The Sound of God

This afternoon, as I have many times before, I found myself walking by one of the mosques as the call-to-prayer sounded loudly around me from the speakers on the minaret.  I’ve mentioned this experience elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning again.  In fact, it’s one of the first things I think you notice about this country if you’re a foreigner unexposed to the Islamic world: that in any given city, five times a day, multiple mosques ring out a Qur’anic chant simultaneously as a reminder that it’s time to pray.  I still habitually wake up to the morning prayer around 4:45a.m., listen to it briefly, then fall back to sleep.

Christianity has much more of a visual focus.  We read the text more often than listening to it.  Our churches are iconic, the story of the crucifixion told in stained-glass or in marble sculptures.  We hold Bible studies that can focus on one parable, if not one verse.  Theologians can devote their lives to the meaning of one Greek or Hebrew phrase that has been widely debated, misinterpreted, or misunderstood.

But early Christian history wasn’t that obsessed with the visual power of a text.  In fact, the only evidence we have of Jesus writing happens in the sand (Jn 8:6), as though it was meant to be blown away and not have any lasting visual impact.  The Gospels and Paul’s letters were probably read out loud in one sitting, and stories may have been shared orally on the street or acted out in the marketplace where ideas were exchanged as easily as produce.

In the religious sphere of the ancient world, listening was at the forefront of the spiritual experience.  Multiple stories from the Torah, while depicting God visually, are more concerned with the sound of God rather than how God actually looks.  And so we “see” God as a burning bush but know the bush as divine by its voice.  Or we hear God calling prophets in the night.  Or speaking the world into being as God calls the day or the night good.  Even the Shema invokes the sound of God as it begins, “Hear, O, Israel.”

Maybe much of this stems from a world which inherited its stories before the advent of the written word.  Stories would pass around orally and aurally about the nature of God, but while Christianity has become more of a visual religion today, I find it interesting how heavily Islam has retained the power of hearing the divine.

The Qur’an itself is in many respect an oral text, meant to be heard and spoken.  There is power behind speaking it, as though it summons the divine presence.  In the same way Christians come to regard Jesus as God incarnate, the Qur’an has a kind of mystical power in which God enters the human sphere through the spoken words of this text.  Hearing the words of the Qur’an has been said to convert many believers who, simply by listening to the sound of the words, were overtaken, and in a kind of ecstasy, convinced of God’s presence in the world.

So, as I’m walking by the mosque, I’m sort of thinking about all of this, about the “sound of God,” so to speak, and my next thought is, “What does God sound like?”

Having grown up in the Bible-belt, whenever anyone mentioned Islam, it wasn’t usually mentioned in a positive context.  After 9/11, one too many times, I heard people say something to the effect of, “All I needed to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.”  Even recently, I’ve heard about anti-Muslim protests occurring in Southern California or congressional hearings against Muslim Americans, and when I do hear about these things, especially when they often came from people who call themselves ‘Christians,’ I just think, “No, that doesn’t sound like God at all.”

God doesn’t sound like bigotry.  Or hate.  Or racism.  There’s an unfortunate history, even in the Bible, of people trying to make God sound like that, but to me, God sounds a whole lot more like the call-to-pray, like the Qur’an, as I walk by on a cloudy afternoon than God will ever sound like a ‘Christian’ who holds a sign or shouts, “God hates Muslims.”

One of my favorite verses from the Bible instructs Elijah to go out to the edge of a mountain and wait for God to pass by as “a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but God was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak (I Kg 19:11-13).”

God shows up in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.  There are too many people out there, I think, who believe God will show up in a very specific way and to a very select group of people.  This Church, not that Church.  This religion, not that religion.  There’s so much hate and condemnation bound up in that theology.

So I plead with you.  If you encounter someone speaking ill-will toward Muslims, they are speaking ill-will toward me as a Christian, too.  Stop them.  Tell them you have a friend or a family member or you know some guy whose blog you read.  Tell them he lives and works with many amazing Islamic people everyday.  Tell them they’re wrong.  Tell them, “That’s bigotry, and I won’t stand for it.”  Tell them God doesn’t sound like that.  Let’s change our world, please.  I don’t want to live in a world where we continue spreading hate any longer, especially when there’s plenty of love we could spread instead.

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