Works that have been published on art and faith in recent decades generally attend more to the visual arts than to other art forms. Accounting for why this is so is may be more complex than at first meets the eye. However that metaphor I just invoked holds a clue.It has been characteristic of the Western culture to privilege sight over sound, seeing over hearing.
Metaphors of sight abound in our language: perspective, viewpoint, mind’s eye, worldview, ‘I see what you mean’ visioning process, and more.
Postmodern critics have noted how things are able to get frozen as simply objects under our gaze as we become mere spectators. There is a whole nest of problems found in the attention to sight as the key metaphor for how we come to know. I say this not to suggest that visual metaphors should be discarded – they are valuable indeed – but only to note that there is a drift away from “seeing” toward “listening” as the norm for how we come to know.
In the visual field you cannot have two things in the same space – if the centre of the canvass is blue it cannot red. With sound the notes fill the entire space and several notes can be heard at the same time and in the same space. A moment’s reflection suggests that “seeing” requires more detachment than “listening” and so the former is more akin to the technological while the latter is more relational. Some have observed that the difference between Hebrew and Greek ways of thinking points precisely to these two options.
Thorleif Boman has suggested that the Hebrew notion of “word” is linked to actions, presentations, and events, while the Greek notion of “word” is based on abstract reason and thought. … So for Boman the Hebrews lived in an eventful world of sound, whereas the Greeks lived in a static world of sight.” (J. Sterne, Theology of Sound)
My intent here is to invite you to consider the place of voice and sound in the biblical story – particularly that of Advent. If faith is to be meaningful it must include communication. Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and eventually the wise men were all invited to “listen”. In the first chapter of Genesis the creation story notes that all that comes into being is a result of the Divine voice – “God said…”
It is the voice of God that results in the filling of the void with heaven and earth, in the dispelling of the darkness with light and in the enlivening of the earth with animal and human presence. It is hard to say just how it is that God speaks but Augustine addressed this question and concluded that the divine “speaking” was an activity of the Word “all things were made by him…” as noted in the first chapter of John’s gospel.
In that same chapter is the declaration noting the same Word that spoke creation into being “became flesh and dwelt among us”. The earthly beginning of that world changing event came in the encounter between an angel and a young woman – the Annunciation. The message received was one of promise and hope – “the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” and “his reign shall never end”.
For the young woman it was a disruptive message – breaking cultural norms, putting her at risk and setting the stage for embarrassment and shame, both for her and for the one she was soon to marry. Uncertainty, fear and confusion are natural responses to these unexpected words. But clearly Mary also experienced the sustaining power of these words and the authority with which they came to her. Identifying herself as the “Lord’s servant” she was “transformed by her obedience and generosity into Theotokos – the Bringer of God, the most favoured among women. She listened and humbly received the message, gestures which brought far reaching consequences for humanity’s relationship with God.
An important question for all who are on the journey of faith is; how do we hear God’s voice? The speech of God is not just a matter of words but of actions and events. Something happens – we are changed, we discern something new, unexpected and surprising, we are compelled by what we ‘hear’. Can the arts be a location for the divine voice? I think so. Art may bear witness to voice of God in our noise ridden culture.
Music can be one way in which we ‘hear’ God’s voice. Not just in the lyrics but in the sounds which reach deeply into our lives, touch our emotions speak into our turmoil, express our brokenness or perhaps bring reassurance, hope and comfort. In theological terms hearing the voice of God requires the presence of the Spirit and it is the Spirit’s presence that is so often in evidence in our experience of the arts though not so often recognized.
I want to suggest that we would do well to be more attentive so that we might discern the sounds of God in our noisy world.
Your support and interest in Imago is greatly appreciated. In this our 40th year we are grateful for the long history and legacy that has brought us to this time and place. We trust that you will continue to stand with us as we seek to strengthen the voice of Christian artists in Canada.
John Franklin – Executive Director