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Spirit & Sound, Part 1: The Sound Breath Makes

“The pneuma blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it.” (John 3:8)

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound. . . ” (Acts 2:1-2)

One of the scribes . . . asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel . . . ’ ” (Mark 12: 28-29)

This past semester I’ve been privileged to be “Scholar in Residence” at the Rabbit Room. My ordinary full-time job is Professor of Theology at Belmont University, but this semester I’ve been on sabbatical, engaged in research and writing. Even “mental work” has to happen in a place however, and so I’m very grateful to the Rabbit Room for providing me with someplace to set up my desk and do my research. For the first several weeks (before social distancing) my residency also meant that I got to spend each day around the wonderful group of funny, creative, and good-hearted people who make up the Rabbit Room staff. It’s been terrific, and encouraging to be part of such a remarkable community! When I return to Belmont in the fall, I’ll have to provide the university with some account of how I’ve spent my sabbatical. (This is the faculty version of the “How I spent my summer vacation” essay you had to write in Middle School.) It’s occurred to me that in the same way, it might be good to offer the Rabbit Room some report of how I’ve used the space they have so generously provided.

The big project I’ve been working on during my residency is a book on the “pneumatology of sound”—a phrase (I recognize) that is illuminating to pretty much no one. So to clarify, first of all: in Christian theology, “pneumatology” is the study of the Holy Spirit (“pneumatology” coming from “pneuma”—the Greek word for Spirit).

And what does the Holy Spirit have to do with sound particularly? Good question.

Each of my children went through a phase when they were fascinated by names. At some point each discovered that names—which at first just seem like brute facts of the world—must be given, and so, could have been other. “Noah” could have been called “Joseph” or “Doug.” “Lucy” could have been called “Ella.” That’s mind-bending enough for a four year-old. But it suggests something more besides. If the same person could have had some other name, then the name she has must have been chosen for a reason. And in fact that is the case. We name our children (or our pets, or maybe even a car, a house, or a guitar) in order to affirm something, or remember someone, or to offer a vision for the life ahead of the one being named. Sometimes names have stories attached to them, and these can tell us about the name’s bearer. (“Your middle name is Steven,” I would tell my son Joel, “because that’s my name. My middle name is ‘Richard,’ because that’s my father’s name. And my father’s middle name is ‘Earl,’ because that was his father’s name.”) Sometimes names also have “meanings” rooted in an etymology or a more personal association. (“‘Joel’ means ‘The LORD is God,’ and your mother wanted to name you that, because . . .”). So my kids asked their questions, sensing that knowing more about someone’s name might also help them know more about the one named.

That intuition seems entirely right to me, and it brings me back to the “pneuma” in “Pneumatology.” In a very famous biblical passage, Jesus explains the activity of the Holy Spirit by reflecting on the name “Spirit” (pneuma). The Jewish leader Nicodemus has come to visit Jesus by night, and has just asked how someone can be born a second time.

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit (pneuma). What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit (pneuma) is spirit (pneuma). Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind (pneuma) blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (pneuma). —John 3:5-8, NRSV, altered

I’ve highlighted the places where some form of the Greek word pneuma appears, because the exchange depends on the various meanings of that word. As the footnotes in most study Bibles will tell you, Pneuma can be translated not only “Spirit” but as “breath” or “wind.” (Interestingly the same is true of the Hebrew word ruach and indeed, the Latin spiritus.) But Jesus isn’t just engaging in casual wordplay here. “Pneuma/Spirit” and “pneuma/Wind” are not just homonyms—like a “plane” that flies through the sky and a “plane” a carpenter draws over a piece of wood. Rather, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the activity of the pneuma is pneuma–like. There is a wind-like, breath-like character to the Spirit’s activity. As we’ve already said, names are chosen for a reason, and sometimes they tell us something important about the bearer of that name. Spirit—ruach in the Old Testament, pneuma in the New—is the name scripture has given us for the third person of the Trinity. And I think that this name is meant to tell us something about who and how the Spirit is. That’s what’s going on in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.

So, in just what way is the Holy Spirit “breath-like” or “wind-like”? Consider the words of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the Giver of Life Who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets. —The Nicene Creed

Two of the activities mentioned here are very clearly connected with the “breath-like” character of the Spirit’s work. First of all, as the Breath of God the Spirit is the “Giver of Life.” We see this in Genesis 2, where the dust of the earth becomes a living being through the breath of God. The same connection between Spirit, breath, and life appears throughout scripture. (One example is Job 34:11: “If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all humanity would perish together and return to the dust.”)

In addition to this life-giving work, the creed indicates that the Spirit speaks (“He has spoken through the prophets”). This is another action that clearly points to the Spirit’s breath-like character. Throughout the scriptures we see the Spirit bringing life; and in the same sort of way, throughout the scriptures, when the Spirit shows up, there is speech. Indeed, when we talk about the prophetic messages, or the giving of scripture in general, we describe this in terms of “in-spira-tion.” The prophets are breathed into. (2 Peter 1:21 says, “Prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”)

That I live by the Breath of God means that God not only wants me to exist; God wants me to say something. Steve Guthrie

If this is true of the prophets, it’s true of Jesus’ words as well. At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus announces (reading from Isaiah): “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. . . to proclaim freedom for the prisoners. . .to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19). The Breath of the Spirit carries Jesus’ voice out in proclamation. Significantly, it is not until after he is anointed with the Spirit in the Jordan River that Jesus begins his ministry of preaching. Jesus promises his disciples that the same Spirit will likewise enable them to speak. At his ascension, he tells his followers to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, because (he explains) it is “when the Holy Spirit comes on you” that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Bearing witness to the gospel in this way will mean that his followers will be dragged before rulers and authorities, but Jesus reassures them: “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20, cf. Luke 12:11-12) This is a promise we see fulfilled throughout the book of Acts: “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them . . . ” (Acts 4:8) In the same way, we’re told that members of the synagogue “could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave [Stephen] as he spoke,” (Acts 6:10). In each instance, the Breath of God enables speech. The place where this connection is probably clearest is at Pentecost (Acts 2). The Spirit is poured out on the apostles and immediately there is speech; and not just speech, but profligate prodigies of speech, welling up and bursting the banks of communication, spilling out in a profusion of tongues.

Drawing all of this together, we can say that as the Breath of God, the Spirit is not only the “Life-Giver,” but is also the “Word-Bringer.” The supreme instance of this of course is when the Spirit brings not only words from God, but the One who is the Word of God:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” —Matthew 1:18-20 (see also Luke 1:35)

All of this goes some way to explaining why we might undertake a “pneumatology of words” or a “pneumatology of speech.” The Spirit is the Word-Bearer; the Breath of Inspiration; the One who speaks through the prophets. But why a “pneumatology of sound”? That’s a good question as well, and one I’ll take up in another post.

For now though, it’s worth pointing out how these twin activities of the Spirit—life and speech—point to the generosity of God and the generativity of his goodness. For one of the most basic and obvious facts about respiration (re-spiration) is that breathing in is followed by breathing out. God, in other words, not only desires to send his Breath out into the world, he likewise desires that we should send our breath out into the world as well. (Or perhaps better: God desires that we should breathe His breath back into the world, mingled with our own.) The biomechanics of respiration mean that God wants us to be not only receivers of life, but givers; not only the objects acted upon by God, but agents acting upon the world as well; not only those who are breathed upon, but those who breathe upon others.

But we can say more than this. The very means by which God gives us life also gives us a voice. The breath God puts into us flows out from us again, and as it does, it brings sound with it; not just the sound of God’s breath, but the sound of God’s breath in my lungs, passing through my vocal cords, resonating in my physical person. That I live by the Breath of God means that God not only wants me to exist; God wants me to say something. The Word that speaks all things into being in the beginning wills that there should be other, created words resonating in creation along with it. And he gives life to us in just such a way that this comes about as a matter of course.

So, a pneumatology of sound begins here. The life of the world flows from the Breath of God, and the sounding of the world does as well. Every breath that passes my lips testifies to my intimate dependence upon God. Every sound that reaches my ears testifies to the generosity and humility of a God who not only speaks, but wants to hear his creatures speaking.


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