Echo Chambers

An echo chamber is a room with sound-reflecting walls used for producing hollow or echoing sound effects.  It has uses in the study of acoustics or in making music or film soundtracks.  A couple of weeks ago, on Malta, I encountered an echo chamber, in a 6000 year old underground burial site, shaped like a temple, carved out of the rock.  One room in particular had the acoustic features of an echo chamber especially with deep voices.

But of course its metaphorical use is how most of us understand the phrase.  It means an enclosed world of opinion, argument and belief which is reinforced by only hearing things we already agree with, especially through social media.  Everyone, apparently, is in their own echo chamber: Brexiteers and those who long to stay in the EU; Trump-supporters and his opponents; Taylor Swift fans and the rest of the world.

It’s a newish term.  But perhaps it applies to a much older phenomenon.  Could religions be called echo chambers?  Enclosed worlds of belief and practice reinforced by hearing a narrow range of voices?

Consider the story from Nehemiah we heard earlier.  The people of Israel had been in exile, forcibly removed from their homeland to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar.  After about 70 years, when Babylon had fallen to the Persian King Cyrus, the Hebrews gradually began to return to Judah, and rebuild the destroyed city of Jerusalem.

Today’s Old Testament reading recounts a hugely significant act in that return and rebuilding: the gathering of the people together to hear scripture read.  The Bible – the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – were at the very heart of their faith and life.  The scriptures constitute them as a people: reading and hearing them signify who they are.  Hearing this reading today, on Holocaust Memorial Day, has a particular poignancy, given that the Holocaust attempted to obliterate this people, who they were, how they believed and lived.

Listening to the ancient words, and hearing them interpreted by trusted scholars, offers instruction, guidance and hope to the people, almost all of whom had been born far away, under a foreign power, among a different culture, language and religion.  It is arguable then that Ezra and Nehemiah were reviving an echo chamber to preserve and bolster the Jewish faith and people.  In passing, we should also notice the patience of the people.  The reading took about six hours. Sermons in Scotland have a reputation for being long but not that long.  The bracket on this pulpit was for an hourglass – so that the preacher would not go on for longer than the hour it took for the sand to go through the glass… twice.

The questions which come to mind today are: What of people of faith today?  Should we seek to live in a Christian echo chamber to preserve and bolster our faith?  Even if that sounds a little extreme, how should all of us navigate the astonishing range of opinion which clamours for our attention and loyalty?

It is tempting to create for ourselves a nicely sealed Christian echo chamber to reinforce our faith, attitudes and relationships to the rest of the world, by carefully controlling our input.  We could subscribe to Christian websites alone, choose only Christian friends, read fiction, watch films, listen to music from approved lists.  This may seem safe, avoiding the risk of contamination by other ideas.

And indeed there are churches which foster this carefully controlled environment within their community, avoiding excessive humidity, heat or cold from the outside world.  But it is so easy for these churches to fall into rather more concerning forms of control – over how we interpret scripture, whom we are friends with, how we should think about people of different genders, sexualities or approaches to life.  Shaming tends to happen within an echo chamber rather than across them.

In other words, the Christian echo chamber may be liable to the same dangers as the secular version: that by only listening to one narrow account of the truth, we fail to see where we go seriously astray.  We need the critique from outside, the voices of others, the stories of people who have not had the same experiences as our own.  There’s an old Jewish story of a prophet who kept on shouting his message all day every day.  When people asked him why, he said, “I know the people gave up listening to me long ago.  I shout in case I start listening to them.”   Like that prophet, we need to let some air into our hermetically sealed room.

That’s one way of understanding what happened when Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth.  A local boy, now an itinerant preacher, it seems he was invited to give the sense of the portion of scripture read that day, from Isaiah 61, about good news, renewed sight, freedom for the oppressed.  This prophecy had been read since about the time of Nehemiah and Ezra, for 500 years and more.  It was older then than Shakespeare is to us.  But on that day a new interpretation came, something that let in light and air and changed its meaning.  “Today,” said Jesus, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In other words, Jesus is anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.  What would be now is.  Jesus unlocks the echo chamber of Jewish hope.

And we go where he went.  Jesus did not stay within a community but encountered people whoever they were – Roman, Samaritan, Syro-Phoenician as well as Jewish.  He was friends with sinners.  He healed on the Sabbath.  His feet were washed by a woman’s tears, and dried by her hair.  He welcomed children.  He was utterly faithful to his Father, to his message of love and his life of compassion.  He did not create, offer or promise a safe chamber to confirm our beliefs.  Instead, he invites us to follow him wherever he goes.

It is the start of a new semester in St Andrews, and for some, the beginning of your time in this University.  It may well be your first time in this Chapel, or first time in a while.  St Andrews may be a small place, which people call The Bubble, but there is a cacophony of voices here.  There are your friends and flatmates, partners and professors who all influence you.  There are the Physicists and Philosophers, Economists and Ecologists who want you to think their way.  There are messages on TV, facebook, twitter and instagram which will say anything to create a longing in you, to sell you their product.  There are voices galore which denigrate the dignity of our common humanity, of our God-given lives.

How to navigate this town of three streets with near-ubiquitous wi-fi?  The Christian echo chamber approach doesn’t work.  We can’t live off-grid the secular world.  And it’s both boring and dangerous to try.  But if we want to follow Jesus, we need to listen for his voice.  It may be easier to discern it in the Bible, in prayer, in worship, in chapel.  We have a range of preachers in Chapel services, partly so that we are all open to different approaches to the faith.  And I encourage you to listen for God’s true and loving guidance in prayer, scripture and worship, as they did when rebuilding Jerusalem.

But we may also hear Jesus’ voice in less obvious places – in the poetry we study, or the mathematics.  In the friends we spend time with, no matter their philosophy of life.  In the newsfeeds we follow, as long as we don’t equate God with the Guardian, the Father with Fox News, the Son with CNN, or the Holy Ghost with the Huffington Post.  When we hear words of respect for creation, openness to love, the promise of forgiveness, the desire for reconciliation, the integrity of the human being, of honouring others in their uniqueness and their frailty – we may well be hearing the voice of Jesus.

And the more we listen for the voice of Jesus, the more we recognise it.  The psalmist, even older than Isaiah, knew the voice of God when he or she heard it.  It was sweeter than honey dripping from the honeycomb.  Who could resist such sweetness?  This semester, there’s no need to stay in a Christian echo chamber.  But let’s not give up on finding God’s sweetness, and enjoying it, and sharing it.