A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Our lives are lived against the backdrop of external and internal soundscapes. The sounds, noise and music with which we are surrounded in modern life have spiritual implications. There is also a soundtrack within us that plays constantly through memory, dreams, anxiety and thought. What are these soundscapes, and how do we listen for the voice of God within them? How too do we find our own voice?
First of all, I must confess two things, both of which are, I believe, important to your reading of this review. The first of these is the fact that this is going to be rather more personal a review than it usually is. I make no apologies for this – it was the reaction that was called out of me as I was reading the book. I would be lying if I tried to ignore it. The second issue is that I have been waiting for years for a book from Lucy Winkett – and I apologise for the link to Greenbelt (not a festival I have ever enjoyed, having once attended and suffered something of a breakdown during it due to the counter-personal nature of the beast – my own brand of Christianity being distinctly non-evangelical) but I couldn’t find any other suitable link for this author. The first time I heard Winkett speak was on the radio as I was driving to work. She was talking with supreme honesty and open-ended pain about the terrible difficulties and emotional backlash, even from her own colleagues, of being the first woman ever to serve in St Paul’s Cathedral (she is now Canon Precentor of St Paul’s). I remember having to stop the car and simply listen. I remember thinking that I’d never heard anyone in the Church speak with so much wisdom and pertinence. I’d never heard anyone tell it – that shadowy, much misunderstood life of faith – how it is. And (shame on the church for this) but I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone else but Winkett tell it how it is since then either. Because of that, I have a sneaking suspicion that she is one of the increasingly rare prophets for our time. And I’m taking prophecy here as a lone voice speaking out the truth in a church and amongst a people who are supremely primed not to hear it. I’m not talking about soothsaying.
Anyway, to the book, (which also happens to be the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2010, but don’t let that put you off …) which I greeted with much excitement. Particularly as I’m a regular practitioner of silence, though those of you that know me may find that hard to believe. I work and live in silence as much as possible (no background music in our flat, I fear …), and I try to meditate for about twenty minutes a day. I don’t always succeed. And it used to be longer – a fact that only goes to show what a poor Christian I am of course. I was much heartened to see that the chapter titles focused on the different and varied sounds of scripture, lament, freedom, resurrection, angels (thank God – at last a decent piece about angels!) and our wounds. For me, that made sense.
Indeed there were, in the end, so many parts of this book that I found moving and incisive in a way that much of the sermonising and position-taking of today’s church is most definitely not that it’s quite difficult to pick out the key points. It will also be helpful however to know that Winkett writes from the perspective of a professional singer and her deep love of music and song infiltrates this book. Some of that I found inspirational (I’m a keen classical music and opera fan), but some of it was a little outside my zone of knowledge as the more modern and jazz/blues references escaped me. However, at all times, her enthusiasm is addictive and the points she makes remain clear.
Here, in any case, are the main elements I’d like to highlight in each chapter:
The Sound of Scripture
Winkett reminds us that scripture is more than just a collection of words brought together by an unknowable people. She calls it a “soundscape of poems, prophecies, stories and exhortations, laughed over and cried over down the centuries.” I have always found it helpful to remember that the bible is not a manual telling us how to live, but a collection of vibrant and unusual stories and letters showing us an echo of people’s encounters with the divine. It focuses on truth, not fact – and, as a writer, that’s always been a hugely important aspect for me. Jesus himself told lies in order to demonstrate a deeper truth – or what else are his parables or performance flash fiction (as I like to think of them) for?
We are also reminded of the importance of women in the bible. Winkett writes:
There are so many wonderful stories in the Gospels that are brought alive by imagining the scene from the woman’s point of view and listening for her voice not only of protest against exclusion but hearing too the humour and energy of these first-century women … we hear women speak with passion, insight, anger and not a little irony, and it opens our minds, changes our perspective and enriches our experience of God.
I can’t help but feel that the lesson about the value of women and indeed any other minority is something the church today is desperately in need of hearing.
The Sound of Lament
I found this chapter immensely moving. In fact there was one section in it dealing with grief where I had to stop reading in order to cry. Strangely, that act made me feel quite relieved – cleansed even – as I have to admit that in a world where we see tragedy every day on our television screens and read about it in our daily newspapers, I am the first to succumb to “compassion fatigue” and simply switch off or turn the page. It’s good to know that even I still have workable feelings.
Speaking also as one who’s always had the deepest sympathies for the unfortunate Judas Iscariot (an administrator attempting to hurry things up in a devious way and subject to bouts of depression – heck, who wouldn’t be sympathetic?), it was somehow heartening to find this:
An artist told me in conversation that he had visited a convent and talked with one of the sisters there about what Mary, mother of Jesus, would have done on the evening of Good Friday. They imagined together that she would have gone to visit the mother of Judas. He painted this scene: two women, two uncomforted mothers, sitting talking together about their terrible, terrible day.
At the same time and on a rather less profound note perhaps, as a keen bird-watcher, I was concerned to be told that birdsong in cities has become louder and even takes place at night, simply out of the necessity to be heard. It made me wonder what other voices in society we are drowning out with our capacity for noise and dissonance.
The Sound of Freedom
In this chapter, Winkett focuses on the use of protest music and song to enable displaced and forgotten people to find a voice. It’s here, I think, that my and Winkett’s response to music most easily coincide. I do find that, in matters of personal faith, one of the ways I hear God best is through music. There is something about the combination of words and music that cuts through the kerfuffle that tends to go hand in hand with church services. Not to mention the kerfuffle that dwells powerfully in my own head. Hymn-singing takes me out of myself and allows me to listen and respond to something other. It’s an enticing and liberating combination.
I particularly enjoyed the way the road to freedom in our lives is linked with the development of jazz (the analogy worked for me even though I know nothing at all about jazz) and I think it says something important about religious faith and life too:
Living in love is always a risk, and in its tradition of improvisation, jazz music expresses this well. The chord structure underneath the melody remains the same, but improvising takes a risk in creating something in the moment that is new and that may not work. There are decisive moments in our lives: when we move into a new situation that can’t be reversed; when we have children; when we make vows or when we fall in love for the first time; when we lose someone we love – something changes in us for ever. But we still live day to day – improvising life – making it up as we go along. The familiar chords – the building blocks of our lives – underpin us, but we find our own tune and sing with our own voice.
The Sound of Resurrection
It may sound strange, but this chapter was the one that least appealed to me. I find the whole concept of resurrection powerfully attractive, but it’s not the aspect of my faith that resonates most. At heart, I’m a Good Friday Christian – being accustomed to trudging along in the darkness with the occasional glimmer of something beyond it sparking my day. The bells and glory of Easter Sunday leave me spiritually perplexed.
However, I enjoyed the way Winkett uses art and the structure of the Gospels themselves to bring out resurrection truths I hadn’t entirely noticed before or that I’d forgotten. In the majority of the Gospel accounts, the resurrection is something that actually happens off-stage, and what we see are the consequences and what occurs afterwards. I like that hint of mystery and uncharted power. It was a pleasure to discover it.
I think Winkett is most electrifying in this section when she turns her attention to the raising of Lazarus, reminding us that the words Christ uses to call forth the already dead man are turbulent and impassioned. Not at all the calm picture many of us are accustomed to from a variety of film or artistic images:
This is no firm but polite call: it is no gentle invitation that coaxes Lazarus back to life, this is a tumultuous shout to drag Lazarus back from the dead. Jesus screams. We have heard him weep for his friend, we have seen him shudder and snort with fury. Now we hear him scream.
Sometimes, in these vigorously post-Christian times, I forget that when God and people engage with each other at all, the results can be shocking, traumatic and incredibly hard-won. On both sides. I suppose that indeed is what the crucifixion teaches us. The sound of God in action, the sound of ultimate resurrection can, as Winkett says, be “a sound of tumult and enormous energy.”
It is also a sound of demand:
The sound of resurrection 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.
Yes, speaking personally and remembering my own unexpected and quiet moment of conversion, that rings true. Of course it’s what you do with it afterwards that shapes the path.
The Sound of the Angels
This was the chapter I was most looking forward to (alongside the one about lament, that is). Angels have always fascinated me. Not as some Victorian-style quaint feathered protector – though protectors are always welcome – but as aspects of the divine that break through into human existence and bring about sometimes very dramatic changes. I’m thinking of the angel Jacob wrestled with for the course of a night before his name was changed to Israel, and the angelic announcement to Mary the future mother of Christ, for instance. Not much protection there, but a hell of a lot of deep inward change.
It is here that Winkett is at her most profound, and I think it is worth quoting this incredibly wise paragraph in full:
Believing in angels may not be the most important decision we have to make regarding them in order for the tradition to be meaningful for us. To believe is not morally neutral: there have been many belief systems that have brought wickedness into the world. In St Paul’s poem celebrating love, he placed hope, faith and love together but gave love the greatest place of honour (1 Corinthians 13). 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. Perhaps it is not so much believing in them as listening for them that may be closer to a faithful appreciation of them. Angels expose the ‘I don’t know’ of our intellect, but they also capture our hearts so that ‘I don’t know’ is not as easily translatable into ‘I don’t care’ as it is when we attempt, for example, the mental gymnastics of the doctrine of the Trinity.
There’s something in that paragraph that bypasses the almost exclusively male language of the church and our religion and that keys into a feminine wisdom and understanding of God that we should be more willing to embrace. Because it strikes me that, yes, it is more important to love someone or something rather than believe in them. And it is also my understanding that if I read that paragraph again and substitute the word “God” where “angel” is written, then my own comprehension about my fluid and difficult relationship with the divine becomes suddenly clearer. Belief is sometimes impossible but love and longing, however faint, are not. I don’t have to understand God to know that I want him. That realisation just might be something to celebrate.
Winkett is also interesting in her assertion that there is more angelic substance around than you might think. She says, quoting American theologian Walter Wink:
… any institution – a church, a social club, a company, a sports club or a nation – has an enduring spirit that is discernable over generations and doesn’t seem to be dependent on the particular people who inhabit that institution at any one time. This imaginative interaction with the ancient tradition of Revelation emphasizes the connection rather than the distance between humanity and angels.
The spirit of a place is something we all surely notice – my husband and I even bought the flat we now live in partly because I walked through the door and was at once overwhelmed by how peaceful and good it felt. I didn’t need to see any of the rooms to know it was “the one”. The spirit of the house – perhaps an angelic spirit – was larger even than the people contained within it.
Our Sound is Our Wound
In this final chapter, Winkett summarises her understanding of the sounds and silence of God, and speaks with conviction about what the role of the church, or the people of God, could be:
The Christian Church has an historic role expressed in this story – to call people into silence in the presence of God. It is a role that has particular meaning at a time of tragedy, but, given society’s increasing noise, has more contemporary urgency and focus in today’s world. To fulfil this role, the churches must practise silence in order to create something for others to join.
A silence that is underpinned by love, by a willingness to wait, by a level of attentiveness that accepts where we are and who we are now before God, is a gift that the churches can give to such a distracted world.
This is a call to stillness and prayer that resonates across the demands and needs of today’s busy world. It is, as I believe I have already implied, a prophetic call, both for us in the church and those who would never even dream of imagining the church might have something beneficial to offer. One day. It is a call that I for one ignore at my peril.
Our Sound is Our Wound (Continuum Books, 2010), ISBN: 978 0 8264 3921 5)
[Anne has been struggling with her faith for over twenty years now and is mightily relieved that there is at least one voice in today’s church that actually speaks to and for her. In her other life, she writes gay fiction and meditative poetry. For her online prayer novel, please click here.]