In our previous post, we discovered that we live in a world dominated by ‘visualism,’ a deep ideological partiality toward the visual as representing the most exact way of communicating knowledge. There is today a subtle yet pronounced conceptual link established between image and reality, indicated by idioms such as ‘image is everything’ and ‘seeing is believing,’ or the importance of ‘eyewitness testimony’ in the courtroom. In contrast, there are no comparable audible idioms, such as ‘sound is everything’ or ‘hearing is believing.’
This emphasis on the visual has had a profound effect on how we relate to the world, particularly with respect to our conception of knowledge: if we can see the relationships between things, such as with a flowchart, lab report, or user’s manual, we believe that we can have a better understanding of things than if they were communicated through another medium, such as through a song or poem. Balance sheets, not Bach, reveal reality.
The Sonic Dimension of Knowledge
But this prejudice tends to eclipse another way of imagining our world and what it means to know within in it. When it comes to the fundamental and lasting questions to life, such as what it means to be human, the meaning of life, and the nature of existence, these are questions that cannot be answered by balance sheets, flow charts, or user’s manuals; these are questions that can only be answered by listening, specifically listening to what God has said and continues to say. Hence, in Greek, the word ‘to hear’ (akouein) also means ‘to obey.’
Perhaps you might be familiar with Walker Percy’s parable “The Message in the Bottle.” He writes of a castaway with amnesia stranded on an island. As he assimilates with the natives of the island, he begins to realize that their scientific and analytical way of understanding the world cannot account for or answer the question of why he was on the island to begin with. In order for him to discover who he is, he must receive news from across the sea.
Percy’s parable is about us. We find ourselves on this third rock from the sun, we are surrounded by a sea of cosmic space, and the only possible way that we can know why we are hear and what all of this means is if a voice from outside this cosmos breaks in and tells us. Science and technology can’t help us here; we have to be open to another way of knowing, which comes only through listening.
I therefore find it fascinating that in our Christian tradition, we are designated by St. Paul as the klētos or ‘called ones,’ who belong to the ekklesia , the Greek word for ‘church,’ which is a combination of ek, meaning ‘out of,’ and kalein, meaning ‘to call.’ The church is therefore constituted by those who have been ‘called out’ of or ‘called forth’ from the world in order to gather together and witness to the breaking in of another world. In Romans 10:14-15, Paul asks, “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard … Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things’… And so faith comes by hearing.”
The church has historically interpreted itself as the messianic fulfillment of Israel. The primary confession of faith for the Israelites was the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Some editions translate the Shema, “hear,” as “Listen O Israel….” This divine calling was and continues to be central to Israelite identity, in that they were descendants of Noah’s firstborn son Shem, which, in its nominal form, means ‘name’ or ‘reputation.’ Israel, the Semites, are thus those who have the divine name called upon them.
It was within this sonic world, rooted in Hebraic soil, that a distinctly Christian soundscape emerged. This Christocentric soundscape, empowered by the Holy Spirit, set the stage for what Patristics scholar Carol Harrison has called ‘transformative listening.’ Christian rhetoric, embodied in the sermon or homily, combined with sacred chant in order to awaken the imagination through sound, inspiring the listener not merely to hear but also to understand, to apprehend Scripture as it was interpreted in light of the Christ event. As such, the soundscape of the church fostered an imaginative map of the cosmos, recreated in Christ, which served as an aural foundation for reconstituting one’s life as a mimetic imitation of the virtues embedded in this sacred discourse. In the midst of a relatively illiterate populace, Christianized rhetoric had the power to reshape the sonic appetites and expectations of the general population.
The Christian tradition is therefore a sonic tradition. For all of its ambiguities and episodic suspicions toward music, Ralph Martin is certainly correct in saying: “The Christian Church was born in song.” Indeed, in what can be considered the first extant text depicting the Roman government’s recognition of Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism, Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Emperor Trajan describes Christians in the early second-century as those who assembled “on a set day before dawn to sing a hymn among themselves to the Christ, as to a god.”
Throughout the history of Christian thought, there is a sense that the redemption of the cosmos in Christ is revealed and thereby known through music, in the ways in which Christianity sounds. Thus, rediscovering music in our time involves in many respects rediscovering our world and the ways in which we know.
There is a wonderful scene in the Italian film, Life is Beautiful, which captures this revelatory nature of music, which we will enjoy together in our next post.
Until then, how do you perceive music as a form of knowledge? Have you ever experienced music as something that sanctifies your hearing? What role does hearing play in the Christian faith?
Make sure to get your copy of my new book, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty!
 “Aspects of worship in the New Testament Church,” Vox evangelica II (1963): 6-32.