Our Sound Is Our Wound: Contemplative Listening to a Noisy World, The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book 2010

Winkett, Lucy
Continuum International Publishing Group - Burns & Oates (2010)
Buy this book from Amazon.co.uk


"We live in a noisy world. ... the sounds we make raise questions not only about how we live and about why we have created the environment we have, but ... the soundscapes start to reveal deeper theological questions about who we are, of what we are afraid and in whom we trust. ... This book is not so much about hearing sound as about making sound. ... There are clearly sounds that indicate the infliction of a wound ... (but) the sound itself is a wound and the signifier of something deeper. ... the sound is an audible scar of damaged tissue underneath; but the sound has substance in itself, in that part of its nature is that of a wound which reveals depth and trauma under the surface."

1. The Sound of Scripture

In reading the Bible alone we forget it is a series of soundscapes and we end up treating it like a dictionary but it is "as universal as air and as intangible as music. As well as our hallowed book, Scripture is also the God-breathed soundscape of human history in which we listen for the word and the word to speak and sing. ... The canon may be closed but we can't let our minds close along with it." the Bible, like a music score, only makes sense when you perform it. Scripture lives not only in Byrd, Tallis, Handel and Bach but also in Ms Dynamite and Mike Skinner. Church music is not a cultural artefact, it must reflect God as transcendent and immanent. Never have church and street been more divided, with the church referring to Radio 3 not Radio 1. Choral Evensong is beautiful but it often exaggerates excellence and exemplifies the tribal in our music. Based on ancient ideas of harmony, the music rarely reflects the dissonance of Scripture. "In the church, our sound is our wound when we ignore the dissonance in this aching world ... Our harmony is not real harmony if it is bland resolution that trivializes the singer and the song. It is a harmony that is made when we listen to the dissonances of Scripture and experience and deepen our understanding of another."

2. The Sound of Lament

"The sound of lament is heard throughout Scripture. ... It is both a protest against the pain of the present time, and also a timeless expression of the weeping voice of God, in whose image and likeness we are made." It is in the present but joined to all that goes before. It is heard from Jeremiah recalling Rachel's children to Srebrenica and Darfur. The rituals of mourning and lament have been replaced by urban relentlessness and monotone: "The soundscapes with which we are surrounded are out of control, both in content and volume." Then there are deliberately created audio consumer environments, the hairdresser and the fast food joint. City birds are singing higher and faster, with less variation; and at night. "... these collective sounds ... are the wounds of a whole society. ... We are all part of the collective maintenance of values that mean 'more or faster'." Paradoxically, our contemporary lament accompanies the feast not the fast: "It is the sense of bewilderment as to what is 'enough'." The churches are afraid to use the language of lament in case it is misunderstood. "The authentic lament of the Church, that is grounded in human experience now, will be heard by God ... (as) the sleepless city weeping for itself."

3. The Sound of Freedom

Gustavo Gutiérrez reflected that: "rather than focusing on what Jesus said on the cross, Christians should start by reflecting on the fact that he spoke at all." Jesus must have made many kinds of noises on the cross: "To cry out when it seems that all is lost, ... reminds the one who suffers that they are still alive, ... and in sounding this note, gives voice to the promise of freedom." The sound of affluence can depress the poor; and sound has been used for torture. Conversely, seeking liberation is often thought of in terms of "finding a voice". There are not that many women or people of colour in our liturgies (the work of the people) but Hildegard was the  first to link her music with her incarnational theology. Liberation is found in the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra grown out of Abreu's Sistema, challenging the maxim that excellence relies on elitism. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of Israelis and Palestinians promotes peace and liberation. Jazz is the most explicitly personal and risky music whose material is human vulnerability and pain, found in Jacob and Rachel but hardly in the New Testament. Blues is even more specifically linked  with liberation. "(Jesus) expression of human need, of forgiveness of his torturers, of abandonment by God in the hours before his death, teaches us courage to claim the freedom that is ours."

4. The Sound of Resurrection

The military language of Resurrection (Handel's setting of 1 Corinthians 15 The Trumpet Shall Sound) does not touch Winkett's heart. For many (cf. Stanley Spencer) the Resurrection is the  sound of silence; but for others the silence of death is followed by the singing of resurrection. Modern, Western death is silent; the raising of Lazarus was loud; Jesus screamed. "Resurrection is not a metaphor  for mere happiness or relief at coming through something difficult. Resurrection is what there is on the other side of nothing. It is the life we had not thought of, and, despite our best efforts, will not be able to imagine. ... It is (Jesus') wounded body that is raised, not a body restored minus the evidence of his death. The Easter Day resurrection makes no sense without the Good Friday experience. And this crucifixion is carried through the gate of death to the life beyond." For us: "Eventually, from the white noise of grief a sadder melody emerges, sometimes almost beautiful again, ... played for you by the resurrected one whose tune it was from the beginning. This is the song of life eternal lived in the present ... a lyrical acceptance that eternity is the context in which we live, the perspective from which we see all creation living and departed. ... (in this) we are saved from the vacuous over-activity that characterizes a frightened life. ... The sound of resurrection is for us the same as it was for Mary Magdalene and for Lazarus and for Tabitha. It is our name yelled, whispered, implored by a God who with unimaginable compassion and not a little anger searches and pleads for us to emerge into the light of such love we have never even thought of. ... and the risk we take is to speak in reply, and for our reply to be yes."

5. The Sound of The Angels

Listening for and imagining the presence  of angels might be more useful than speculating on whether they exist: "Love is greater than faith; and if you love an angel, that is arguably a more significant gift than believing in him, and you might listen for his song more readily." "The angels sing. That's what they do. ... I can imagine that there is a song that they sing which is achingly more beautiful than I have ever heard ... that,  when you hear it, brings upon you the rush of choking relief that there is, despite your paralysing anxiety, a living and a life beyond the silencing grave." According to Gregory of Nyssa, being expelled from Eden deprived Adam and Eve of the song of the angels. This song is not sentimental but sings of justice, righteousness and peace. "For Christians, the sounds of angels on earth that we join are those instincts to worship, to give value to something greater and more profound than ourselves that sing for peace and justice and that long for the unity of the whole creation."

6. Our Sound Is Our Wound

"The Christian church has an historic role ... to call people into silence in the presence of God." In 1 Kings 19.12 God was in the silence. "The churches' wounds are on display when we are unable to be silent or to invite others into such a silence. ... the churches listen for the echo of the voice of Christ that is not afraid to be silent until there is something to say, even when the crowd bays for a quick answer. The churches' voice echoes the voice of 'Christ who speaks peace, forgiveness and transformation into the complex circumstances of human relationships." Day-time television confessionals are: "the sounds of a society where individual complexities are fetishized and the unending hunt continues for someone to blame. They reveal wounds born of insecurity in our own identity, they reveal a wound of fear of death and a tendency to self-harm." Are we a body of people who: will recognise God in sheer silence; will recognise and teach the value of silence; are at peace with our own death? "Are we a body of people whose worship is in tune with the songs of the angels rooted in the groans of the earth?"

The last phrase in the summary sums up all that is good and puzzling about Lucy Winkett's brave attempt to relate the world  of sound to the Church and our brokenness. As a sentence, it reads beautifully but I am not sure, on reflection, quite what it means; I mean, in what way are the songs of the angels rooted in the groans of the earth? The book is full of such lyrical, elusive, tantalising connectivity’s that shimmer on the verge of illumination; but I'm not sure. Nonetheless, because Winkett's theology, in the mode of Dr. Rowan Williams, is brave rather than showy, she can be forgiven almost everything.

Winkett has much to say, both obvious and startling, about the world of sound and the sphere of Christianity and had she confined herself to this the  book would be slightly less interesting but a great deal more coherent. The problem arises with employing the concept of sound as wound, playing into our overdue concern with the theology and anthropology of brokenness. The greater the number of variables, the more difficult it is to close the proposition. Still, only the reader can balance the benefits and drawbacks of the risk she has taken.

In many ways to characterise her writing in terms of risk is precisely what she would do herself. Beneath the nicely calculated commentary on contemporary culture, the musical expertise, the well modulated feminism and the choruses in favour of social justice there lies a deeper concern which might be characterised as the question about the geometry of rage and consolation; are they in conflict or in some way symbiotic?

Not surprisingly, as I hope the summary shows, the book is much more robust in its earlier stages and much more exhilarating as it tackles the most difficult issues; but it holds together well enough and anybody who is interested in such diverse subjects as brokenness, music, liberation theology, contemporary media and angels - or the connections between any or all of these - should certainly give this a go. Too many books that characterise themselves as theology lack the necessary element of risk. This engaging little book stands as a fine riposte to the glut of safe, and often self-satisfied, Christian writing which is more interested in certainty than truth.