Silence, by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Many years ago, the great historians of the French Annales school complained that scholars spend far too much time dealing with the elites and their wars and very little on the crucial matters of ordinary everyday life. Why, they asked, do we have no histories of death, of childhood, of old age? Today, of course, we have many such narratives. But Christian history still has a lot of room for such grand thematic questions, and Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch presents one in his history of silence. The book, which grows out of his 2012 Gifford Lectures, is a triumph. It challenges and will transform readers’ attitudes on a host of subjects that they may think they know well. Unusually for a work of scholarly history, it may also reshape readers’ spiritual and devotional lives.

The scale of MacCulloch’s ambition and the vastness of his topic are apparent from the titles of the book’s four main sections: “The Bible,” “The Triumph of Monastic Silence,” “Silence Through Three Reformations” and “Reaching Behind Noise in Christian History.” Unsurprisingly, he shows himself thoroughly accomplished in the scholarship of every era of Christian history, and his range of cultural references is deeply impressive.

MacCulloch discusses the familiar topics of meditation and contemplation, but also such controversial aspects of silence as deception, dissimulation, discretion, secrecy, denial, concealment, cover-up and oblivion. Someone who urges you to “keep quiet about this” rarely means well. In a human interaction, your silence may signify awe and rapt contemplation, or it could indicate guilt or confusion. It might reveal stupor or wonder, but it can also make you look stupid. The word dumb has a complex history.