The New Testament is silent about the resurrection. Nowhere do the gospels describe the central feature of Christianity

Review: ‘Silence’ by Diarmaid MacCulloch

The New Testament is silent about the resurrection. Nowhere do the gospels describe the central feature of Christianity.

D.G. HART

Oct. 27, 2013 5:42 p.m. ET

Silence wouldn’t appear to be a topic that could sustain a book. Yes, you want a quiet room for reading, but it is the presence of qualities—words or actions—that drive a book’s narrative or spin its arguments. Silence usually raises more questions than it answers. Consider the husband who is nervous about his wife’s silence or the parents who wonder why the kids in the basement are suddenly so quiet. Once the wife explains her thoughts or parents discover the kids’ activities, silence ends.As it turns out, though, silence has been the subject of any number of books. I found 656 titles in a recent library search, including works about French mimes, Virginia Wolff’s novels, death and dying, rape, art therapy for abused children, feminist literary criticism, the desegregation of Major League Baseball and underground magazines in the Soviet Union. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “Silence: A Christian History” moves closer to more conventional terrain when silence is in view. Religion, art and philosophy each have a stake in silence.

Mr. MacCulloch is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Christian history. He began with ground-breaking treatments of Protestantism in 16th-century Europe before writing a massive history of Christianity (2009, complete with a BBC television series) that included a millennium of Greek, Roman and Jewish history for good measure. With “Silence,” a book that began as the 2012 Gifford Lectures, he turns to instances where the absence of something is as revealing as the observable evidence. He compares his approach to Sherlock Holmes’s in the story “Silver Blaze,” where the dog’s making no noise in the nighttime leads the detective to conclude, “I had grasped the significance of the silence of the dog, for one true inference invariably suggests others. . . . Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.” In effect, silence for the historian becomes “a necessary tool” to make sense of written and visual evidence.

The examples of silence from the Christian millennia that Mr. MacCulloch amasses are overwhelming, almost too numerous to keep up with on this fast-paced tour, but cohere around three main themes. One concerns theological formulations and devotional practices that turn silence into a virtue. He observes, for instance, that the New Testament is silent about the resurrection of Christ. Nowhere do the authors of the gospels describe this central feature of Christianity. Instead, “all they offered their readers were descriptions of the effects of the Resurrection on believing humanity.” The New Testament has a “blank at its center,” which the author believes makes plausible his larger point.

Another example of silence as a virtue is monasticism and the forms of devotion that accompanied the pursuit of holiness by withdrawal from the world. Mr. MacCulloch shows that most monks, even the so-called Stylites who lived in the desert in baskets atop pillars, still regularly preached to crowds, who flocked to hear them. It was only hermits like Agathon, a fourth-century Egyptian monk who allegedly spent three years with a rock in his mouth, who maintained silence. Such absence of sound was a way to avoid the noise of the world in pursuit of a word from God.

Silence: A Christian History

By Diarmaid MacCulloch
(Viking, 337 pages, $27.95)

But a dispute arose over silence during times of persecution, which set the tone for Mr. MacCulloch’s second type of silence. On one side were martyrs, also known as confessors, who were outspoken about their faith and whose deaths testified to their zeal. On the other side were gnostic Christians who, because they elevated the spiritual over the physical, didn’t believe bodily death to be worthy of mention.

Martyrdom is just one instance of the ambiguity that surrounds Mr. MacCulloch’s effort to treat silence as historical evidence. Instead of regarding martyrs as exemplary for either courage or devotion, the author’s interest in silence prompts suspicion about those noisy Christians who died for their faith. It also tips Mr. MacCulloch’s hand; church officials controlled the sounds of Christianity while outsiders needed to remain silent or buried beneath the historical. In effect, the history of silent Christianity becomes a vehicle for him to question the church’s established authority.

Persecution provoked loud debates not just about how to practice Christianity in the face of danger, but also about what to do with those believers who after having abandoned the faith during hard times returned to church when peace was restored. During the Reformation, for instance, Nicodemites—named for Nicodemus, a Pharisee who sought Jesus’ teaching secretly at night—observed silence to escape persecution. John Calvin referred to Protestants who conformed to Roman Catholic practices outwardly as Nicodemites. But in Protestant nations where Roman Catholicism was abolished, a similar practice arose among Roman Catholics who attended Protestants services rather than face penalties for non-conformity.

The last form of silence that he explores is the one that arose when Christian officials and historians covered up unpleasant or damning aspects of church life. Here the book treats all too briefly a provocative set of subjects—gender discrimination, slavery, the Holocaust and sexual abuse. Throwing all of these into the same section invites questions about comparative significance and whether these failings are equally deplorable. Mr. MacCulloch doesn’t rank them or give a full account of their relation to silence. Instead, he reverses course and advocates noise: “Silences such as Christian involvement in child abuse, anti-Semitism, slave-owning, demand constant rupture. On such noise does the health of Christian society depend.”

As sensible as it is, this exhortation exposes the chief weakness of the book. Mr. MacCulloch gallops too fast through too many incidents in scriptural history. Instead of a narrative emerging from a variety of better and lesser known episodes, the author’s own judgments about good and bad instances of silence hold this jigsaw puzzle together. Mr. MacCulloch’s considerable talents ensure that the book remains a pleasant romp. But instead of exploring the moral and devotional ambiguities of whether to keep silent or not, along with the changing circumstances that affected those pious and tragic decisions, “Silence” too often credits or blames its subjects rather than, like Sherlock Holmes, using silence to make sense of what happened.

Mr. Hart is the author of “Calvinism: A History” and teaches history at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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