Thursday, May 14, 2015

Sotto Voce

In music the Italian term “Sotto Voce”, is used to denote a softening of sound for effect. For example after a loud section is played, the conductor may tell the musicians to lower the volume or slow the rhythm. When this happens people notice, for the contrast is obvious and dramatic.

Though this term is used almost exclusively within music and the arts, I believe that it can be useful in describing the way that Christians should approach the world. Over 100 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt famously opined, “speak softly and carry a big stick”.  He was arguing for a “sotto voce” international diplomacy.

The world today is very loud and chaotic. Everywhere people yell, belittle and mock. Those with strong opinions are placed on television “news” shows where they argue their positions. Too often a shouting match ensues. Though people are free to disagree, the arguments are cast in such a light that the disagreeing person is deemed untruthful. Echo chambers are the result, as all those who agree on a certain policy or idea or placed on one side of the debate, and those on the other side are shut out of the conversation.

At the same time Christianity seems to be attacked with greater ferocity than it has in a long time. Across the world, Christians are witnessing the rise of a violent type of Islam leading to an increased intolerance and hostility.  Atheists, no longer content to remain in the background, have become more assertive of their rights. Even those who profess a belief in God often have become critical of the perceived injustices committed by Christians, who are now often seen as judgmental and intolerant. 

For the ground has now shifted. The default position in America—and really for most of the world—was that God existed and was interactive. This was understood, by us as referring to the Christian God. Billy Graham exemplified this ethos: Protestant, evangelical, scholarly in its use of reasoned arguments while not overly intellectual, but instead having a mass appeal that promoted personal responsibility and civic engagement.

That is no longer the case. Increasingly today traditional religion is viewed either suspiciously or anachronistically. From its long-established positions on marriage and family to its theocentric understanding of cosmology – which lies with conflict with the prevailing “climate change” debate— established religion in America seems to be imperiled.

With the constant bombardment of social media everyone has a voice. The helpful and uplifting is being heard alongside the hurtful and degrading. In such a reality, the loudest, strangest, and most assertive voices get noticed.

Yet there is another way—sotto voce!

As someone who easily feels overwhelmed, I know the benefit that quiet can bring. It can bring calmness and alleviate anxiety and tensions. It can help in procuring peace.

Sotto voce is more than just a way of talking. It is a way of living counter-intuitively: calm, intentional and full of humility. A sotto voce person seeks harmony, for they relish the simple and beautiful, in much the same way that young children view the world with awe and joyfulness.

A Sotto voce outlook seeks permanence, and so it is more attracted to the sounds of birds and puppies, as these will always remain, than to those of cars and machinery, for in time they will pass away.

Sotto voce is not passive. It does engage the world. Yet it does so, in its own way. Somehow though  its message is heard