Noise as Disfigurement (series: Prophetic Noise Vignettes, part 3)

Isaiah 52:13-15

by Dave Skipper

One common modus operandi of noise music, and more acutely so of the harsher varieties, is the distorting of an audio signal. This has the effect of making the sound more gnarly and ragged and aggressive, but it also often serves to alter, mask, or even obliterate the sound source so that it may become impossible to decipher or distinguish what the original sound was. When combined with other layers of distorted sound, and optionally the mass and mess of constructive/destructive feedback, this makes for a recipe for controlled/uncontrolled chaos. The sound source is necessary, but it is surpassed by the ensuing cacophony. At the waveform level, these distortion and layering processes can be observed as the adding of spikes, glitches, randomly fluctuating details, squarings off, and the superposition of uneven harmonics spreading like a crazed disease across a previously straightforward, benign, and somewhat more predictable waveform. This ‘untaming’ creates a richness of flavours, a buffet of jagged non-patterns, a hot and spicy melee of unforeseen possibilities. Like a frenzied skyline of pinnacles and antennaed Escher-meets-Dali-meets-Gaudi-esque architectural anomalies. But it can also be experienced as a cauldron of piercing pain, a maelstrom of screams and confusion, a torturous onslaught to be avoided at all costs. Noise is noise after all.

Harsh noise is not very subtle. Nor is my discussion below.

One way to describe this deliberate movement of sounds-into-noise is as disfigurement. Disfigurement is not a positive concept, though it is a more gentle word than ‘bludgeoning’. A face beaten to pulp is neither pleasant nor desirable, unless you are overcome with rage and have the desire to inflict pain or retribution.

I believe that the most significant disfigurement of all time was on the first Good Friday a little over 2,000 years ago. Good Friday is when Christians remember and celebrate the death of Jesus Christ, followed on Easter Sunday by his resurrection from the dead. The particular incident of disfigurement I have in mind was predicted centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah:

13 See, my servant will act wisely;

he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him –

his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being

and his form marred beyond human likeness

15 so he will sprinkle many nations,

and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

For what they were not told, they will see,

and what they have not heard, they will understand.

Isaiah 52:13-15 (New International Version)

The whole of the following chapter (Isaiah 53) is a stunning exposition about Jesus as the Suffering Servant, but I will have to look at that in more detail another time. In summary, this whole prophecy was fulfilled in what the New Testament Gospel accounts record about Jesus’ death and resurrection. This was no ordinary death. It was a death like no other, for the very Son of God went deliberately to the cross in order to take the full weight and punishment for our sin upon himself.

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’

from the Bible – 1 Peter 2:23-24

As the once-perfect image of God in man was distorted and shattered through the sin of the first man Adam, so Jesus as the ever-perfect image of God was disfigured beyond recognition. This ‘noisification’ of Christ’s physical form through the beatings, the whippings, and the horrific torture of execution by crucifixion was a noisification accompanied by the literal noises of

The lashings that led to lacerations,

The mocking jeers and sneers,

The agony of sighs and cries

Oozing out blood, sweat, and tears;

The blows of hammer on nail, hammer on nail –

Huge nails piercing hands and feet;

The agony of sighs and cries

Excruciating, asphyxiating, as Heaven’s Son hell did meet.

Why? What was happening? Isaiah 52:13, above, states that he would be ‘raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’ Jesus was lifted up on that cruel cross in order to be raised from the dead to new unquenchable life, and then to be exalted up high as the King above all kings.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

from the Bible – 1 Corinthians 15:3-7

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

from the Bible – Philippians 2:9-11

Why? For what reason? Isaiah 52:15: ‘he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him.’ His sprinkled blood cleanses, purifies, covers, redeems, and forgives the sins of people from many nations. His holiness, justice, perfection, power, love, mercy, and grace forged life through death and procured everlasting victory through time-and-space suffering – the wonders and mysteries of this King will render everybody (even mighty kings) speechless in his glorious presence. The question is whether yours and mine will be a silence of joy, worship, adoration, and surrender… or a silence of regret, terror, hatred, and bitterness.

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

from the Bible – Hebrews 10:22

Verse 15 finishes off: ‘For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.’ All eyes will see him one day, and all will understand who this Jesus is and what he has done. But now you and I have already heard. We have been told.

The ‘noise of disfigurement’ in the face of Jesus was appalling. It was ugly – caused by the ugliness of wickedness, and causing ugliness in his face and body. Yet this ‘noise of disfigurement’ was Christ’s path to incredible glory, a glory that sweeps up our disfigurements, that enters our noise, that embraces our human pain.

In noise music, the marring of sounds beyond recognition can serve as a reminder of the extremity of Christ’s suffering. It’s a limited analogy, of course. I am not for one moment suggesting that lovers of noise music ought to be appalled at the ugliness of distorted and disfigured sounds! I love those kinds of sounds! But there is a profound mystery at play in the death of Jesus. His death was glorious even while being awful. There is beauty and joy in meditating on his sufferings, even while the reality of his brutal death was shocking. The joy comes in recognising that he took my place there. He bore my sin and shame in his body. He did this out of the abundance and wisdom and sovereignty of his love and grace for me. Christians see glory in the cross of Christ, despite, nay because of the vile wickedness of sin.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

from the Bible – 1 Corinthians 1:18

And so ‘noise as disfigurement’ is not the final goal. It is not the ultimate end. Destiny in Christ means restoration to a more wonderful state and status than any undeformed prior state ever was. Disfigurement paves the way for a refiguring, a re-imaging, a reimagining, a revisaging, a re-envisaging of what the fulness of human potential can look like. Christ’s blood was drawn out through torture, and those drops fall on us. His bloodstains cover our own guilt and shame. When we trust in his blood, we partake in his blood, we are crucified with him, and we are identified as his brothers and sisters – a family tie that transcends blood and culture and race.

But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.

from the Bible – Hebrews 2:9-11

For me one of the many valuable roles of noise music is as a pale reflection, a tiny glimpse, into the future transformation when sin and suffering are eradicated. The disfiguring and obliteration of all that is wrong in me and wrong in the world will be overcome with rich new sounds. Those ‘noised-up’ waveforms point to the never-ending possibilities that will leave behind our current sorry state as less than a memory. The energy that noise music amplifies and imparts is just the barest hint of the overflowing energy of resurrection life promised to all who are silently sprinkled by his glorious blood.

The image of God in man is restored in us through Jesus’ disfigurement and glorification. Yet the promise is not merely a return to Adam’s state but that we will be lifted up in the image of Jesus’ perfection and resurrection glory.

And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

1 Corinthians 15:49

He who has ears to ear, let him hear!

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