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Sound and Perspective

by Pierce Hibbs • July 28, 2015 •

It’s never going to end, you know—the construction on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Cranes will keep swinging, dump trucks dumping, drills drilling, backhoes clawing. By the time the roads are paved and painted, some other section will be weathered to disrepair, and the PENNDOT orchestra of metal and wheels will move downwind and begin another thoroughfare symphony. And we’ll be here . . . sitting in traffic.

This is the cynical realism that grows inside those who take a major highway to work every morning. Patience wanes and irritation waxes as you egotistically elevate your responsibilities over those of the workmen in bright yellow hats. Truth be told, what they are doing is what literally allows you to do whatever it is that you do, but in the moment, none of that seems to matter.

Turn the radio dial, however, and everything seems to change. My favorite highway traffic song has to be Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place.” If it comes on when I’m sitting on the turnpike, the heavy equipment engines fade behind the simple melody of the electric keyboard, and then come the few words of the song, sung slowly and repetitiously: “everything in its right place.” All of the sudden, rotating digger wheels and swinging chains slow to a surreal pace, as if the air had suddenly grown ten times thicker. In a matter of seconds, I’m swept up in the song and I’ve forgotten about the heat, the endless stretch of cars ahead of me and behind me, the smell of tar, the sound of metal—my focus is on placement, perfect placement in time and space, all of the world’s raw and earthy details orchestrated on the second by a God who revels in precision. I am, actually, exactly where I am supposed to be, and so is every other curmudgeon driver mumbling about potholes and tax policies. Everything is in its right place. Everything.

Something similar happens whenever we listen to a song—whether it’s by Beethoven or the Beatles. Sound changes the way we see the world. We know, of course, that the world itself is just the same as it was before we turned on the music, but something is different. Our perspective shifts. I’ve always been fascinated with this phenomenon, but have just recently understood something about its theological underpinnings.

From a Christian perspective, the world we live in is profoundly sonorous because it is built upon God’s voice. We believe everything we see was spoken into being by a speaking God. Sound gave way to substance. God uttered, and the world materialized, turning from chaos to cosmos. And afterward, God spoke to Adam in the garden: he gave him words, meaningful sounds, through which to see the world. Those words were to influence Adam’s perception. He was to act on those sounds, to use them in order to carry out his garden tasks. What God said, in other words, was meant to direct and shape how Adam and Eve saw the world and what they did in it.

When the serpent slithered into their lives (and ours), it was no accident that he used language, linguistic sound, to tempt them. The best way to assault creatures made in the image of a speaking God is to speak other words to them, in hopes that they might take up weaker words and act on their newfound perception. And that is just what they did. The serpent’s transposition and exaggeration of God’s original words replaced what God had spoken. One set of sounds replaced another; there was a shift in perspective—because of language, because of sound. Following the reception of the serpent’s speech, the world appeared woefully different, as if God had cheated them out of the richest treasure in the garden.

Now, come back from the garden to today’s aural culture. It seems everybody everywhere is listening to something as they are doing something else. Sound is used all the time to shape our perception. Just think of the last time you went to a gym. All the people have their own workout mix, blaring through their headphones as they thump away on a treadmill or churn on an elliptical. Is what you see at the gym so very different from what happened in the garden at the dawn of time?

In one sense, yes. There is certainly a distinction between spoken language and music, and between what God has said to us and what we say to each other. But there is also correspondence. Both spoken language and music rely on the medium of sound to shape perspective. That this still happens is a testament to the sort or world we live in: a world of sound, made by God’s speech, and resting on it (Heb 1:3).

In this world, sound matters; it sends out ripples on the pond of reality, which is itself formed by God’s voice. When we turn on music, it is as if the sound waves of the songs we listen to meet the sound waves of God’s world: ripples collide. Things are both the same and different. Perspectives shift. As soon as we turn the music off, reality seems to settle back down again, and we are left with the world God has spoken. This world, we now know, has a song of its own—and even the fields and the trees take part (Ps 96:12)—but sometimes we do not hear it. In times like these, we can be moved by another song that helps us to hear the music God is already providentially playing all around us in the orchestra of his world. I wonder sometimes if I take enough advantage of this.

Consider my highway traffic experience. I would have been far more irritated, and blinded to the raw beauty around me, had I not heard the song on the radio. That is not to say there is no value in silence; but even silence itself is not “pure” silence. When I have the music turned off, I hear the car engine humming, the whoosh of other vehicles passing me by, the sound of my tires on the protruding joints in the road. There is always a song. God’s world is not a silent place.

What am I getting at, exactly? I’m simply saying that sound matters in God’s world, that it affects us in ways we are often ignorant of, and that we might learn a thing or two from looking at the same thing with and without music in the background. Life can be turned to art when set to notes, and that makes all the difference when you are caught in a rush-hour backup. But this is just the beginning. Think of all the experiences we have that could be enriched by sound, either by our recognition that God’s song is already playing or that we can add music to his melody and jumpstart our perceptive engines. The possibilities seem endless.

An implication of this phenomenon is that, while silence has its benefits for Christian contemplation, sound serves a purpose as well. It is simply one more avenue down which God can lead us to an awareness of himself as the one who speaks and whose word is what holds each of us up at this very moment (Heb 1:3). Listen in. And if you can’t seem to hear the song that creation is singing, turning on the radio isn’t the worst thing in the world. It might just give you the perspective shift you need to notice something right in front of you.

Pierce T. Hibbs (MAR) serves as the Assistant Director of the Center for Theological Writing at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently enrolled in the Th.M. program and studying the language theory of Kenneth L. Pike. Pierce, his wife, Christina, and their son, Isaac, reside in Telford, PA.

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