I am a bit of a coffee shop junkie. Sometimes when I sit in a crowded coffee shop, I can be overwhelmed by the noise of all the conversations going on around me. Words, accents, cutlery all mix into a great chaotic symphony. I catch a phrase that sounds fascinating, but in the welter of talk, I can’t eavesdrop on one conversation for long. It would be like following the path of one raindrop in a storm. I have been told that some establishments are deliberately designed this way, so as to give privacy in a crowded space by hiding conversations in a storm of noise. The storm of noise is the sound of people communicating. It’s the sound of life.
There is a story that the composer John Cage one day visited a special room, an anechoic chamber, which was acoustically isolated from the outside, so no sound could get in, and which absorbed sound inside it. It would be a place of total silence, or so Cage thought. He stood there for a while, and with the sensitivity of a composer, a person whose life revolves around experiencing sound, he became aware that he could hear something, two sounds, in fact – a high pitched sound and a lower pitched sound. So he spoke to the engineer and asked what was going on. The engineer replied that the low pitched sound was the sound of his circulation system, the blood flowing through his veins and the high pitched sound was the sound of his nervous system in operation, the sound of him thinking. Together, they were the sounds of his life, accompanying him until the day he died.
These two anecdotes came to me the other day as I was musing on the interpretation of a parable. It is a commonplace to refer to the Bible as the Word of God which speaks to us. But what form does this conversation take? Is it like sitting in a coffee shop hearing snatches, or more like the composer alone listening to the sounds of his individual life?
Last century (which sounds impressive but even now is not so long ago) it became fashionable to insist that a parable had only one meaning. So, for instance, the clue to the meaning of the parable of the sower lay in the amazing yield of the field. The parable suggested the Kingdom of God is a place of abundance despite current appearances. And so on. Scholars would strive to determine the one meaning. The most successful scholar was the one whose interpretation was widely accepted. I was a novice in biblical interpretation at that stage, and wondered how to achieve that mystical power to identify the sole meaning in a parable or other biblical passage. By contrast, my attention would flit like a butterfly from one place to another, spinning worlds of meanings from the words of the text.
These days, I am far more comfortable with the idea that a parable, or a biblical text in general, has a multiplicity of potential meanings. The Word of God does not speak to us in commands, but in the to and fro of conversations. The nature and path of these conversations depends a lot on where we are in our life and experience at that time. It is a lot like “catching up” with someone, or asking them for advice. In the process, we may hear snippets of other conversations and sometimes make these our conversation for the day.
I am aware that many of the faithful take a more conservative view, and think that there is only one meaning and that there can be only one Christian view on a topic. They may grudgingly allow for two meanings, but cannot fathom a multiplicity of possibilities, or are uncomfortable at the thought that a meaning may not be accessible to us. In my view, when we think we have pinned down a meaning for a text (or some understanding of faith), then we need to start looking again. That first meaning is like a sentence in a conversation. We hear it, reflect on it, change our view of the world in some way, and having changed, return to the conversation changed and ready to hear something else.
I guess that means I am more of a coffee shop person than the anechoic chamber type. Yet, there is a sense in which I understand the sound in the silence. For, when all else is silenced, there remains the sound of the relationship of God with the world, God’s love for me as an individual and for all of us and the world.
How would you describe the sound of life? Is it the sound of our relationships with each other and the world, or the sound of God’s constant presence and love? Or something else?
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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