There is a saying, “If its too loud, you’re too old.” I think moving to Malawi has made me old.
Shortly after arriving in Malawi, I noticed that the worship music was very loud. At different points in my life I’ve been a concert goer. Live music is great and should be played and heard loud. Still, it was hard to follow along in worship because the volume was distracting.
I also noticed that the preaching was loud. This was partly amplification. Like Spinal Tap and Teslas, Malawi seems to go to 11 when it comes to volume. The volume was not just amplification. I know soft-spoken people who suddenly become animated and enthusiastic when they enter the pulpit. I’ve been to African-American charismatic churches. This is beyond that.
No pulpit is necessary for a full on sonic assault. Recently an “evangelist” plopped a 1,000,000-watt sound system down in town and helped everyone know about Jesus. His cadence and tone gave all indications that he was really bringing down the fire and brimstone. The sound bounced around the brick houses and into my chest. I leaned over and yelled a question to a Chichewa speaker, “WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT?” She calmly looked back with a smile, “GOD’S LOVE.” Kind of like a death metal band singing Michael W. Smith or Amy Grant.
I dwell on these examples because they happen in worship. They are not unique. There is a surprising amount of noise here, much of it human made. The grocery store plays the same incessant radio voice guy. A local bar plays music so loud it hurts my ears and I’m not in the bar. There are stray dogs barking, roosters competing, babyies crying. Our roof is sheet metal with no insulation between it and the ceiling boards. When it pours, and we are in rainy season, it turns our house into a drum. Even one of the most common billboards announces its product, cooking oil, in all caps – KUKOMA!!!!!!!!
This kind of everyday noise might be around in a place like Canada but because the windows are insulated, the sound is muted. In Abbotsford our church building was along a main road. With triple glazed glass on that side we never heard the highway even though it was there all the time. We could worship in silence if we chose to. Here, there are no insulated windows. Often there is no glass. Nothing to block the sound.
To be fair there are times when there is silence, but not many. We cope with this in everyday life but it continues to rankle me during worship. I want some silence, some place for meditation, a place to retreat from the cacophony.
For centuries most prayer was spoken out loud. Even when the priest would speak in the “low voice” so that the congregation could not hear, they were still speaking out. God existed in the world outside of us and we spoke out loud to connect with the objective God out there. With the advent of modernity there was a shift inward. We began to locate God less outside of ourselves. We “looked” within ourselves, entering a state of calm so that God could speak to our hearts and minds, both internal organs. Scripture repeatedly says, “Let the one who has ears hear, and eyes see” not “let the one whose internal organs are calm hear and see” yet we close our eyes so we can hear God.
Silence aids this kind of interior focused prayer. We have silent retreats where we are not distracted by sound. I’ve done a 9-day retreat; friends and Jesuits do it for 40 days. The shift to interiority means that we can either pray silently to ourselves or we can pray using words in a public setting. When we pray in public there are moments of silence where we collectively look within our individual selves. We shift back and forth between looking for God outside of us and inside of us.
Charles Taylor talks of the modern buffered self in contrast to a self exposed to the spiritual forces around us. One of the key features of this buffered self is the turn inward. When demons and angels and God were outside of us we prayed to them, warding off the bad and accepting the good. We were exposed, naked before forces greater than us and we needed God, the biggest force there was, to protect us. There is some sense of this even in such a foundational prayer as the Lord’s Prayer; “deliver us from evil” can also mean “deliver us from the evil one” or “deliver us from the time of trial.” With modernity we lose the enchanted world we lived in and replace it with the turn inwards.
I wonder if it is possible that I’ve inadvertently stumbled across a deep, almost unconscious, cultural difference between me and my Malawian friends. I wonder if the turn to the interior self that demands we pray quietly with our eyes closed, or gives us the freedom to do that or not, is more foreign to the Malawian understanding of where God is located. My sense is that there is more openness to the enchanted world here, that angels and demons and God live out there and that we are exposed to them. There is less acceptance of the buffered self, of the turn inward. The noise and volume, at least in worship, makes more sense if this is true. This also means that the very idea of who we are as “selves” is different.
I wonder if I can regain an enchanted self or am I fated to this buffered identity? Maybe if I wasn’t so modern, buffered as it were, my hearing might get better.
3 thoughts on “It Might Get Loud”
This is thought-provoking. I am wondering about the Celtic christians and their prayers, words spoken at every turn: walking, milking a cow, smooring the fire. There too was a sense of angelic and demonic forces outside in the tactile world.
But spoken also means shared. And North Americans are so individualistic with everything, even spiritual things. Perhaps it is not just about where God is located but also a reflection of how we understand God’s value or purpose. Outside of most church services I bet most NA prayers are in the first person, focused on what “I” need and want. In a culture where I understand that my wellbeing is inextricably tied up with others I would probably pray for “us” and engage in shared prayers more readily.
My sense is that the idea of Celtic incorporates this “enchanted” worldview that I’m talking about. Taylor’s point is that while this view predominated in the West, modernity both destroys and offers an alternative to it. The destruction part is not wholesale for various reasons but recapturing the enchanted world is impossible. As Berger would put it, the sacred canopy has been ripped. The alternative part however can include aspects of the enchanted world. Taylor would argue that there are reductive arguments put forward by Dawkins etc. that emphasize the destruction but do nothing to offer the compelling alternative. The Western church has not come to grips with this yet and as such, doesn’t offer a very compelling alternative either.
I wanted to include this idea but somehow it didn’t fit. I once saw an argument against having pew Bibles because reading, as we practice it, is an individual activity. Sure we all get the Word but we do so at our own cadence etc. Public reading though means that the sound waves reach each individual simultaneously, creating a group encounter with the same words. Prayers out loud can do the same. I think that the over the top volume here does not create that same shared experience, at least not for me, but that it might be intended to.