles” or “rhyme and chime” – was a cultural feast that evoked no envy or suspicion, probably because it was so broadly shared. In the synagogues that spread through the Holy Land and beyond from at least the third century BC, men and women, the young and the old, and Jews and gentiles could all partake of these beautifully arranged words.

An example that’s rudimentary and authoritative and supremely clever all at the same time is the deployment of alphabetic acrostics in Psalms and Proverbs. In the original texts of these passages, each line or verse is marked not with a number (numbered divisions of the Bible are modern), but with a Hebrew letter in its proper sequence, beginning the first word.

I like to think that this was not only a celebration of the writing system, the means of making God’s word visible, treasuring it up, and spreading it to remote places; in addition, given the prevalence of primary-school memorization feats in surrounding cultures, it would not be surprising if Jewish pupils learned the alphabet through an entire Psalm or a passage of Proverbs. The apparent melody names attached to some Psalms, and the musical instruments mentioned in the text, may not pertain only to adult performances; it is not impossible that learning the aleph-bet-gimel during the first few days at a synagogue school was more like choir practice than like the brief collection of syllables we cause English-speaking children to recite, which is set to baby music and jams the middle span of letters into a single hasty word, “elemenopea.” The teaching of arithmetic in the synagogues may also have been enticingly elaborate. Jewish folklore through the ages displays poetic and musical lists and enumerations, some of which are enshrined in celebrations like that of the Passover.

This prompts me to suggest a social meaning to the vital term Logos, usually translated as “Word,” in the Book of John. The term is connected to mathematics, whose power and prestige thinkers since before Plato had been emphasizing: some things are demonstrably and eternally true, in all languages and to all people at all times and places; the Logos in John is the reasoning of God and eternity; it creates and transcends the physical universe. But the Logos can also be “the compelling story”; it can be the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection, accounts spread around the world through word of mouth in the lingua franca of the Koine Greek dialect, and on cheap papyrus paper. Like a times table, the story is simple, essential information, accessible to anyone who “has ears.”

Christians are a family that live, move, and have their being within a great story.

But the story will not spread on its own, and here is where verbal form and performance come in. Like the times table, you would not want to present the story to the uninitiated as a set of bald facts; you organize it, make it memorable, and have the children recite it together, as a sort of ritual. The benefit is not only that it is easier to remember, but also that it attaches itself to your heart and through this attaches you to other people.

A concern for community-building verbal performance is evident in Paul’s letters – and his challenges were great in this regard, as the proto-Christian assemblies were starting from no fixed tradition. They did not duplicate synagogue practices; they allowed women to speak at this early stage, though women’s educational deficit was enormous – what did they have to say, and how well could they say it? Nonetheless, the substance of the early gathering appears to have been free and spontaneous “speaking out,” the literal meaning of the Greek word normally translated as “prophesying.”

What tends to pass today for Paul’s controlling attitude toward the assemblies seems to me, in historical context, to have been more like his efforts to bring minimal order, so that the harmony of shared words could take hold and help generate the shared love, joy, praise, and gratitude on which the apostle knew this new faith depended. And the assemblies did have very limited resources: only the rudiments of the Gospels existed at this period, probably just a few distinctly Christian prayers and hymns, and letters like those of Paul himself. The impression from those letters is that worship was built mainly on individual speech. As for the community’s activities as a whole, out of the nine spiritual gifts enumerated at the end of 1 Corinthians 12, six consist of whatever a member of an assembly chose to say. Paul set about shaping Christian expressive language not, it is clear, to exert control over thought but to keep Christian culture from being shapeless, in which case it would have had no cohesion or staying power.

A sound-form depicting Hungarian fiddle music.

A sound-form depicting Hungarian fiddle music. By Ashik and Jenelle Mohan.

The neglected 1 Corinthians 14, for example, is a plea to tamp down unintelligible speaking in tongues, or at least to make sure that there is an attempt to interpret the utterances; silence is better than contributions that do not “build up” and “encourage” all those present. “Speaking out” or “prophesying” and listening must be done in courteous turn and not willy-nilly.

The vast edifice of Christian scripture and other literature, liturgy, and music rests on such strictures. An all-powerful God could not conceivably need such performances, but communities of believers need them very much. Christians are a family that live, move, and have their being within a great story, but it isn’t a story they inhabit passively or imbibe academically, it’s a story they enact constantly for each other. What comes out of their mouths, therefore, must be as orderly, as exemplary, as the way they live.

This history and these principles fascinate me as a Quaker, because Quaker Meeting for Worship is a self-conscious imitation of primordial Christianity. According to a verse cherished by founders of the sect, John 15:15, Jesus calls his followers not servants but friends, to whom he gives directly the entire revelation he has received from God. Hence among Quakers there is no worship leader, only a person who “sits head” of the Meeting, to ensure “right ordering”: to start and end the silence on time, to intervene in any case of urgent need, and to discourage any impropriety, such as argumentative answering back or the failure to “frame each contribution in silence.” Anyone, including a child or a new, uninvited visitor, is welcome to speak out of the silence, but only briefly and to the point, and only on a topic and in a manner helpful to the group. This is definitely not a time for self-centered self-expression. The “openness to new Light” that a Meeting seeks demands the putting aside of whatever may stand in the Light’s way, especially the competitive individualism modern culture embraces.

Quaker Meeting is thus an outwardly simple proposition, in which any reading out loud, any story even inwardly rehearsed, any set prayer or other memorized recitation, or any musical performance except of the most spontaneous kind is frowned on. This is how Quakers invite the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s will to the entire group. And in fact a mysteriously “gathered Meeting” has a silence so deep that you can practically hear in it an airy, rushing motion, like wings; you are not at all surprised by the expressions of excitement and thankfulness afterwards.

But it is also telling that technically forbidden aesthetics intrude all the time. It is no strain to keep objects out of Meeting, though some Meetings allow a simple one like a candle or a vase of flowers (but not a symbol freighted with its prior meaning, like a cross) to be placed in the middle for contemplation. But just try to suppress rhythms and other elaborations of speaking, especially humor and fantasy; their suppression doesn’t seem to be something the human brain is designed to do.

The convener of a Quaker building committee may intone during Meeting for Worship, “God maketh the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, but no longer in this room.” He has obviously planned this statement. A Quaker with a recognized “gift for vocal ministry” speaks during the first ten minutes of Meeting every Sunday, as to how some experience during the week was revelatory for her and might be for others. Since her stories, though clearly not spontaneous, are intelligent and enjoyable, she is never “eldered” in private for “inappropriate ministry.”

A sound-form depicting the first cry of a baby.

A sound-form depicting the first cry of a baby. By Ashik and Jenelle Mohan.

Music pushes in from all sides, and now that Quakers no longer have the strict rules for “plainness” that used to keep even their quilts pure white and their clothing black or gray, there is no sense in pushing back too hard. Some locales feature a Meeting for Singing before Meeting for Worship, so that people can get it out of their system – or try to. Among those acculturated to cooperate and defer – Quaker tradition mandates complete, careful consensus for all decision-making: we never vote and produce winners and losers of deliberations – it’s comical to see pent-up musical tastes gently and slyly jostling for expression. Well, it would be comical to an outsider: I know from my own innards the feeling that we have to, we have to sing a particular hymn I know from my Methodist upbringing. Most Friends these days are, like me, “convinced” or converted as adults: we wake up with the religious music of our childhoods in our heads, we hum it while doing housework, and nothing can replace it. Similarly, I think, in the great sweep of history Christians long for the music of our faith’s origins, the patterned sounds that spread the Word over the world.

It’s therefore worthwhile to pay some attention to the beauty we have lost and how we might get some of it back. First of all, silence, the state of the trustingly listening and learning small child, seems important. The Gospel command to “become as children” can have theological meanings, but Quaker experience points up a practical one: habitual silence endows meaningful sound, when it occurs, with emotional intensity. This was the condition throughout the ancient world, in which aesthetic experience was special and not ubiquitous. Plato prescribed that the state take over all poetry and music so as to better control citizens for the state’s ends – particularly warfare. The synagogue and the Christian assembly made more grounded and more democratic uses of the aural arts, with predictably much better results than those of Plato’s totalitarian adventures in Sicily. In any case, an essential condition of groups’ doing anything useful with these arts was the absence of music that was either ambient in public or selected by individuals for their sole enjoyment.

Today, it no longer takes a blue-nosed objector to rock ‘n’ roll to deplore the modern dead ear. It in fact seems to make little difference what music comes through ear buds hour after hour. The natural inability to take much account of it in competition with commuting, work, eating, socializing, exercising, and consuming other media by sight causes a deep dip in taste and sensitivity, which allows composition standards to decline, which allows further dips in taste and sensitivity.

While I lived at a divinity school as a visiting scholar, two kinds of relationships of the younger students to music struck me. First, there was the iTunes attachment to “my” music; but propagandizing a favorite band appeared seldom to work, as most of the new songs pouring into the marketplace were hard for me even to distinguish from each other. Without rudely asking, “What on earth do you like about this music?” I could gather that the answer would be something like “I found it, and not many other people know about it,” or “It’s something different,” or “I go to the concerts” – but never “It’s good because …”

No amount of iTunes can kill the urge to make joyful noises together.

I perceived a pervasive trouble in relating even a relatively shallow manifestation of the self – here, the musical taste of someone who isn’t a musician – to roles in society. A young child, reveling in her parents’ love and combatting the inherent anxiety about survival and fulfillment, will normally think, “I’m more beautiful than anybody!” – but in time will be content that her body is merely useful in pursuing what is transcendently beautiful to many people, such as a faithful marriage or a warm family life. But American culture is now so distorted that the mere preference for a shrill or dull tune and silly lyrics is enfolded into a stubborn notion of isolated, individual specialness, where it has no function but to be confirmed and defended.

But another kind of relationship of the students to music cheered me a great deal. Many of my neighbors at the divinity school attended musical parties, ecumenical gatherings at which people searched with furtive urgency through hymn books but nervously deferred to others’ choices, all the time gritting their teeth at the thought of going home without having shared a favorite. Sharing the performance was the point; nothing would prevent them humming or singing the song when alone, and YouTube has nearly everything on it, for free. Instead, they wanted to sing the good stuff – and there actually weren’t great differences in their ideas of what was good – together, in person.

No amount of iTunes could kill the urge of the divinity students to make joyful noises together. For relief from the deadening clamor of today’s commercial culture, we can experience the bonds of sound in a way the Psalmist would understand: as a community making music with one another. But it is more than just a relief; it might be one of the closest things to God’s kingdom that we can have here on earth.

Contributed By Sarah Ruden Sarah Ruden

Sarah Ruden is a poet, translator, essayist, and popularizer of biblical linguistics, and a published poet and the author of several books.

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