Noise and God’s warning.
by Dave Skipper
Arguably, one definition of noise could be ‘cursed sound’.
A blight on communication, a fight against harmony, a frightening disturbance.
A pestilence, a festering, a less complete way.
Entropic, decaying, non-cornucopian.
Misanthropic, slaying, distinctly dystopian.
Noise as rupture: a curse that tears through, tears down, tears apart.
Noise as irritant: a curse that divides, frustrates, confuses, and angers.
Noise as danger: a curse that destabilises, threatens, overwhelms, and kills.
Noise as pain: a curse against flesh, against mind, against soul.
Noise = cursed sound.
But how and why could and should sound have been cursed in the first place? That is the topic of this and subsequent articles in this Curse of Noise sub-series.
Up to this point, in the series A Brief History of Noise, I have considered how the purposes and possibilities of noise were created in the first place to be totally and only good. This perspective is derived from the Bible’s teaching about creation and the good character of God. I have thus sought to demonstrate that noise is not originally or fundamentally a problem. But evidently noise very often is a problem, or at the very least is largely defined as such. The world is desperately different from the declaration of Genesis 1 that everything God made is “very good.” So just what is wrong with the world in general and noise in particular, and how did it get that way? What exactly is the curse of noise?
I deliberately chose the phrase ‘Curse of Noise’ as it can be understood grammatically in four distinct and important ways.
- ‘Curse of Noise’ meaning the action and result of noise itself being cursed by God, i.e. noise as the recipient of God’s curse, noise is in itself afflicted and distorted from purely good functions, purposes, and associations.
- ‘Curse of Noise’ meaning the negative and disastrous effects of noise, both on the creation in general and on mankind in particular, i.e. mankind as the recipient of God’s curse via noise. Put another way, noise is a specific and concrete agency of the enactment and implications of God’s curse against mankind and the creation as a whole. Noise has been enabled and empowered to wreak (or be a byproduct of) many forms of havoc, both small and great.
- ‘Curse of Noise’ as the disruptive of harmful words and sound-making actions of people directed against others (whether intentionally or unintentionally); also more widely any form of damage (physical, social, psychological, ecological, other) caused by sound to and from anything within the creation (people, animals, technology, natural disasters, etc), i.e. the damaging and damageable causes and effects of noise between people/animals/things within the creation.
- ‘Curse of Noise’ meaning any noisy words and acts of defiance and rebellion directed against God, this noise being either literal or metaphorical; i.e. noise as a means of cursing God.
I will also discuss the complexity of the potential and actual benefits of sound’s destructive powers. The blessings and curses of noise are often tightly entangled. The effects of the wider curse over creation also set the conditions in which a noisy response becomes necessary and good: the introduction of ‘negative noise’ also brings with it new good functions and possibilities for noise. These are intricate topics that don’t sit tidily in clearly labelled boxes!
[Side note: I usually write ‘Creation’ instead of ‘Nature’ because I believe that nothing is truly ‘natural’ in the sense of autonomous or originating in itself. I believe that the world and universe we inhabit is fully created and sustained by God, and does not tick along on its own steam. Nothing is independent of God’s personal providence and sovereignty.]
- Conditions & Command: before negative noise
The main Bible text that describes the descent of the world into evil and death is Genesis 3. But before I get there I will just briefly revisit a few verses that I have already considered in the previous article (see Creation of Noise 5/5, specifically the fourth section subtitled Commands & Communion: the ethics of noise):
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 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.’”
from the Bible – Genesis 2:15-17
The warning and threat of death for disobedience lies at the heart of a Biblical (and therefore Christian) understanding of ethics. This has never been a popular topic in any era, but it is unavoidable if we want to understand the whole arc of what the Bible teaches (directly and indirectly) about noise. A few points are in order:
- God’s command to Adam and Eve was simple, clear, and explicit, so they were without excuse. There could be no confusion or wrangling about what the command meant.
- Adam and Eve were at this point in a unique state of perfect privilege and satisfaction. The unspoilt creation was theirs to enjoy and maintain. They had each other as companions and workmates and intimate partners. They had the daily first-hand presence of their Creator God to commune with and enjoy. Their minds and hearts were undulled by conflict, weariness, or frustration. They were gifted with humanity’s peak physical and intellectual condition, with a whole world and future of amazing potential lying before them. There was no need for them to disobey the one simple command.
- A perfect and holy God must deal seriously with moral failure because he values his own beauty of holiness with complete integrity, and he must be faithful to his own eternal character. “God is light; in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5b) His manifold perfections are glorious and spotless. The warning of death upon disobedience was entirely fair and reasonable in terms of God’s immutability, holiness, and wisdom, however much we may rail against it. More than necessary, the giving of a clear warning was even good and gracious.
- As we will see in the coming articles, it is important to distinguish between ethical imperfection and other forms of imperfection. Noise as imperfection is not exclusively a question of good or bad, right or wrong. Yes, sometimes noise does revolve around ethical questions, and undoubtedly noise is very well suited to be a metaphor related to many real-life ethical issues, but that mustn’t cloud or dictate the complete picture of what noise is and can be.
So what about noise and the threat of death?
Noise can be conceived of as a form of death. In signal processing or information theory noise denotes the disintegration of a signal that distorts, masks, or ultimately obliterates the original content, meaning, and purpose of that signal. Socially and emotionally, noise is generally defined to be an unwanted intrusion that obscures, confuses, frustrates, or angers. The logical endpoint of this experience and process is the death of peace, the death of dreams, and the death of self. More specifically in the audio realm, noise means unwanted sound. Noise then is the death of intent, of purity, of desire. Total noise renders thought and action impossible, i.e. it portends death. As against music, noise is typically pitted as an enemy. It is the death of harmony, form, and beauty. But even when noise is embraced in and as music, that same death is seen as desirable and to be pursued – the death of harmony, form, and beauty through the perspective and ambition of new forms and a new kind of beauty, superseding the ‘need’ for, or supposed ideal of, harmony. And it is not uncommon for noise music to go hand-in-hand with notions of ‘death to the system’, death to injustice and oppression, and the like (of course these kinds of ideals are prominent in one form or another throughout all kinds of music, art, culture and beyond).
Wherever we look, or whoever we listen to, for a description and understanding of what noise is, it seems invariably to require being defined by what it is not. Negation implies absence, something missing, a removal or covering of what is there. Noise invokes or evokes loss and lament. Noise implies death. Or, rather, death implies noise. And so the warning and threat of death is the warning and threat of impending noise. Noise of incalculable scope. Noise as threat is a common enough theme that we are familiar with in everyday life: a growling dog or buzzing wasp, a fire alarm or air raid siren, fierce shouting or breaking down doors. The danger of damage, injury, or death heralded by the noise of avalanches, thunderstorms, ocean waves, or explosions.
These warning noises are good, they are kind. Without them, there is no possibility of learning the warning signs, of averting danger, of staying safe. This point will come up again.
It is thus to the origins of this intertwining of death and noise that I now turn. [Note also that in the article series Noise. Life. Death. I will investigate themes of death, power, and noise from a wider range of angles, and there I will interact more in-depth with other philosophies and perspectives. My specific intention in this series here is solely to open up some of the Biblical data.]
- Cosmic Calamity: the introduction of negative noise
Genesis 3 is one of the most crucial, yet one of the most maligned, chapters in the whole Bible. It’s not hard to see why. When taken seriously as historical truth, Genesis 3 generates all kinds of questions and problems. Forbidden fruit, a talking serpent, original sin, a judging God. Respectively unrealistic, unscientific, unreasonable, and unfair? Yet even the very response of dismissing Genesis 3 as untrue is explained and anticipated by the story itself.
Briefly, the story runs as follows. The serpent approaches Eve and questions whether God really forbade them to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and he assures her that she will not die if she eats it. Eve decides to eat the fruit, and gives some to Adam too. It was good fruit! They realise they are naked and make coverings from themselves out of leaves. When they hear God in the garden later, they hide because they are ashamed. God asks them why they are hiding. Adam blames Eve for giving him the fruit, and Eve says that the serpent deceived her. God then proclaims curses on the serpent, the woman, the man, and the ground. He makes clothes for Adam and Eve out of animal skins before banishing them from the garden. He places angels with flaming swords at the entrance to the garden to keep them out.
Why do I insist on interpreting this as a historical account? Why not treat it as mere metaphor and myth? What is at stake? And what does it have to do with noise? Because time and history and the world and space and life and death and our every moment-by-moment breath and everyday life are not abstract concepts. I believe that all of reality and existence is bound together through and from and under the very Word of God. There is no higher truth than the truth of who God is, and He has made all things for His purposes. We cannot transcend our existence to His level, and we cannot transcend the world as He has made it to some purely abstract realm. God cares as much about the human body as the human mind; we are integrated beings. God didn’t reveal himself through principles and ideas, but through history, through stories, and most all through sending His Eternal Son, Jesus Christ, to be born as a real flesh-and-blood-and-bones human. If there is meaning to life then it must impinge on and saturate the here-and-now, the complete web of time and space. If faith and religion are to be valid and effective, then they must be about actions as well as words, practicalities as well as ideas. If Genesis is not true, then the whole Bible is mere human fantasy and conjecture (maybe that is your perspective already). Then God is either a figment of our imagination, created in our image, or he cannot be known or trusted, or then he is impotent and irrelevant. If God is truly God then He is God of the physical realm just as much as the spiritual realm. In fact, the very idea of putting the physical against the spiritual is fraught with difficulties.
And then Jesus Himself treated Genesis as true and historical. I gladly follow His cue.
And noise? Well, noise is part of the creation, part of life. It is a problem and an opportunity, a frustration and a joy, a curse and a blessing. If God is before and in and over everything, then I am compelled to investigate what the origins of life and death implicate for noise. And although finally I am particularly keen on exploring noise in the context of noise music, I can’t afford to narrow my focus so much that I neglect the wider scope of noise across all its variegated and perplexing modes.
Ok, I rambled on a bit more than intended there. I have no place here to launch an intellectual defense of Genesis and the Bible, but at least you can get a glimpse of where I’m coming from.
Maybe you think I’m crazy to take this stance. But don’t write off the next few articles just yet. I think you will still find much of interest and value in the ideas and principles and applications of Genesis 3 to noise, even if you dismiss or despise it as fiction.
In order to define the term ‘curse’ more fully as it used in Genesis 3, we will need to look closely at the words, actions, and implications of the text itself. In other words, God’s curse is not something that can be easily circumscribed by a few words. It is, rather, far-reaching, stretching across time and space, and cutting through every human heart and every human relationship. God’s curse is both simple and complex. All other forms of cursing and cursedness (sic) can be properly positioned and understood in relation to his curses of Genesis 3. In the next two articles I will unpack this chapter in more detail, all of course with a particular focus on how it relates to noise. Then in the fourth and fifth articles in this sub-series I will attempt to briefly tie these themes together and also expand them beyond the confines of Genesis 3 to some other areas of science, the arts, history, and the humanities.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!