The song begins with the rat-a-tat of a snare drum before dropping the listener into a crashing sea of immensely distorted electric guitar, wavering and feeding back and wavering in and out of pitch. What is that sound? Can it really be that the guitarist is holding onto his whammy bar the whole time that he strums, creating that disorienting wow-wow-wow effect on purpose? Even at a low volume an uncharitable listener would surely describe it as mere noise. Played at normal levels it seems to be aiming at something entirely different than most works that we describe by using the word “music.” Then, at the end of eight bars (yes, there is a structure underneath it all), a voice begins to sing. The voice is gentle, soothing even, not at all the shouting we may have expected, and the melody is quite lovely. It’s a woman’s voice, soft and entrancing, threading its way through the unrelenting squall of the screaming guitar sounds.
The song is “Only Shallow,” by the noise pop band My Bloody Valentine, and like much of their music, I find it a weirdly inviting soundscape. The noise becomes a dreamlike backdrop, the singing serving as a call to find something beautiful in the most unlikely of places.
I find this sort of thing both amusing and invigorating. As I listen to the 1970s punk band the Ramones, with their driving rhythm guitars and almost deliberately lunk-like, unmusical vocals, and chuckle that their songs are basically a louder take on the surf music of the early Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. The noisy assault of the music is betrayed by the melodicism and childlike simplicity of the tunes.
A melody amidst the noise. Noise whose character is changed by the melody that is now inextricably bound to it. This is the incarnation of Jesus. It is also the biblical ideal of Christian witness.
The world is filled with its share of noise: literal noise, to be sure, but also figurative noise. Samples of the noise: the dissonant voices clamouring to be heard in the public sphere, the chaotic pace at which our attention is pulled from one thing to the next, the painful sound of relationships breaking apart, of terms of endearment affectionately spoken giving way to name-calling. Beneath it all, the noise of life’s peace being broken by the deafening thud of sin and death.
Sometimes the noise is just our confusion, our inability to grasp what we’re here for, how to navigate life. The noise is then like the “noise” of a television channel when the antenna is not properly adjusted, those gray and black and white pixels filling the screen where we know there ought to be a picture to see. So many of us, especially during times of stress, feel a little bit like we’re simply failing to tune the channel correctly.
Jesus has entered the world like a My Bloody Valentine melody wending its way through an oppressive soundscape and by some miracle changing everything around it. The world isn’t the same any more. Our wrongs are transformed because Jesus decided to lift our guilt and carry it on his own shoulders all the way to the cross. Our confusion is often still there, but it’s different because we know that somewhere not very far away there is the voice of Jesus. And the noisiest thing of all—death itself—has been changed irrevocably because of Jesus’ relation to it.
When the apostle Peter wrote a letter to the Christians of Asia Minor in the second half of the first century, he expected that their lives would be something like that melody in the middle of the noise. The new way of life of these followers of Jesus wasn’t going to match that of the society around them anymore. But their lives would be a gentle and inviting alternative to their surroundings. He expected that people would ask them questions about the way they lived, the hope that drove them. “Always be ready,” he wrote, “to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Their lives were to be a lovely melody line played against a backdrop that didn’t exactly match. Others would ask about that tune, and maybe even learn how to sing it themselves.
Maybe in time the noise itself would start to change, and begin to complement, bit by bit, that heavenly melody that is God’s triumph of life and flourishing and good—all of which are sung perfectly by Jesus—over death and disorientation and disarray.