Reading "Our Sound is Our Wound" by Lucy Winkett

Our Sound is our Wound: Contemplative Listening to the Noisy World – The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2010” by Lucy Winkett. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.

If I recall correctly, I have Amazon algorithms to thank for my discovering this book. I’m glad I did. It is an intriguing, if a bit quirky book. (Some of its quirkiness is its Britishness.)

“It is the suggestion of this book that the sounds we make raise questions not only about how we live and about why we have created the environment we have, but that these soundscapes start to reveal deeper theological questions about who we are, of what we are afraid and in whom we trust.” (Introduction)

In the introduction of the book she describes a deeply moving concert she attended. About the concert she writes “I experienced musical sound which seemed to be a wound, in that it embodied vulnerability and personal exposure for the sake of the music itself.” And later “Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the sound is an audible scar of damaged tissues 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.”

The title and this introductory material connecting sound and woundedness captured my attention noticing in myself both intrigue and resistance to where the author could go with the idea. Having now read the book, I didn’t find the wound theme as present as I expected, or at least not present in the way I expected it. This is still an engaging book about the relationship between sound and faith.

What follows are a handful of quotes and notes from the 6 chapters. Nothing terribly profound on my part, just some content to give the reader a flavor of the book.

Chapter 1 – The Sound of Scripture. She writes of the Bible not only as a collection of silent words, but as both a product of sound and as a script or song that needs to be performed. “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.” (6) Winkle writes a lot about music, and her particular fondness for “classical” music as one of the best means of capturing the truths of scripture. She does make off-hand references to pop songs/artists, but their inclusion feels a little forced. But her celebration of the power of music and how it can express theological concepts is welcome. “It is not appropriate that before God every cadence resolves, or that every rhythm is comforting. We must allow for dissonance in our worship.” (24) This presents a challenge to the seemingly endless triumphant hymns and ceaselessly joyous praise songs. “Our harmony is not real harmony if it is bland resolution that trivializes the singer and the song.” (26)

“It is a harmony that is made when we listen to the dissonances of Scripture and experience and deepen our understanding of another. It is the harmony that is made when we listen for the voices that is singing a different part, even one that sounds contrary to the part we are singing. It is a harmony born of an attentiveness to God and to each other that means we will listen and take our rest as well as play and sing the part we have been given. This is the harmony that takes account of the suffering of God’s broken world, and as we listen for the profound song of love, we can invite others to sing.” (26)

Chapter 2 – The Sound of Lament. “[The sound of lament] 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.” (28)

Chapter 3 – The Sound of Freedom. Both sound and silence can be tools of oppression, as well as liberation. We need only thing of the U.S. military’s use of loud music to “break down” prisoners of war. But music is also one of the most characteristic sounds of freedom. “The very act of making music together is a protest against the inequalities and divisions that human beings create in every country.” (67)

Silencing someone else’s voice is way of diminishing and damaging them. But, choosing silence can be a powerful tool for the individual. “Jesus’ journey through the days before he died is the ultimate example of God’s choosing to be silenced by the violent cruelty of humanity.”

Chapter 4 – The Sound of Resurrection. Death is the great silence, the great silencer. In Jesus we see the use of sound, to undo the silence of death. “It is into this silence of all silences in John’s Gospel, that Jesus speaks to raise Lazarus – Jesus cries with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’” (89)

Chapter 5 – The Sound of Angels. I will admit, I don’t think much of angels, and I’m not particularly drawn to the ideas of those who do give their attention to angels. Winkett gives a chapter’s-worth of attention to angels, and I was able to ride along without rolling my eyes. She takes note of the role of angels in most biblical accounts – “The angels sing. That’s what they do. It’s what they’re for. They also play trumpets and harps, and in Renaissance paintings they recline in the sky, making music for God.” (102)

This chapter includes some fascinating imagery from the bible, and other religious texts connecting music to being in relationship with God. “According to another Jewish text, Adam had heard the song of the angels before he sinned: I [Adam] used to hear, before I sinned, the sound of their wings in Paradise, when the seraphim would beat them to the sound of the threefold praise. But after I transgress, I no longer heard the sound.” (108)

“Sin had separated humanity from hearing the liturgy of heaven and it was only as the restoration of the new covenant with the birth of Christ that this was restored.” (109)

The act of listening is essential to the act of making music. “the Church too can be a community of people who listen together for the unfathomable songs of eternity sung in praise to the Creator by the created, led by the angels. In this contemplative listening, the Church translates the song and teaches it to others that we can become more than observers, and participators in the music of the cosmos.” (117)

Chapter 6 – Our Sound is Our Wound. “The Christian Church has an historic role express in this story – to call people into silence in the presence of God.” (124) And she adds “The churches’ wounds are on display when we are unable to be silent or to invite others into such a silence.” (126)

One suggestion she mentioned that caught my ear as a spiritual discipline I will consider is keeping a sound diary. This shouldn’t simply be a list of sounds, but could become an examen focusing on the sounds of our day. Where did I hear God today? What did I learn about God from what I heard today? What were the happy sounds, angry sounds, sad sounds of the day? Where was silence a gift, and a burden?

Winkett is a professional church person described in her bio as a “Rector-designate” and former “Canon Precentor.” [I’m not certain what those titles involve, but it seems like they involve church leadership.] Accordingly, this book speaks out of, and into a church context. The church as receptacle and resonator of sounds and silences, profane and divine.

This final extended quote includes an important series of questions concerning the character of the church and it’s relationship to its aural environment.

“The character of the Christian vocation emerges in the midst of this hurting world. Are we a body of people whose instinct is to fall into the silence of waiting on God with a willingness to listen with our whole bodies for the presence of the Holy One we will recognize in that sounds of sheer silence? Are we a body of people who know in our own lives the value of silence in a noisy world and teach this to our children and grandchildren? Are we a body of people at peace with our own death? Are we a body of people whose visceral compassion for a suffering world is expressed in our actions, our words, and the tone of our voice? Are we a body of people who know the language and music of lament, who have learned how to sing out our own pain? Are we a body of people whose worship of God is in tune with the songs of the angels rooted in the groans of the earth?” (131)