As a book reviewer, there is a hardly ever time to reflect back and give a little boost to a book you continue to use or mull over that might have been printed 5, 10, 15 years ago. There are always new books being published that need promotion (or panning) and discussion. There are new ideas pouring forth from pens and keyboards. Yet, many of us have old, sweet wells that we occasionally return to drink from, longing for the thirst-quenching imagery, structure, implications, and power of that certain book.
For me, one of these wells is Barbara Brown Taylor’s slim volume: When God is Silent. Among Taylor’s many works, this is the only one I’ve read more than once. I have owned several copies and even purchased the electronic version for this review.
In this season of campaigning (in the United States) and struggle (around the world), I feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words that I (and, presumably, you as well) encounter every day. In all this sound, in all this information, in all this persuasion, I long for the voice of God. Not someone speaking for God, but to hear the stillness of thunder and the deafening of a whisper. Feeling overwhelmed a few weeks ago, I decided it was time, once again, to revisit these three lectures Taylor delivered in a series in 1997 at Yale Divinity School. It’s powerful, thought-provoking, anguished, consoling, aggravating, lining stuff that I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone whose system feels overwhelmed.
Taylor addresses the topic of God’s silence (or perceived silence) in three sections. The book is small and short, so none of the sections are very long. The first addresses the inundation of words that surround us each day. Despite being fifteen years old, Taylor’s description of being swamped by words is even more true now than it was then. The second section deals with the biblical notion of God’s silence. The third portion covers how preachers are to honestly address and bear the silence of God with and for their congregations.
Taylor begins with the powerful image of God speaking creation into existence:
But the most dangerous word God ever says is Adam. All by itself it is no more than a pile of dust- nothing to be concerned about , really- but by following it with the words for image and dominion, God sifts divinity into that dust, endowing it with things that belong to God alone. When God is through with it, this dust will bear the divine likeness. When God is through with it, this dust will exercise God’s own dominion- not by flexing its muscles but by using its tongue.
Up to this point in the story, God has owned the monopoly on speech. Only God has had the power to make something out of nothing by saying it is so. Now, in this act of shocking generosity, God’s stock goes public. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”- human beings endowed by God with the power of the Word. (p.10)
This gift is the one that makes us co-creators with God, but is also the one that we use most often to create trouble- for ourselves and for others. The words, the very sayability, of our humanity are what often distract us, become our idols, and create the space that we long for God to make up… even though we keep spooling out the tape. Yet, despite the popularity of meditation, silent retreats, and quiet reflection, the noises go on- around us and inside us.
No wonder so many of us are ambivalent about silence. Silence may suggest tranquility and awe, but it may also mean malfunction and death. Peace appeals to me, but not so much that I am ready to rest in peace. Making a little noise is how I remind myself that I am alive. (p. 31)
For Christians, the use of words is how we have maintained connection to the Word, to God’s presence among us, to the last time we are certain that God was speaking.
When the disciples spoke in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, their words became acts. There was no vacuum between their saying and God’s doing. When they spoke in the name of the Word made flesh, God came to earth all over again.
In this way, a certain kind of speech became definitive for Christians. The name they used for God set them apart from those who used other names. What they said they believed about God could get them killed, but saying it was so important to them that many of them willingly chose death over silence. As time went one, they compressed what they believed into a short version that they could say together, and later they took their turns killing people who tried to say anything different about God… The Word was described, defined, delimited by words, so that what Christians said became more decisive than anything they did. (p. 32)
“What they said became more decisive than anything they did.” If that doesn’t sum up contemporary culture, then I’m not sure what does. Most of us RevGals and Pals find ourselves preaching in the same culture in which we live, overwhelmed by words and trying to figure out, to receive the inspiration for, to dream about new ways of sharing the story we love to tell. Even the tools for creativity have stale descriptions, “thinking outside the box” and “keeping it fresh”.
Our hearts, and the hearts we feed, long for God’s word in God’s voice. Yet, we do not always considering what we’re requesting. The people of Israel heard the voice of God at Sinai and, immediately, turned to Moses and saying:
“You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Exodus 20:19. They were not up to a direct encounter. They wanted a mediator, and in that moment the ministry was born- an opening for someone to stand between the people and God, someone to take the heat, veil the light, buffer the voice, deliver the message in a human voice, so that the people could hear it without fainting from fear. (p. 37)
Taylor’s exegesis of God’s growing silence in the Bible is very provocative. Her third section, the recommendations for pastors, is probably the weakest portion of the book. However, that does make it the weakest portion of a very strong book overall. I wholeheartedly recommend that you make the time to read these lectures, to ponder them, and to consider your own relationship to words, the Word, and the God we believe is still speaking, even when we do not hear.
I am considering reading this with adults in a more advanced study. While written for clergy, it is worth having a deep conversation as congregation and pastor about roles, words, and how we listen and speak for God. Your thoughts? Do you feel overwhelmed by words (after just reading a long review)? What are your thoughts on how people are able to hear God and God’s promises over the relentless drumbeat of consumerism, patriotism, and information that washes over their lives? What is your own perspective on how God is still revealing God’s Word(s) in the world?
Taylor, Barbara Brown. When God is Silent. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Lanham, MD. 1998
All citations taken from the Nook edition of the book.