One of the lesser-known paintings of the well-known American illustrator Norman Rockwell depicts an elderly couple, the white-haired man hunched eagerly over a table next to an early radio-phone, wearing a pair of headphones with a broad smile on his mustachioed face. Lying across his knee is a newspaper open to a page that headlines a radio listing featuring opera music. His wife is leaning in closely behind him, head inclined near to the man’s ear, trying to listen along to the sublime sound that is being made available to them through this amazing miracle of new technology.1
Back in the time when radio was quickly becoming the dominant electronic medium in everyday human existence, students of communication theory designated “noise” as anything that interfered with the ability to receive, send, or understand a message. They applied the concept of noise metaphorically to any kind of communication at the time: interpersonal conversation, radio transmission—even the print media that had preceded radio.
Noise could thus be a radio played too loud when you’re trying to express your thoughts to your teenager, a furious argument between your children when you’re hoping to listen to the radio weather report, a typographical error in a newspaper story, or the pulsing rhythm from the sound system of a passing vehicle when you’re attempting to read Psalm 23 for evening worship.
In addition to these more obvious applications of this metaphor, noise could also be such things as a jammed photocopier, a person speaking with a foreign accent, bad handwriting, downed telephone lines, radio static, a poor cable TV connection—anything that interferes with optimal communication of any kind.
And sometimes it may happen that message “A” is noise when you’re trying to receive message “B”! You are jarred awake at 2 A.M. by a seemingly urgent request (message “A”) from your 3-year-old in the room next door: “I’m thirsty. May I have a drink of water?” Just at that moment, however, the smoke alarm goes off (message “B”). And you are faced with the decision as to which message to respond to first. What is the priority?
That one is easy. What do you do, however, when you’re barraged with four, five, six, or more messages from several media all at once, and all of them of seemingly equal urgency—or sometimes the lack of it? You’re browsing through the Internet, and a Webpage comes alive with animated popups: “No Fees!” “Smart Update!” “Click Here!” “Free!” “What’s Cool!” “What’s Hot!”
Almost by its very nature, the impact of technology bursts outward, in every direction. And this has resulted in an explosion of information, what some have called a “data deluge.” “Information,” writes Quentin Schultze, “tends to overshadow knowledge and even wisdom—a problem I have called ‘informationalism.’”2 Every breakthrough seems to bring yet another whole category of information—much of it noise!
What’s the difference? you may be asking yourself, and you’re supposed to be able to access and respond fully only to the most important of the information that is out there. If, as Leonard Sweet has observed, today’s wealth is informational,3 then certainly there is the possibility of a great portion of it being counterfeit. And, if so, it could be worthless or even destructive.
Decades ago, T. S. Eliot anticipated the discrepancy that we face today between data and discernment:
“All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
(“The Rock,” 1934).
With such mind-numbing technological advances, noise itself has become the dominant message. “The media” wrote Glenn Ward, “are so saturated with information, and with so many different voices demanding to be heard, that it is no longer possible to know what you either know or want any more.”4 And Ward wrote this more than three decades ago—before Google, spam, Wikipedia, the blogosphere, Facebook, playlists, or Twitter. Clearly things have become, well, less clear since then.
Yet if Christians hope to find truth, if they hope to be able to communicate God’s love in today’s world, they cannot become Luddites. The apostle Paul tells us, “Test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21, italics supplied).5
This suggests that Christians should be fully conversant with the culture in which they live. Certainly the ministry of Paul himself indicates his familiarity with sports (1 Cor. 9:25; 2 Tim. 2:5), politics (Acts 26:3), philosophy (17:22), religion (vs. 23), and the arts (vs. 28).
And there is evidence that Jesus was informed by the news of His day and readily drew on current events to illustrate ideas. He referred to the recent collapse of a tower in Siloam, killing 18 people, asking if that accident had indicated the particular sinfulness of each of the victims (Luke 13:4, 5).
Scripture balances the benefit for awareness of culture, however, with the necessity of a healthy, analytical mind: “Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22). And it even offers counsel that could be considered pointedly appropriate in response to today’s data deluge: “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking” (Prov. 10:19, NKJV).
The Prophet Elijah was fully aware of the culture around him, and it had become alien to him. He felt surrounded and badly outnumbered, so much so, in fact, that he fled hearth and home for the comparative safety of Mount Horeb. There God found him hiding in a cave, and the ensuing discussion turned to the subject of noise.
“A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11, 12).
Elijah had fled because the noise in his culture was loud and threatening. In Ellen G. White’s description of the prophet’s times, she points out telling influences that are strikingly similar to those in today’s noise. She speaks of “the exaltation of the human above the divine, . . . the praise of popular leaders, . . . the worship of mammon, and . . . the placing of the teachings of science above the truths of revelation.”6 “It is publicly taught,” she says, “that we have reached a time when human reason should be exalted above the teachings of the Word.”7
The predominant messages in today’s technological wind, earthquake, and fire—as both subtle and as dramatic as they have become—must never be confused with God’s “gentle whisper.” Even when the noise may be related in some way to the spiritual life, there are surely times when it would be appropriate to exercise a prayerful, judicious use of the mute button.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/norman-rockwell/radio-phone. Accessed March 3, 2014.