Millions of people stream music on iTunes Radio, but overusing these services can be spiritually damaging. - Image courtesy of DalioPhoto (http://bit.ly/1gATF6T)

Tens of millions of people stream music on iTunes Radio, but overusing these services can be spiritually damaging. – Image courtesy of DalioPhoto (http://bit.ly/1gATF6T)

Apple’s answer to Pandora hasn’t produced a spike in music sales like some predicted. According to a new report by Music Forecasting, iTunes Radio listeners use the service for a “lean back” listening experience and don’t want anything—even purchasing a song—to interrupt it.

Having recently relocated to New York City—the earbud capital of the world—I’ve learned to “lean back” with regularity. Walking to the coffee shop where I write. To and from the subway. Even standing in my kitchen making a sandwich. Apple’s curated tunes have become a ubiquitous presence in my life, helping me block out the world by flooding my head with something more melodic and presumably more gratifying than noises I might otherwise encounter.

That’s why I’ve come to believe that iTunes Radio is actually bad for our souls.

Dutch sonographer Floris Van Manen argues that noise is a drug that modern society is feverishly addicted to. It stimulates, distracts, whisks us away to another place and time. From commercials to street sounds to 24-hour news channels blaring in every airport and doctor’s office waiting room, we’re almost never without it. When we open the app, select a genre, and push play, we’re able to take the reins and dictate the sounds we’re subjected to.

One overlooked spiritual consequence of our noise addiction is a failure to hear spontaneous sounds. By tightly controlling and curating what we hear, we may block out everything else and muffle the God-messages sewn throughout the fabric of the world.

As I shuffle through the city bobbing my head to the latest hits, I rarely notice the sounds of chirping birds or cooing pigeons as I pass a park. But I’m also avoiding the feathery reminders that I serve a detail-oriented God. If God notices when a single fowl falls, how much more does that God watch over me?

The autumn leaves fall and rustle as the wind whips, but I’m unaware of their presence. I’ve got Local Natives blaring in my head, stiff-arming a spiritual lesson about divine rhythms: God uses death to bring life. When I’m forced to release a self-centered aspiration or unhealthy habit, it hurts. Maybe the pain would be mitigated by receiving the spontaneous sounds swirling around me.

This works in the opposite direction as well, chasing away the undesirable sounds. Thanks to Apple’s Top 50 playlist, I don’t have to hear the cries of that woman at the table next to me who needs someone to stop and listen. I’m not subjected to the barrage of homeless people asking for money or food. If I don’t hear their pleas, I don’t feel guilty for not helping. Goodbye, inconvenience. With the push of a button, I’m able to live a day free from conviction and obligation.

But perhaps the most significant spiritual side effect of our noise addiction is the growing fear of silence. According to a recent study of nearly 600 young people conducted over six years, the constant exposure to “intentional sound” has created “a mass of people who fear silence.”

No one needs to tell us this is true. We feel it in our fingers, as they tap a desk frantically. Or our vocal cords, humming to fill the air with something of our own making. When silence floods a room, it brings with it an eerie discomfort. So we drive it away by self-medicating with noise.

In my forthcoming book, “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined,” I decided to explore the value of spiritual silence. So I trekked to a Benedictine monastery in the New Mexican desert and took a 60-hour vow of silence. Reflecting on the event, I wrote these words,

Inhabitants of the modern world often fear silence and solitude. Having bathed in chaos, these spaces become a kind of wilderness or uncharted frontier.  We run from soundlessness because it makes us most uncomfortable….[But] for the Christian, silence is more than an effort to retreat from noise. It is an opportunity to lean into God. To sense His presence in life, to notice the contours of His intervention, to express our reliance on Him.

Jesus knew importance of intentional quiet when discerning God’s voice, and we have a record of Him seeking it out more than half a dozen times. Isaiah prophesied, “In repentance and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and trust.” After Paul was converted, he went to Arabia for a quiet retreat of his own. Christian history reveals that generations of Jesus-followers have practiced silence often.

How many of us take time regularly to flee the noisiness of life? To embrace the discomfort of silence? To listen for the voice of the Holy?

Thomas Merton once remarked, “Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to Him, being attentive to Him, requires a lot of courage and know-how.” It’s a strange thought that silence requires courage; that we’d have to muster guts to enter the absence of noise; that offering a temporary “no” to the clatters and clamors of life requires the same emotion needed to jump out of a plane.

Listening to music can also be spiritually uplifting, so I won’t be throwing my earbuds away anytime soon. I won’t be deleting my iTunes account. And I don’t want to institute another rule Christians have to live by. (Lord knows we have created enough of those already.) But I think Merton is right. I think Jesus and Isaiah and Paul were onto something. Learning to embrace silence or even the spontaneous sounds of life is as difficult as rowing upstream. But it is worth it, and we should try it more often.

14 Comments

  1. Silent meditation is wonderfully relaxing, certainly.
    But what does God have to do with it? I don’t get it.

    I feel like I’m being bullied into connecting silence to God
    while being bullied to turn off my iPod, also.
    And I don’t know why.

    • Christianity is not the ultimate authority on how to meditate. Christianity also does not specify that silence has to equal God or that seeking silence is a purely Christian practice by definition. Whether you belong to any sort of religious tradition or not, you can meditate about whatever you like in any manner that you would like.

      You are not being bullied into anything. You have merely been given some food for thought about meditation from a Christian perspective.

    • Michael H Constantine

      Atheist (for the moment?) Max,

      Of course silence, on its own, is restoring and renewing, and God does not have to have anything to do with it. But for those of us who believe in him deeply and truly, we find he uses silence to help us recalibrate our lives, to pay attention, and to find a deeper place in our existence. So for us the silence itself is not the goal. Neither is our inner harmony. The God we believe in is the goal.

      About music. Personally, I use music in a similar way: not to drown out the world around me, but to help me concentrate on the task at hand. but I must be a little choosy. Bach helps me; Bartok, not so much.

  2. I like this. I know that I am being called “be still”, but am frankly doing a terribly poor job of it. I’ve been thinking lately that even putting on my favorite worship songs, in an attempt to draw close, is not the rest I am being called to. It’s a distraction. It allows me to push aside the painful places I know God is wanting to go into.

    Rest. Stillness. Silence. Yeah, it takes courage to go there.

  3. Hear, hear! I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I have learned to cherish my early morning walks because of the silence. And, although there are great, meaningful books, music, etc that I could be listening to, I chose to be earbud free–at least for that hour. I’ve learned to love that silence and find that it’s the best time for me to meditate or be receptive to God’s direction.

  4. I enjoyed your thoughts on silence. I rather enjoy silence myself. How else can I truly communicate with God if not in silence? I’m usually home most of the day by myself, so there is mostly a lot of silence except for the occasional chihuahua barking at the neighbor, until my kids get home from school. This gives me plenty of time to read my Bible in quite and pray and LISTEN for God to speak to me. When I’m in the car I don’t always have music on because I like to listen to the silence to pray or listen for God. But , when my kids get in the car, every single time they put in their headphones. Their rarely is conversation because they are listening to their music. If they don’t have their phone and I have the radio/music off, it drives them crazy. They can’t stand the silence. Why is this?

  5. In my case, however, things like iTunes Radio actually help me focus.

    I’m one of the odd human beings who has abnormally sharp hearing; although my mid-range has been damaged over the years, my high-end and my low-end both extend into the canine range (yes, I can hear dog whistles).

    Because I have a greater-than-normal range of hearing, I can hear sounds that are inaudible to the average person; sounds that are just at the fringe of audibility for a normal person, meanwhile, are often quite loud to me.

    On one hand, this can be beneficial at times. For example, my cell phone makes a high-pitched squeal whenever it is almost done recharging. Whereas some people I know would be constantly checking on their phones, I just have to listen for the squeal, thereby saving me time and frustration.

    On the other hand, this can be something of a nuisance at times, like when I’m sitting near someone who is eating with their mouth open and who is refusing to acquiesce to proper manners.

    For the latter, I usually get some music going in order to mask such sounds, thereby allowing me to focus on whatever it is that I’m doing.

  6. angie hardin

    I believe this. I love silence today. I crave it. But there was a time when I had to have noise to drown out how bad I felt inside. When i worked at a treatment center for addictions one of the first things we did upon someone arriving was remove all their electronics, including ipods. They had to face themselves and connect with God. Its a painful process for many. I dont want to go back to that place where silence was such an ugly nightmare. To me today its priceless.

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