Wrong Kind of Noise

Marina Warner

  • BuySilence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch
    Allen Lane, 337 pp, £20.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 1 84614 426 4

By a bizarre twist, G.K. Chesterton may be en route to sanctity: it was reported in August that the Bishop of Northampton has begun a suit for his canonisation. Diarmaid MacCulloch doesn’t invoke Chesterton’s miracle-working powers, but he opens this expanded version of his 2012 Gifford Lectures with a Father Brown story, ‘The Oracle of the Dog’: by howling at a certain time, the animal gives the priestly sleuth the clue to the murder weapon. Chesterton was consciously taking off from an earlier tale, Conan Doyle’s ‘Silver Blaze’, in which a guard dog fails to bark when a racehorse is killed and Holmes rightly deduces that the animal didn’t raise the alarm because he knew the criminal. The reader of these opening anecdotes in Silence: A Christian History senses that MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford and one of the most lucid and authoritative TV historians ever, would prefer to stand by like the original dog, a quiet and eloquent witness to the hubbub and hurly-burly of the world’s crimes, but has always felt compelled to make his voice heard. When he was young and first realised he was gay, he had to sing dumb, of course. Later, he began training for the priesthood, but when the silence about sexuality continued, he refused to accept the pretence and left. MacCulloch doesn’t exactly go in for howling, but he is a stringent analyst of Christianity and he speaks out, determinedly, calmly and broad-mindedly.

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