Review: Silence – A Christian History

Posted 10 May, 2017 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

Silence: A Christian History
By: Diarmaid MacCulloch
Format/Source: Hardback; my purchase

In this essential work of religious history, the New York Times bestselling author of Christianity explores the vital role of silence in the Christian story.

How should one speak to God? Are our prayers more likely to be heard if we offer them quietly at home or loudly in church? How can we really know if God is listening? From the earliest days, Christians have struggled with these questions. Their varied answers have defined the boundaries of Christian faith and established the language of our most intimate appeals for guidance or forgiveness.

MacCulloch shows how Jesus chose to emphasize silence as an essential part of his message and how silence shaped the great medieval monastic communities of Europe. He also examines the darker forms of religious silence, from the church’s embrace of slavery and its muted reaction to the Holocaust to the cover-up by Catholic authorities of devastating sexual scandals.

A groundbreaking work that will change our understanding of the most fundamental wish to be heard by God, Silence gives voice to the greatest mysteries of faith.

I think I first heard of this book from a review or mention made by The Economist. The premise sounded really interesting–silence and religious orders do make up a facet of Christianity and Catholicism–so I had added it at the time. This was one of my whim buys as I did see it for a very good price at the bookstore earlier in 2016 and just snatched it up immediately. This is one of the last reviews I have leftover from 2016 😉

Before I continue, I must mention that I haven’t read his tome Christianity yet. I’m always on the lookout for a good compendium looking at the history of Christianity from its beginnings to the present, and I think this might actually fit the bill for me.

Having said that, I feel like Silence is a microcosm of that massive tome. MacCulloch covers all of Christianity’s history but focuses in on aspects of its history that focuses on silence and its role in Christian worship and organisation. I had a minimal understanding of the various factions that emerged in the early centuries of the Church and the rise of monastic and religious orders, so reading more in-depth about them was really cool and interesting; I learned a lot. On the other hand, it did feel like a condensed version of the history of Christianity because at times I would be reading about a topic–the Iconoclasm, for example–and be wondering what exactly did it have to do with the central thesis of this book. The segment on the Reformations were also a little out of place if it wasn’t for the fact that he mentioned how silence played into the new Protestant factions.

In addition, the last segment of the book that looked at the negative aspects and effects of silence was a bit of a mess and out of step from the rest of the book. I think this is because it stepped out of its chronological presentation, jumping back to the medieval period and jumping far ahead into our contemporary period. In addition, I can’t help but feel like at this point his use of silence has taken a broader scope outside of its religious context and into a more organisational/institutional use. The topics he touches on–the Holocaust and the clerical abuse scandals–are very important and serious topics, of course, but it is jarring in its presentation here considering the earlier focus on silence within the practice of faith.

Overall Silence was an informative book focusing on an interesting element of Christianity. The presentation could’ve been more condensed as it meandered out into a generalised look of Christian history at times, but nonetheless it’s a book to check out if you’re interested in Christian history and its monastic element/religious orders.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Learn more about the author on Wikipedia || Order a copy from the Book Depository

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