Noise and God’s plan.
by Dave Skipper
In this series I am taking a unique approach to telling the story of noise:
- surveying the broad sweep of history from a Biblical-theological perspective, and specifically applying this journey to noise.
This article is the fifth and final part of the second part of the series:
1. Chimeric Noise
2. Creation of Noise
i. Noise and God’s transcendence
ii. Noise and God’s word
iii. Noise and God’s image
iv. Noise and God’s evaluation
v. Noise and God’s plan
Civilisation & Culture
Consecration & Commonness
Craftsmanship & Cultivation
Commands & Communion
Cognition & Classification
3. Curse of Noise
4. Cure for Noise
5. Culmination of Noise
I am again staying in Genesis 1-2 for this article as this is the key part of the Bible dealing with origins. Each of the 5 points below could easily be an article (and more) in their own right, but this series is supposed to be brief, right?!
Ok, let’s dive back in…
2. Creation of Noise
v. Noise and God’s plan
- Civilisation & Culture: the development of noise
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”
Here we have the first command from God to man, right at the very beginning of humanity’s existence. It is instructive for all time as it sets out the foundational role and purpose for mankind within the whole scheme of creation. The command to fill the earth and subdue is often called the Cultural Mandate or the Dominion Covenant. Words like rule, subdue, and dominion are not popular in the modern climate of environmentalism, so it’s important to be clear about what is meant and what is not meant by these terms.
The Bible repeats again and again that, ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (Psalm 24:1). As the maker and rightful owner of all things it is God’s prerogative to command his creatures and to decide on the purposes of creation. Genesis 1:27-28 makes it clear that God has appointed mankind to be his stewards of this planet, to be his representatives on earth. As a kind and gracious God, he calls us to exercise this stewardship with truth and kindness.
‘Be fruitful and increase in number’ – this is not just about having lots of babies! Implicit in this command is the pursuit of social cooperation in the voluntary division of labour and economic activity, the pursuit of scientific knowledge and progress, and the pursuit of cultural development through multiple forms. It necessarily involves stewarding the earth’s resources and unlocking the technological potential of materials through experimentation and scientific endeavour: clothing, housing, cooking, arts and crafts, etc etc.
All of this – human activity and culture – is under the declaration by God that his creation is very good. The remit for mankind is to tend the garden, to be fruitful, and to multiply.
The command to multiply includes compounding and economic growth in the form of positive feedback. Feedback is of course a key component of many noise-making systems and configurations. The whole concept of generating new information, new sounds, new ideas, and new orders of magnitude via various recursive strategies is integral to many realms of human activity and comes in many guises. The power of feedback to both create and to destroy is remarkable, and it was deliberately built into ‘the way things are’ from the beginning of time. Exploring and harnessing the inherent potential of
feedback and growth within the realm of sound and noise is just one of those avenues God has gifted to us.
“Fill the earth and subdue it’ – we are meant to be bold in exploration. We should delight in pioneers and those who break through frontiers. We have been given this world to discover and enjoy. And it is meant to serve us. Subduing or taming the creation need not equate to dulling its rawness and power – and noise music is the perfect example of celebrating the wild violence of sound in a manner that requires knowledge, control, and results in benefits to both artist and listener. Similarly, subduing the creation is not to be confused with careless destruction and needless exploitation. That this is so often the case is a result of the sin of man and the curse on the creation (more on this in subsequent articles). No, there is a right and positive way to subdue the earth that is respectful and caring and right. The fact that this was commanded at the start means it is still good to desire and believe that it is a worthwhile and necessary goal. Humanity is designed to thrive – for ‘thrival’ [sic], not survival!
‘Rule over all creatures’ – why only mention ruling over the creatures? It’s an argument from the greater to the lesser: if mankind is to rule over the creatures, then how much more is he mandated to rule over the inanimate world? If we are to rule over animals, then of course we must rule over the rocks, waters, minerals, plants… and soundwaves of our planet. Good ruling is all about wisdom, balance, justice, and maintaining the optimal conditions under which the ruled can thrive and grow to their fullest potential. The ruling that God requires is never oppressive, vindictive, capricious, unfair, or stifling. In fact, Jesus describes true leadership and influence as belonging to those who serve others, and he himself is known as the Servant King. An artist’s relationship to his materials (including sound) and to other people (fans, audience, fellow artists, detractors) are thus also to be characterised by the right kind of ruling.
The other purpose of this statement about ruling over the animals is to clearly delineate between humans and animals. We are not of the same order, or even on a continuum, with apes, mammals, and other creatures. We have been given a higher status with a thinking consciousness, ethics, complex relationships, deep communication, and an innate curiosity and propensity to explore, learn, and create. Only humans have been created in the image of God. Above all, humans uniquely can know and commune with God himself.
In a word, all of the above points can be summarised into one: humans, artists, noisicians, are to be RESPONSIBLE. Take the initiative, think of others, work hard, act considerately, give extravagantly, create without compromise, enhance the world, enhance life. And all of this in gratitude and obedience to the Creator, depending on him for every breath. This is what is meant by the Cultural Mandate or Dominion Covenant. The result is (or should be) a celebration of civilisation and culture that glorifies God.
- Consecration & Commonness: the place of noise
“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
This is the basis for God’s later command to rest one day in seven, recorded in the Ten Commandments like this:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
‘God blessed the seventh day and made it holy’ – In Genesis 1 we saw that God created various physical, functional, and artistic boundaries (see especially Creation of Noise 2/5) alongside differentiating key creational categories (for example the distinction between humans and animals). Here we find him setting a new and very different kind of boundary: a boundary around something sacred, a special demarcation, the first counterintuitive or ‘non-inherent’ boundary with a clear ritual aspect. Human ethics cannot be simply derived from observing and copying nature: there are human distinctives that are only made clear through God’s revelation in his written word the Bible.
What made the seventh day holy? Because it was the day that God rested from his work of creation. This work was completed and perfected. He put a special boundary around the seventh day that he required people to keep too as a day of rest from their labours. This day was called the Sabbath day.
To make holy is the same as to consecrate. To be holy is to be set apart, pure, devoted.
If the seventh day was made holy, does that mean that the first six days were unholy or impure? But we know that God is always and only and utterly holy, and he had already declared the whole creation as very good. And he commands many times in the Bible that we should ‘be holy because I am holy’. So all our days should be wholly devoted to him. If the seventh day is holy, are the other six days profane? No, the answer to this apparent conundrum is that there is a third category that fills the gap between the sacred and the profane: the common.
Sacredness is special holiness. It involves boundaries. When those boundaries are violated, that is profanity. Everything outside of those boundaries is common. Common here is not a derogatory term, it simply means everything else. The common should be holy in the sense of being good and pure and devoted to God, but the common is not governed by the specific rules or restrictions that are in place around the sacred.
In terms of the seventh day of Genesis 2, this means that the weekly day of rest is sacred, and so breaking that rest by letting the work of the week encroach upon it was taken very seriously under Old Testament law. At the same time, the work done in the other six days of the week was clearly good and right in itself, and was to be characterised by a holy mind and heart and life.
What does this have to do with art and music and noise? They belong, as with most of life, primarily in the realm of the common. Where appropriate and invited they have a vital role to play in the realm of the sacred too. In both cases they should be made holy: devoted to the glory of God in both motivation and execution.
The ritual dimension of art and music and noise, and what is meant by worship in the commonplace as compared to worship in the sacred (sabbath, temple, etc) is a topic to delve into more thoroughly another time. It should be noted, however, that the forms and modes and emphases of the sacred undertook a radical shift from the Old Testament to the New Testament, when Jesus brought a major shift to how and where God is to be worshipped.
The human use of noise should dovetail in with right worship of God and dependence on him. These priorities should orient and define all human thought and behaviour, including music and noise. One starting-point for these goals is to honour and maintain the sacred boundaries of guaranteeing rest from work, even from the deep and desirable work that the artist is compelled to persevere in.
- Craftsmanship & Cultivation: the art of noise
“Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no-one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
Most of these verses hint at the geography and ecology laid out by the Creator, but the comments about man are very telling.
‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ – man is dependent and derivative. He was created at the word of God, commanded into existence (see Genesis 1:26), but the moment of his coming to life was the wonderfully peaceful and solemn wordlessness of gentle breath. The original and ultimate breath of life, passing on the gift of consciousness, setting the lungs to work, generating new patterns of breath! The noise texture accompanying this most intimate of beginnings both simple and sublime, so easy to narrate but beyond adequate description. The prototype, the precursor, the possibility of noise’s transformative associations manifest and captured in the memory of holy scripture.
‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it’ – delegation and duty swiftly define man’s nascent existence. There is work to be done – good work, the work of freedom, meaningful work. As God has crafted the landscape and its rich resources, so man is tasked with crafting the garden and in a way – dare we say it – improving upon the foundations God has laid. Cultivation is one of the high and noble tasks that humans alone can pursue. Taking care of the creation, what a joyous calling! And in good time, crafting and cultivating sounds into music of all kinds will follow.
What is music? In relation to noise, I put it like this: music is the exploration of the wildness of noise; or, music is the zooming in and organisation of the reckless abundance of possibilities overflowing in noise, harnessed into more harmonious and structured forms. Noise has a tremendous richness of its own, clearly different to (but emphatically not inferior to) the richness of the more refined and focussed timbres expressed in notes, melodies, harmonies, and chords.
The world is pregnant with near-infinite possibilities of tone, rhythm, timbre, but for the artist it is necessary to decide many things: setting parameters, selecting sound sources, exploring combinations of sounds, notes and rhythms. Anything goes but not anything goes. This is what God has done with his world, and it is our job to take it further still. Making decisions, setting trajectories in motion, following through, narrowing the outcomes, observing the results, forming new starting-points.
For the musician and noisician this means we are to care about sound and noise, to be productive with exploring and utilising sound and noise, and to expand and share our joy and efforts in the audio realm. The sonic garden of this world is teeming with life, brimming with potential, saturated with hidden audio nuggets both actualised (sounds and noises of the natural world) and latent (waiting to be unlocked by human innovation and technology).
- Commands & Communion: the ethics of noise
“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’”
Created in a state of innocence, the first man Adam knew no evil. As the pinnacle of a very good creation, anything he turned his mind and hand to would prosper. His work would be blessed and be a blessing. God gave him one stipulation, and it has generated centuries of debate: ‘You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’.
To understand more clearly what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was, it is helpful to consider what it was not.
- This tree was not ‘the tree of knowledge’ – God is not, and has never been, against learning, information, exploration, discovery, logic, insight, experience, knowledge. This becomes explicitly clear in the next section below (Cognition & Classification: the science of noise). These are all crucial aspects of our God-made humanness.
- This tree was not ‘the tree of goodness’ or ‘the tree of the knowledge of good’ – God was not holding back anything good by prohibiting the fruit of this particular tree, just consider the whole of the rest of the world and the garden and the trees and animals that God completely entrusted to man from the start!
- This tree was not ‘the tree of removing ethical ignorance’ – God’s command about this tree was itself an explicit law about right and wrong, he made it known that there is such a thing as the potential for disobedience to him so that Adam was not left guessing in the dark.
In the Bible to know means far more than intellectual awareness. It means to be intimately acquainted with, to know in experience, to know through and through, to know with one’s mind and body and soul. It can also carry with it the idea of consciously deciding and acting on knowledge.
The essence of rebellion against God through disregarding his commands is this: determining for oneself what is right and what is wrong. This is the malaise of the millenia (see the upcoming article(s) on Curse of Noise). This is what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil not only represented but literally embodied because of its attached command.
Implicit in the threat of death for disobedience was its converse: the promise of life for obedience. Ultimate, true, full, abundant life is this: perfect and wondrous and unending communion with the eternal and glorious and holy Triune God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Complete satisfaction, life with purpose, harmony, progress, contentment, peace, joy, love. Because God is good and holy and true, his commands are also good and holy and true. Thus commands and communion are inseparable. Obedience and blessing and the presence of God go hand in hand. Disobedience and cursing and banishment from the presence of God also go hand in hand, as we will see next time. All of this is encapsulated in one word, one of the great and key words of the whole Bible: covenant. God is a covenant God. This is a crucial topic that I will cover more fully elsewhere.
I think one of the majors pitfalls and downfalls of noise culture is the widespread (though by no means necessary or omnipresent) propensity to know and experience and wallow in an intimate knowledge of evil in many forms: breaking any and every taboo for the sake of profanity. Many times this is done with good intentions: exposing injustice and hypocrisy, railing against the system, resistance to tyranny in all forms, highlighting social ills, shunning the crass denial of what really goes on in our dark and broken world. But at other times it goes beyond these noble aims: revelling in obscenity, senseless provocation, justification of freedom from morality, celebration of an amoral or nihilistic outlook.
When noise springs from, celebrates, or otherwise encompasses themes of evil and death it is traversing territory not originally meant for it. In the original state of creation that I have been contemplating in this series so far, noise could only spring from, celebrate, and encompass themes of goodness and life. However, please note that I am emphatically not saying that themes of evil and death are off-limits for noise or any other artform. On the contrary, I wholeheartedly believe that art must rightly and inevitably deal with evil and death head-on with clarity and boldness and incisive insight. But that comes later in the story. My point is that the dark side of humanity was not yet inherent in noise because at first there was no dark side of the creation.
- Cognition & Classification: the science of noise
“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.”
Consciousness didn’t evolve, man was created fully formed and fully functioning with sharp cognitive abilities ready to go.
I love this passage. The first thing that newly-created Adam does is practical science, zoological taxonomy in the field (ahem, garden)! Naming is a significant act in the Bible. To name a person, place, or thing is to describe its character or nature. It requires either familiar knowledge or a prophetic imagination.
God granted Adam the authority to make the animals by his own study and ideas. He had the gift of language, but was unconstrained by any prior etymologies: ‘whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.’ He would have observed and considered each animal’s appearance, behaviour, and sound. What was distinctive and characteristic about each creature? Did they seem to have a particular role or function within the local ecology? What features stood out as particularly fascinating or remarkable? Since words are audible symbols, I can imagine that one tactic for naming would have been to approximate or mimic an animal’s own voice. Some of the first language created by humans was probably onomatopoeic. And what a phenomenally rich palette of noises that offers up!
In a way this was the reciprocal of God’s sounds. God’s voice as a voice of noise complements and augments the linguistic content of his speech (see e.g. my articles Voice of Noise 1/2/3/4 on Psalm 29 in The Ultimate Noisician series, and also the article Symbolism and Noise in The Word on Noise series).
This initial task of Adam’s is instructive as it affirms and exemplifies the human work and purpose of classification in the many and varied contexts and forms in which it can be undertaken. For an artist/musician/noisician this includes such things as understanding and utilising the categories and characteristics of materials, textures, instrumentation, colours; distinguishing and discerning between styles, form, function, connotation, representation; paying attention to details, similarities, contrasts, connections; developing (or breaking) contextual syntax, markers, conventions, trends, norms; working within or stretching beyond limitations, parameters, expectations, possibilities; creating something new but always within the given realities of the mind and the available tools and material and the constraints of the physical makeup of the universe.
What is the created function of noise? As we would expect, the answer to this question is multilayered and multidimensional. Noise doesn’t serve a single purpose, apart from the foundational and overarching purpose that all of creation is designed for, namely to reveal and amplify the glory of God. Noise and sound (and thereby music of all genres too) are as exhilaratingly multifarious as the extraordinary menagerie of earth’s fauna. Some of noise/sound’s good functions include:
- to educate / realise
- to elucidate / resolve
- to express / represent
- to excite / rouse
- to echo / reflect
- to expose / reveal
- to effect / react
- to experience / receive
- to explore / research
- to evoke / remind
- to eviscerate / ruin
- to enrich / refine
One final word on Genesis 2. ‘But for Adam no suitable helper was found.’ Science and art (and music and noise), for all their profound beauty and potential, are not the be all and end all of life. They can never fully satisfy. They can never fully reflect and express our humanity. They can never be the ultimate purpose or goal of our work and imagination. We are first and foremost created for community, for companionship, for cooperation. We need to work together, we need to help and be helped. Art and science are gifts to us, gifts that are subordinate to (and are to partake in) love. Love and service to God our Creator, and love and advice to our fellow humans: family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, strangers. Lose sight of this, and all becomes self-serving and in the end meaningless.
I’ve covered a lot of ground in these five Creation of Noise articles. I’ve tried to be logical and clear, but it’s been quite a sprawling overview with a lot to take in. In some attempt to summarise really concisely, I think these are the main points I want to leave you with:
- God precedes noise: noise is not primary.
- God controls noise: noise is contingent.
- God made/generated noise from the start of creation: noise is affirmed by God.
- God imbues value and purpose to all he has made: noise is meaningful.
- God reveals himself through all he has made: noise has a role in reflecting God.
- God mandated mankind to use and develop the creation: noise is a tool to be stewarded.
Noise is not in the first place an aberration of creation. Noise is part of the original “very good” creation. My contention throughout my writing in this blog is that noise is fundamentally an inherently positive phenomenon. We could call this “positive noise”: good, wholesome, necessary, perfect. This is the spectrum of noise and noise potential that has been part of our universe since the very beginning. I believe it is vital to reestablish and reinforce the possibility, nay the necessity, of the conception of “positive noise” in our world.
But clearly most of what passes for noise in our experiences and definitions is bad, destructive, unwanted, flawed. What is “negative noise”, and how did it infiltrate our world so systemically? These questions will be the topic of the next article(s) in this series, Curse of Noise. There I will examine the emergence and subsequent ubiquity and power of “negative noise” as we know it.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!