Noise and the Devil.
by Dave Skipper
While any history of noise must necessarily blend theory with speculation, my conviction is that the Bible (as the Word of God, as divine revelation) provides the essential backdrop and orientation from which every strand of history must derive. The Bible’s particular perspective on the genesis and development of noise is barely traversed terrain. Hence my ‘brief history’ needs to go into the origins of noise in some detail. I will eventually get to some of the more obvious arenas – such as industrialisation, electronic technology, and avant-garde musics – but first I need to build a solid protological and theoretical foundation.
Here is where we’re at so far:
- Genesis 1. The opening chapter of the Bible. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God created the universe by His word in six days. This involved the creation of a startling plethora of noisy sounds and noise-making potential, culminating in the creation of Adam and Eve, the first people, in His image. (Read especially Creation of Noise 1/5 and Creation of Noise 2/5,but also Creation of Noise 3/5 and Creation of Noise 4/5.)
- Genesis 2 – God rested on the seventh day, setting a pattern for mankind. He gave the ‘Cultural Mandate’ – the instruction that we are to rule over, care for, and develop the earth in loving community. Art and science were born, gifts to us from the start from our Creator. (Read especially Creation of Noise 5/5.)
- Genesis 3 – Sin and death entered the world with disastrous and far-reaching consequences for humanity, the world, and, yes, noise. I introduced this topic last time in Curse of Noise 1/5, and now I will get stuck right into this account.
- Cunning, Contradiction, & Confusion: the devil’s noise
1 Now the snake was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’
2 The woman said to the snake, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”’
4 ‘You will not certainly die,’ the snake said to the woman. 5 ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’
At first glance there is nothing about noise in this opening scene. Sonically, we just have a conversation, and there is nothing seemingly significant about that in regard to the nature of sound itself. But what this conversation represents does speak of noise, and we will see that the ensuing narrative brings great consequences for the realm of sound and noise. A template is being set for the malaise of sin and death and decay that besets the whole of mankind and the whole created order. It is a template that noise locks into very easily. The downward spiral into destruction begins here, so let’s pause in this spot for a moment.
“That ancient snake called the devil, or Satan” (Revelation 12:9), held out the promise of freedom, knowledge, self-determination, pleasure, and autonomy (self-law). What’s not to like? First, who wouldn’t want their eyes to be opened? Insight, wisdom, spiritual enlightenment, deep knowledge, unlocked mysteries, intellectual prowess, scientific understanding, artistic taste – these are all good things! Second, and what a thought, to be like God! To decide and control our destiny, to know, see, and act without limit, to create and define at will, to pursue our will and desires without constraint. Third, and surely we need to know good and evil? We can’t operate in a moral vacuum. What better way to obtain ethical clarity than being able to discern and decide the best boundaries for ourselves? Why, it seems after all that this God has just been trying to keep us in the dark, pathetically innocent and ignorant, blindly following his irrational and egotistical dictates.
Doesn’t this line of reasoning sound all too familiar? It’s the natural inclination of all of us, in our minds and in our hearts. We hear echoes, strong and faint, of the same questions and rationale all through history and all around us in our day: be true to yourself, forge your own path, follow your self-made destiny. And as for Satan himself, whilst in most forms of modern Satanism he is not believed to be as a real being, he is nevertheless heralded as a symbol of freedom, of individual rights, of the pursuit of truth, and therefore of a truly liberated humanity.
So why does the Bible portray the devil in such a bad light? The problem is that it was all a twisted lie, earning him the monikers “the great deceiver” and “a liar and the father of lies.”
“[The devil]… was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
John 8:44b – Jesus speaking to the Pharisees
How can we see that his words were lies? First, Adam and Eve’s eyes were already open to the truth – created by God in his image, created to have dominion over the world, created for knowledge, growth, and community. That list above of the serpent’s promises – insight, wisdom, spiritual enlightenment, deep knowledge, unlocked mysteries, intellectual prowess, scientific understanding, artistic taste – these were already on the table, good gifts from God for Adam and Eve to pursue and enjoy wholeheartedly! There is no sense at all in the idea that God was restricting them in their ability to engage in all of these. In fact, the Bible as a whole continually endorses the active use and growth of the mind in attaining wisdom and knowledge and understanding and insight. The difference is that, as Solomon – famed for his extraordinary wisdom – wrote in the book of Proverbs,
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Which leads us, second, to the major difference between the snake’s offer and the truth of the matter: God is God, and we are not. The desire to be as God is the ultimate deception. At some levels it is clearly impossible to attain equality with God: we are limited in mind and body, in contrast to the infinities of God (eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, etc). And in those areas where we ostensibly can be his match (in our will, in defining ethics, in purpose) we think we can make headway but ultimately this is impossible too. Why do I say that? Because reality exists and is defined externally to ourselves – defined and controlled by God. Similarly, ethics exist and are defined by the unchanging character of God. And his will and purposes are what hold sway and will prevail over the cosmos and through history. Our very breath depends on his sustaining gift of life and grace. Yes we do have choice, we do have responsibility, and we have the capacity to think and act in accordance with our own minds and wills. But these are neither ultimate nor determinative of reality and of our final purpose and destiny. In a limited and secondary sense we do have the power to steer our course through life, but the lie is to isolate this from the surrounding and deeper context of God’s presence and power. The lie is to elevate our will above God’s. It’s a course that ends only in death, as had already been forewarned to Adam and Eve:
‘You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’
And the warning is repeated throughout scripture, e.g.
‘Those who fail to find me [true Wisdom] harm themselves; all who hate me love death.’
Third, more than the general idea of becoming like God, however, the specific lure of the snake was in the realm of ethics – to be like God in knowing good and evil. What does this mean? It is a mistake to assume this means merely knowledge about good and evil. That much should be clear from the fact that God had already made clear at least one aspect of evil by defining the limits of what trees Adam and Eve could eat from, and of the consequences of disobedience. That this was a representative test of their obedience in his command rather than an exhaustive list of what constitutes all possible evils is not the point. Knowing in scripture means an intimate and experiential acquaintance with, knowing through and through, inside and out. To know good and evil for Adam and Eve therefore meant knowing the reality and extent of what evil truly is, in their understanding and in their experience. It meant being able to imagine and enact all kinds of evil thoughts and deeds that beforehand were totally beyond the scope of their imagination and desires. It meant succumbing to the intrigue and lies of selfish desires. It meant being able to pursue purposes and desires that came from anywhere outside the goodness and beauty of God. All this was and is inextricable from the essence and side-effects and impact of evil in all its forms of conflict and destruction, but more on these consequences of evil later.
This does raise the vital question, though: does God therefore know evil in this way too? Is he fully acquainted with all the possibilities of evil in his own experience? I will revisit this question more fully in the next article, but for now the short answer is no: scripture repeatedly and unreservedly asserts that God is completely good, and that there is no evil or darkness in him whatsoever. The primary sense in which our knowledge of good and evil mirrors God’s knowledge of good and evil is that of determining what is good and what is evil, rather than experiencing both. The temptation was therefore primarily to choose their ethics for themselves, rather than to submit to God’s terms and conditions. The snake’s words were at bottom the temptation to doubt God’s Word. His offer seemed so benign, so harmless, so desirable, so good. And therein lay its power. The cunning and craft of the snake was all about blurring the truth. Introducing ambiguity by means of a false clarity. The most powerful lies are so often half-truths. Yes, in one partial respect Adam and Eve could and did become like God, but the end result was becoming incomprehensibly less like God, and his image in man placed at his initial creation was marred almost beyond recognition.
There is another dimension to the tree of knowledge of good evil, however. Note that in the first place God permitted Adam and Eve to eat from every tree (“God said, ‘I give you… every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” – Genesis 1:29), and only subsequently did he prohibit the one tree. It is therefore possible to understand this as meaning that the prohibition was temporary, pending God’s timing to let them eat of it at some point in the future. Corroboration of this idea seems to come from how the Bible later describes “knowledge of good and evil” as being the hallmark of godly, kingly wisdom – the insight and discernment to choose the best over the good, or ‘the lesser of two evils.’ [I gleaned this perspective from the writings of James Jordan and Peter Leithart.]
“…my lord the king is like an angel of God in discerning good and evil. May the Lord your God be with you.”
2 Samuel 14:17b – a woman speaking to King David, who was famed as ‘a man after God’s own heart’
Though the temptation slipped in as a mere invitation to doubt, we can easily enough see that it was far more serious and all-encompassing than doubt appears to be. Consider how this first ‘small’ sin actually violated all of God’s Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20):
- God dethroned: placing another voice above God’s, transferring their allegiance to another (lesser) authority.
- False worship: bowing down to the image of God in man rather than to God himself, i.e. putting their desires and methods first above God’s.
- Blasphemy: impugning God’s righteousness and holiness by calling him a liar.
- Sabbath-breaking: biblically speaking, the Sabbath, or ‘Day of the Lord,’ is not only a day of rest but also a day of intimate communion/fellowship with God, and of God’s evaluation/judgment of man’s works. The time for eating of the special trees (the tree of life in its function of blessing and reward for faithful obedience, and the tree of the knowledge of good evil in its function of affirming the right path to wisdom, discernment, and maturity, i.e. through God’s time and God’s ways) was for a future Sabbath as a fellowship meal with God. Grasping the fruit prematurely against God’s stipulations was to attempt to force Sabbath rest and reward forward into the present on man’s impatient terms. One of the essential aspects of Sabbath is trust, a posture of dependence on God for all things, including our time, our breath, our plans, our work, our future. Shortcuts to blessing are actually shortcuts to death.
- Dishonouring parents: disobeying their Heavenly Father’s one simple prohibition.
- Murder: suicidal decision, brazenly inviting God’s assured judgment of death.
- Adultery: breaking the holy covenant between God and man (biblically speaking, human marriage is a symbol of the true marriage between God and his people, a picture that comes up repeatedly through Scripture).
- Theft: taking the fruit that was marked as off-limits, and that thus belonged to God alone.
- False testimony: false accusation against God’s word, promise, character.
- Covetousness: desiring and grasping for what was not rightfully theirs.
There has been a war since that day in the Garden between the rival religions of God and Satan. Satan’s creed for mankind has always been “You shall be as God”, regardless of what implicit or explicit religious or philosophical position is held to. The essence of satanic thought is simply, “Do as you will.” Expressed in the Bible as:
Every man did what was right in his own eyes.
What does all this have to do with noise then? Noise of course delights in being contrary. It is defined as an intrusion, a marring, an agitator. And by extension noise music as an artistic (or anti-artistic) activity delights in throwing out the rulebook: entering sonic lawlessness, rebellion, anarchy, and chaos. Noise music determines its own rules or non-rules, determines its own purpose, determines its own destiny. It has the capacity to flout convention and to flaunt the forbidden perhaps more than any other sonic artform. It is emphatically the case that noise music can and at times does exemplify and embody (sonically, conceptually, and also in terms of lifestyle, motivation, imagery, association, and intent) an orientation of disregard and overturning of goodness, beauty, truth, and of the Bible’s insistence on God’s command over our lives. [This is not to dismiss or condemn noise music per se; spend any time on my blog and my overall thrust is evidently to vindicate noise music as a profound artform that can glorify God, and that actually has inherent value and power as a legitimate creative pursuit. I hope this article will be read in the series context: following on from the Creation of Noise articles, and preceding the Cure for Noise articles.]
Given the serpent’s/devil’s/Satan’s role as the originator of all forms of God-forsaking humanism, it is therefore not in the least surprising to find occult themes and imagery in the works of not a few noise artists. I suspect that very few, if any, of these artists believe in a literal Satan, but the preoccupation with these things is telling. For further analysis of some aspects of the relationship between Occultism and Noise, I have an article in the works that will be posted within the article series Noise.Life. Death..
Noise as a negative sonic phenomenon thus finds its origins in the devil’s noise. Noise is, in part, a physical enactment of the temptation and trouble wrought by the devil in the Garden of Eden. Noise is anarchy in action, autonomy in art, and an absence of absolutes. How can we characterise the devil’s noise? It is the road to damage (physical/medical, emotional, social, spiritual), disclarity, doubt, disfigurement, deterioration, deception, disruption, distortion, disharmony/discord, degradation, desecration, and a displacement of the source, locus, orientation, and purpose of truth and authority and ethics from God to man. Many of these ‘d’ words make us think of familiar characteristics of sonic noise:
- broken and incomplete communications;
- physical damage (e.g. from sonic booms);
- noise pollution and vocal conflict damaging relationships, emotional health, and physical health;
- dizziness, tinnitus, hearing loss, and deafness;
- signal loss and signal failure leading to ambiguity and uncertainty in information and meaning;
- sounds or words becoming fuzzy or obscured;
- sounds obscuring messages;
- disorienting sounds creating confusion;
- sounds disturbing or interrupting the peace;
- distortion creating unpleasant or grating effect, ruining clarity or aesthetics of the original;
- sounds clashing disharmoniously;
- sounds changed or manipulated in order to mislead or exploit.
You might think of tape hiss, noisy neighbours, fake information, screaming kids, and a thousand and one other specific examples of how sound, speech, or music can behave noisily in undesirable ways, or are altered to be incoherent or even undecipherable. Again, note that this is not to say that all such noise is undesirable – tape hiss has a specific character that can be enjoyed and recycled creatively, for example. And this is not to say that all such noise is completely new following the events of Genesis 3 (my Creation of Noise articles makes that clear). But the general point is evident. Noise, as any other tool, can be used for more obviously evil ends, but it’s in the insidious and subtle nature of the devil’s scheming that most aspects of evil and its consequences go undetected and are readily dismissed as insignificant, normal, or even good. This is not to apportion all such things as directly the devil’s work; rather, we are looking back to the introduction of these themes into human history, into the human psyche. The remaining Curse of Noise articles will continue to explore why and how negative noise has infiltrated our world to become the new normal.
I’ll finish this section with a quote from the ever-perceptive C.S. Lewis:
Music and silence – how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell… no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise – Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless and virile – Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scriples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not loud enough yet, or anything like it.
– senior demon Screwtape writing to his nephew Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
But as we will see in the future articles in this series, we would be wrong to attribute too much power and influence to the devil – he receives the first curse from God, and his total doom is assured. But we’re not there in the story yet…
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!