Read: Silence: A Christian History

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Article Reviews

By Diarmaid MacCulloch (Viking Adult, 2013)

Surely Diarmaid MacCulloch appreciates the irony that after publishing the gargantuan Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, the next theme he turns his considerable scholarly attention to is silence.

In Silence: A Christian History MacCulloch once again leads readers through two millennia of Christian history, tracing the use of silence from the noisy Jewish scriptures through the remarkable silences of Jesus in the gospels, and then of Syrian and Egyptian monasticism in the developing church. He continues to track the contrasting patterns of silence and speech during the Reformation, and finally goes on to describe some of the dark silences that have plagued the modern church.

Throughout, we learn that Christian silence has never been simple, particularly within the supposedly silent Christian tradition of monasticism. While the Carthusians, living in cells, are silent almost without exception, another medieval religious order—the Dominicans—quickly became known as the Order of Preachers, and carry the acronym O.P. next to their names to this day.

While a reader might think this volume would give the author a platform from which to assail the shameful silences of the beleaguered modern church, MacCulloch is too conscientious a scholar for this tack. And though he does take aim at the church’s dubious response to the Holocaust and its reprehensible handling of the modern sex abuse scandal, he always does so with a historical consciousness which shows us our ability to manipulate shameful truths—and often to forget them entirely.

As a historian, MacCulloch acts as a guardian of memory, showing us how the glory of silence has led our spiritual forbears toward God, even as a very different silence now pushes some away.

This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 2, page 51).