Learning to Hear Again in a World of Noise:

Michael S. Horton
Tuesday, January 2nd 2001
Jan/Feb 2001

Listening is a difficult business these days. We live in a talk-show culture that makes everybody's opinion as good as anyone else's, where the now arrogant vice of believing in the true, the good, and the beautiful has been replaced with the apparent virtue of following the useful, the preferred, and the stimulating. Seducing distractions are everywhere. The New Yorker magazine writer John Seabrook calls it the "Buzz" that is produced by "the culture of marketing, the marketing of culture." Seabrook offers a snapshot of the Buzz in his own experience, standing in the middle of Manhattan:

The air was fuzzy with the weird yellow tornado light of Times Square by day, a blend of sunlight and wattage, the real and the mediated-the color of Buzz. Buzz is the collective stream of consciousness, William James's "buzzing confusion," objectified, a shapeless substance into which politics and gossip, art and pornography, virtue and money, the fame of heroes and the celebrity of murderers, all bleed. In Times Square you could see the buzz that you felt going through your mind. I found it soothing just to stand there on my way to and from work and let the yellow light run into my synapses. In that moment the worlds outside and inside my skull became one. (1)

Is it possible that we in the Church have mistaken our cultural obsession with this Buzz of the new and improved for the presence of the Spirit? And what can we do to become good listeners again? First, I'd like to refer to Seabrook's marvelous way of capturing the cultural shifts that have contributed to making our lives so noisy and dependent on the latest and greatest. Then we will return to Scripture and the wisdom of the faithful.

What's All the Buzz About?

Seabrook uses the "dumbing down" of the New Yorker magazine as an illustration of the more general phenomenon, and much of what he says in this regard has easy parallels in the Church. This involved "wading a little bit deeper in the vast, tepid swamp of Buzz, with its surrounding cedar bogs of compromise." Despite his analysis, Seabrook's book, Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing-The Marketing of Culture, is not a jeremiad against contemporary culture, but an insightful and often sympathetic exposé. Turning each page, I found numerous applications to Church life. For instance, he says that "the real problem was that the culture of the writers and the culture of the ad people were too disconnected from each other to have much in common." We are used to blaming theology for differences and divisions among us, but theology has little to do with things these days, at least in explicit terms. The real problem is not that there are people who hold to this theology over that theology, but a hostility to any theology. The culture of the educated exegete (the writers) is increasingly disconnected from the culture of ecclesiastical entrepreneurs (the ad people).

Seabrook charts the seminal shifts: "The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was 'good' in the sense of 'valuable,' were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill is to define 'good' in terms of 'popular.'" A "hierarchy of hotness has replaced the older hierarchy of value, and there is no such thing as poor taste any more, just different tastes. (2) Listing specific examples of the New Yorker's decline, Seabrook says, "Articles became much shorter, their deadlines were firm, and their publication was pegged to Buzz-making happenings." (3) We could replace "articles" here with sermons, especially in the light of his next sentence: "Doing stories that were topical, trying to get the public's attention, trying to be controversial, trying to sell magazines … became the norm." (4) Seabrook himself came to appreciate pop music: "Pop was goofy, fun, sweet, open, honest, but at the same utterly fake." "Without pop culture to build your identity around, what have you got?" Seabrook asks. Buzz, otherwise known as pop culture, has "by its nature abhorred distinction and consumed all single points of view." (5) This is also readily apparent in contemporary Church life.

Seabrook contrasts the world of the town house in which he was raised by "middle-brow" parents in New York and the world of the megastore. Again, as you read this, just insert "traditional church" and "contemporary church" in the place of the town house and the megastore:

In the town house was symmetry, in the megastore multiplicity. In the town house was quiet, in the megastore cacophony. In the town house was the carefully sequestered commercialism of my father's world, in the megastore the rampant commercialism of mine. In place of New Yorker distinctions between the elite and the commercial, there were MTV distinctions between the cult and the mainstream. In the town house, quality was the standard of value; in the megastore, the standard was authenticity. In the town house you got points for consistency in cultural preferences; in the megastore you got status for preferences that cut across the old hierarchical lines. In the town house there was content and there was advertising. In the megastore there were both at once. The music videos were art-music videos offered some of the best visual art on television-but videos were also, technically speaking, ads for the music, and the money to make them came from the music industry or the artist, not from MTV. (6)

So what's the Buzz about? Nothing. Or, more precisely, it's about itself. The music video is about (i.e., an ad for) the product: the album. The evening news need not be about noteworthy events in the world, but merely about the event of "reporting" it. Advertising need not be about products, but merely create a consumer experience. And when the Buzz comes to Church, worship need not actually be about God and what he has done, is doing, and will do to and for us, but need only be about itself. "Let's just praise the Lord." What Lord? And why? Never mind all that theology: Let's just enjoy the "worship experience."

If the Buzz isn't about anything, what's the point? Stimulation. The consumption of experiences, audiovisual candy. So what is the alternative? Let's turn from critique to construction, as we attempt to answer that question.

Reel Time-A Time to Listen

When we think about who God is and who we are by comparison, it is remarkable that he not only has time for us but that he has invited us-uniquely among his creatures-to enter into his everlasting hours. It is probably apparent by now that I am trying to introduce the controversial subject of the Christian Sabbath or Lord's Day. The Lord's Day has always occupied a place of prominence in the piety of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, although it has fallen on hard times in our circles as in others.

There are few subjects that are more richly practical especially in the light of our concern for becoming better at hearing God and seeing his action in our lives. Christians often say these days, "I know it's important to get to know God and to understand the Scriptures. I'd even like to dig into a bit of lay theology, but there's just no time." That is just the practical problem that this issue addresses: God has provided a time not only for us to enjoy him, but for him to enjoy us. It is the glad day of rest in a restless world. Allow me to first present the biblical-theological development of this theme and then settle on some concrete applications.

The Sabbath was instituted by God in the Garden of Eden, where he invited Adam into his communion and imitation of his own reign. This is one of the most astonishing aspects of this institution. Far from being an aloof, "wholly Other" deity, God is eager to be in the company of human beings whom he created in his own image. This is why he created Paradise, with its order, productivity, justice, and harmony-a "living room" where he could dwell with his image-bearers and they could dwell safely with him.

The Sabbath was the enthronement of the Alpha-Creator as the Omega-Consummator, the Beginning and the End. As professor Meredith Kline observes, "God sets forth his creative acts within the pictorial framework of a Sabbath-crowned week and by this sabbatical pattern he identifies himself as Omega, the One for whom all things are and were created, the Lord worthy to receive glory and honor and praise (cf. Rev. 4:11)." (7) Creation must not be viewed in static terms, as if there was nothing more, nothing better, ahead. This impression is often given when we think of the Consummation (viz., the return of Christ and the new heavens and new earth) as a return to Eden. But Adam, as the federal head of the human race, was on probation in Eden. Although created righteous, he was capable of rebelling. Had Adam not sinned, he would have won the right to eat from the Tree of Life, but as it turned out, God posted heavenly guards at the entrance to that tree after the fall. No one but the true and faithful Adam could have eaten of that tree, for himself and those whom he represented.

Therefore, right from the beginning, all of history was moving toward the Consummation-the state of living beyond the possibility of sin and death and sharing God's Sabbath rest with him forever. We see this fleshed out throughout the development of redemptive history, right up to the end, where in Revelation-because of Christ's fulfillment of the probation, all of those who are in him are given the right to finally eat of that Tree of Life (Rev. 2:7; 22:1-5).

In its character, therefore, the Sabbath is not cessation from activity, but cessation from a particular kind of activity-namely, the six-day labor that is intrinsically good but has suffered the curse after the fall. God did not rest because he was tired; rather, it is the rest of completion, the rest of a king who has taken his throne. Representing the Consummation, this sabbatical pattern was the way of not only hoping for the new creation but of experiencing it and participating in its peace.

The Sabbath gave a pattern, a measurable meaning, to human existence, just as the festivals in Israel's history annually impressed the vertical-horizontal development of redemptive history after the fall. These are not opposed: the Resurrection, sufficient to move the Sabbath to Sunday, reverses the curse placed on creation because of man and represents the birthday of the new creation. Furthermore, it represents the privilege that we as creatures, not just as Christians, were meant to possess.

While the whole creation will with us one day be raised in newness of life, only human beings were created for fellowship with God. And one day, just as the kingdoms of the world will be made the kingdom of Christ, every day will be a Sabbath day, rest from sin, injustice, oppression, and suffering. One of writer Wendell Berry's "Sabbath Poems" captures this: "make your land recall/In workdays of the fields/The sabbath of the woods." The Sabbath gave rest to the land, to animals, to employees and employers and their families, anticipating the end of using the natural world and the beginning of our real enjoyment of it.

The ordinary week is a microcosm of God's "time," just as the temple in Jerusalem was a microcosm of God's heavenly "place." Like the week, history has a beginning and an ending. The Sabbath is the weekly link to both past creation and future consummation. Thus, it keeps us anchored to the order that God established before the fall as creatures sharing his image as well as stretching our necks forward, longing for our full entrance into the Sabbath day that the Second Adam already enjoys with God. As the Sabbath is to calendar time, the temple was to temporal space-anticipating the day when "the glory of God shall cover the earth," bursting the dimensions of both days and places. Humans having failed to enter God's rest in the beginning, will, because of Christ their forerunner, enter that rest at the last.

But unlike temple worship, the Sabbath was not a sacrament of the Church but an ordinance (like marriage, vocation, and the state) of creation and is not abrogated in the New Testament, but is strengthened and confirmed. The reinstitution of the Sabbath after the fall is actually very good news: It means that God still held out the hope of entering his rest. There was still a promise out there on the horizon, which they could taste weekly:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

As the fourth of the Ten Commandments that God gave his people at Sinai, the Sabbath institution was, after the Exodus, anchored not only to creation but to redemption. Notice how the version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy supplements the Exodus account. The prohibition is the same, but the rationale is slightly different: "And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day" (Deut. 5:15). So the Sabbath is rooted in both creation and, for the believer, redemption. It is part of our story: "I am the God who brought you up out of Egypt."

Let's look at a passage from Mark 2:

Now it happened that [Jesus] went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went his disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to him, "Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" But he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?" And he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also the Lord of the Sabbath" (vv. 23-28).

And Jesus confirmed this last remark by healing on the Sabbath (3:1-6).

The Pharisees had misinterpreted the Sabbath, since God had never prohibited works of necessity or mercy. The disciples were not working the fields but receiving God's provision to sustain their life-the very thing that the Sabbath itself signified. God's everlasting rest is not the cessation of activity, as the Pharisees seemed to view it: "My Father has been working until now," Jesus says, adding, "and I have been working." The Father and the Son are working redemption, which the healings represented. It is resting from creation-labor, not cessation from activity, that the Sabbath envisioned for us as well as God.

Jesus audaciously (as far as the Pharisees were concerned) claimed that he was the Covenant Lord who instituted the Sabbath in the first place. He, therefore, offers the authoritative interpretation of the Law. To turn the Sabbath into a burden is to utterly contradict its purpose, although to ignore it is surely to violate God's stated will and gracious invitation to enter into the blessings not merely of Adam's once-a-week rest, but into the Second Adam's eternal rest that is enjoyed "through a glass darkly" in this age through the Christian Sabbath.

"Today" is "the day of salvation," not simply one solar day, but "this age" in which the Spirit has reinstituted the Abrahamic covenant through its New Testament administration. This "today" is the time that God has allotted for us to enter into God's seventh day through the door that Jesus Christ has thrown open by his resurrection and ascension. He who is "the Resurrection and the Life" calls for his brothers and sisters to join him, to move beyond the six days of work into the seventh day of rest. And the sign of this was his resurrection on the day beyond the Old Testament Sabbath. Matthew's Gospel seems to go out of its way to make this connection: "Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb," but were greeted by the angel's glad announcement, "He is not here; for he is risen, as he said" (Matt. 28:1-6). Instead of pointing forward to the new creation, as the Old Testament Sabbath did, the arrival of the new creation in Jesus Christ signaled the beginning of God's everlasting week. What the Romans called Sunday was in fact the birthday of the new world. So decisive was this event that it shifted the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday and was now acknowledged as "the Lord's Day."

The Lord's Day, or the Christian Sabbath, reiterates continuity not only between Old and New Testaments, but between creation and redemption. The Lord's Day is the festival of the new creation to be treasured, a day not only that we set aside but that sets us aside. As children of this day, we proclaim that we are not our own but are bought with a price-the very rationale given in Deuteronomy. It is a weekly Easter Day, transforming our identity and relation to this age by that power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.

It is no less true in our day than it was in Israel's that the knowledge of God and participation in his covenant is easily crowded out by a love of the world. Now, as then, the Church loses its vision, its mission, and its power when it surrenders the Sabbath to "the world [that] is passing away" instead of to "the age to come." God has given us six days a week to labor and to participate in the good gifts of creation along with non-Christians, but the Sabbath belongs to the Lord.

While the Sabbath is to be observed, it is not to be observed with rigor, but with gladness. Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield captured this transformation of the Sabbath by its fulfillment when he wrote, "Christ took the Sabbath into the grave with him and brought the Lord's Day out of the grave with him on the resurrection morn." (8) Warfield observes how John stresses the Sabbath, noting Jesus' appearance to his disciples on "the first day of the week." His absence from the disciples fell between Easter morning and the next Sunday, when he appeared to the assembled disciples. There were four Sundays before the Ascension. "But there is an appearance at least that the first day of the week was becoming under this direct sanction of the risen Lord the appointed day of Christian assemblies." (9)

Let me conclude this defense of the Christian Sabbath with New Testament scholar Richard Gaffin's marvelous summary. God saw that all he made was "very good." "But he did not yet see the 'very best.' That was because even before he created, God had decided that 'the best of all possible worlds' was not to be at the beginning but at the end of history."

The Lord's day is about worship because it is first of all about the gospel. It is a sign, to the church and a watching world, that we 'are not our own' (1 Cor.6:19) but are depending on our God, not ourselves, to provide for us. It is a sign that our trust is not in ourselves and our own efforts as fallen sons and daughters of Adam, but in the perfect righteousness of the last Adam and in God's faithfulness to his covenant promise to do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves…The pattern of six days of activity interrupted by one of rest is a reminder that human beings are not caught up in a meaningless flow of days, one after the other without end, but that history has a beginning and ending and is headed toward final judgment and the consummation of all things. (10)

In other words, the regular observance of the Sabbath keeps us oriented to God's drama of redemption and catches us up into it as the Spirit reconciles us to God through Word and Sacrament. On this day, we announce that we are expecting the redemption of the earthly creation and not merely of individual souls. The creation that has been in bondage to decay because of us will be liberated because of Christ. On this day, we announce to the world that when our Savior cried out, after his perfect works throughout his earthly life, "It is finished!", he had finally secured for his new humanity admission to the Tree of Life. The workweek completed, he now calls out through his ministry in this age, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-29).

Structuring Our Sabbath

Imagine a whole day of Christian proclamation, instruction, praise, fellowship, and edification. Our callings in the world often require occasional daylong or even weeklong "continuing education" seminars, and similarly Christian conferences in theology have sprouted up across the landscape in our time. But what if each week we could really "taste of the powers of the age to come" by sustained attention to what God has done, is doing, and will do for us by his Spirit in Jesus Christ? Wouldn't we become better parents, without hit-and-run sermons on parenting? Wouldn't we become mature worshipers without having our theological education crammed into a morning lecture? And wouldn't we develop deeper, richer, and more lasting relationships without requiring banal tips on making friends? Christianity cannot be inculcated merely through moral aphorisms or even through the statement and restatement of true propositions. It must be experienced regularly in a community that is in it for the long haul.

We rail against consumerism even as we belong to the teeming masses whose cars flood shopping mall parking lots on the Lord's Day. Isn't this precisely the sort of activity that God forbade the Israelites from engaging in, when six days of gathering the manna were, to their mind, not enough? Imagine how revolutionary it would be if a majority of Christians stopped shopping, working, or watching TV on Sunday? "I'd love to dig into the Scriptures, but I just don't have time-what with work and all." Given the statistics, many of us who say this have plenty of time for entertainment, shopping, sports, and the like. We would have to do no more than recover Sabbath practice in order to have enough time for growing in the grace and knowledge of our Savior.

We can take a break from consuming and engage in works of mercy. In fact, a practice in many of our churches is to visit the elderly in a nursing home on Sunday afternoons. As we refuse to surrender this day to the tyranny of the clock and the gods who amuse us, we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven and also proclaiming to the world that God is our refuge. Take the family on an afternoon walk and have them recite a Psalm that they have memorized while you point out to them the concrete beauties of God's creation, the signs of the fall, and the promise of redemption. Why not ask each of them to explain the sermon and then discuss its implications? You are teaching your family to turn off the Walkman and the whirl of the week, to stop and listen. They are becoming listeners to God's Word, integrating faith and life as they go.

There's one last practical note on the Sabbath. This day was given to us not because we are strong, but because we are weak. Many who might respond to the preceding arguments with the objection, "But every day is the Lord's day," do not actually set aside every day for sustained attention to the things of God. To be sure, there may be a brief moment of daily devotions and periodical prayers, but every day does not belong to the Lord, at least in part, because we have not discovered the enormous power of the Lord's Day to reorient our ordinary workweek. "But every day is the Lord's day" often leads to the unintentional consequence that no day is the Lord's day. As Dorothy C. Bass writes concerning the Lord's Day, "No other days can be the same, after this one." (11)

The Buzz is claiming us-though we are claimed already by Another, and it will increasingly come for our children and grandchildren. But we don't have to accept this as fate, any more than we simply accept any other truce with worldliness. More and more, we and our neighbors are captive to the whirl of the new and improved, the consumer world of endless choice and unchallenged preferences. We still like to be told, "You shall be as gods." But even if it were possible, we are no more justified in fleeing our time and place than any other generation of saints. It is not those who retreat into suspicious ghettos nor those who embrace as normal "the way things are" who will be called blessed of the Father, but those who are willing to take risks of faith and obedience. And while our responses will probably be marked by all three of these tendencies-even simultaneously, may God give us the grace that can shake off the fake yellow glow from the Buzz of a fading age and lustily sing,

Savior, if of Zion's city I, through grace, a member am,Let the world deride or pity, I will glory in Thy name.Fading is the worldling's pleasures, All his boasted pomp and show;Solid joys and lasting treasures None but Zion's children know. (12)

1 [ Back ] John Seabrook, Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing-The Marketing of Culture (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).
2 [ Back ] Ibid.
3 [ Back ] Ibid.
4 [ Back ] Ibid.
5 [ Back ] Ibid.
6 [ Back ] Ibid.
7 [ Back ] Meredith Kline, Kingdom Prologue, vol.1 (self-published) 26.
8 [ Back ] B. B. Warfield, John Meeter, ed., "The Sabbath in the Word of God," Selected Shorter Writings (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1970) 319.
9 [ Back ] Ibid.,320.
10 [ Back ] Richard Gaffin, Jr. "The Sabbath: A Sign of Hope," (Orthodox Presbyterian Church), 6.
11 [ Back ] Dorothy C. Bass, "Receiving the Day the Lord has Made," Christianity Today (March 6, 2000), 67.
12 [ Back ] John Newton, "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken," Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia, PA: Great Commission Publications, 1987), 269.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, January 2nd 2001

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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