MacCulloch (History of the Church/Oxford Univ.; Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, 2011, etc.) takes on the difficult task of discovering the history of silence in the Christian faith.
The author takes an unusual approach to his topic, allowing it a wide array of definitions and also plumbing both history and the absence of history in crafting his work. He begins as any scholar of the New Testament should, with the Old Testament, and concludes that, overall, the Hebrew Scriptures are not overt advocates of silence. Nevertheless, the religion of Christianity would indeed find great meaning in silence from the very beginning, even in Jesus’ refusal to proclaim his identity with openness or to argue with his accusers before the cross. Silence found its chief expression in the early church through contemplative worship, namely in monasticism. Here, MacCulloch provides an interesting history of the ups and downs of silence in monasticism for the many centuries leading to and through the “three reformations” (iconoclasm, papal reforms and the Protestant Reformation). Quiet medieval Catholicism contrasts tremendously with the noise and din of Protestantism, a wellspring of preaching and music. Yet with Protestantism firmly in place, the author finds yet another type of silence to catalog: silence for the sake of survival. Under this heading, the author examines closet Christian sects and peoples forced into silence in order to survive. Finally, he examines history forgotten and turned into silence, from the forgotten roles of women to clerical sex abuse. MacCulloch covers some intriguing historical ground and raises many points of reflection for Christians. However, he fails to produce a cohesive and convincing history of silence. Discussing everything from strict monastic orders to the rewriting of Holocaust history as being about “silence” stretches the term to a state of near-meaninglessness.
MacCulloch has bitten off more than most readers will want to chew.