Synesthesia

“To Those Who Have Ears…”

Without opening your Bible, try to remember verses that refer to one of the five senses and faith. You will likely remember hearing passages easily:

  • John 20:29 – “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (NIV)
  • Rom. 10:14, 17 – “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? … faith comes from hearing the message…” (NIV)

Now try to remember seeing passages that refer to faith:

  • John 20:29 – “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (NIV)
  • Heb. 11:1 – “Faith is the evidence of things unseen…” (KJV)

It is difficult to find positive references to faith and sight in the New Testament. Similarly, the Old Testament also downplays the importance of sight. This goes back to the earliest moments of Genesis, when God speaks creation into existence. Or in Exodus, when Moses hears God’s voice but does not see his face. “Indeed, the Bible is extremely modest about God’s appearance–God is too holy for us to look at directly; rather than pleasing, like the glittering attraction of the pagan idols, the God of the Bible would be terrifying to our eyes.1)Stephen H. Webb, The Divine Voice: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2004), 47.  Instead, the Bible praises God’s voice, and consequently puts a premium on His word.

This audiocentric emphasis made the Jews unique amongst ancient people groups. Unlike the image-making nations around them, Jewish identity grows out of responding to a God you cannot see, but whom you can hear. Thus, “The Hebrews were a community of listeners because they thought they heard something something that no other group had…This belief that God had chosen them to listen to God’s speech set them apart from their more visually oriented neighbors.2)Webb., 48 As discussed earlier, God protects his people by suppressing the making of images in the second commandment: “Thou shall make no graven images…” Therefore it is possible to summarize the Old Testament as “God’s struggle to lead a language-centered people through the allurements of an image-dominated world.3)T. Reinke and C.J. Mahaney, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Good News Pub, 2011), Kindle Location, 664.

In light of this, it is fascinating that Moses gets to see the God who prohibits images, but only in a limited fashion. Normally, when we think of Moses, we imagine him talking directly with God. The truth is that he is allowed to see God’s back, but is denied the pleasure of viewing His face. Ironically, what Moses is deprived of becomes “the hope of every Jew… ‘The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace’ (Numbers 6:24—26).” 4)R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1985), 22.

In Jesus God’s Voice becomes Visible:

As we move into the New Testament, it is interesting how the disciples remembered Christ’s “voice much more than his appearance.” 5)Webb, 48. After all, it was his voice which amazed crowds, flattened soldiers, raised the dead, and calmed storms. Unlike other influential leaders throughout history, Jesus didn’t need to write anything down. His miracles were amazing, but it was his voice and teachings that transformed his followers.

Indeed, Jesus so embodies the spoken word that the Gospel of John calls him “the Word.” But we must remember that Paul adds another metaphor in Colossians 1:15 where Jesus is also called the “image of the invisible God.” Thus, in Jesus Christ there is no division between word and image. Rather, in Jesus God’s voice has become visible. Hebrews 1:1, 3 puts it this way, stating that “in the last days, God has spoken by his son…he is the exact representation of God’s being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

In this regard, it is accurate to say that Jesus is God’s voice in synesthesia, which means the union or crossover of senses. Occasionally people experience this phenomenon when there is unusual linkage or “crosstalk” between different parts of the brain. One form of synesthesia is called chromesthesia. Those with chromesthesia see colors or shapes when they hear sounds, voices, or music. By scientists and the popular press synesthesia is typically described as a disorder, but synesthetes feel it is normal and are surprised when they discover other people don’t experience the world this way. Here is one firsthand description of what it is like to see music:

Heavy percussion and bass sounds are dark brown-colored circles on a black background to me. The circles are comparable to the ones you see in the water when you drop a stone in it, with one difference: each drumbeat creates only one expanding circle. The heavier the sound, the bigger the circle and the thicker the edge of the circle…If a drummer uses a brush, I see countless little white or light blue circles….If a tone sustains for a long time like you hear after a touch of a piano, then a kind of transparent smudge or smear remains the color of the circle (which itself has disappeared by then). 6)C. van Campen, The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science (MIT Press, 2010), 12.

If synesthesia is a disorder, then I am jealous because I am colorblind. Being colorblind dampens the brightness of the world and robs me from seeing what the world truly is like. By contrast, synesthesia seems like a heightening of human senses, it also provides a prophetic metaphor showing us what the God who prohibits images of himself looks like.

This post is part 3 of a multi-part series on the history and differences between a word-based culture and an image-based culture, and how this affects discipleship and preaching. See top of page for links to other posts in the series.

Recommended Books:

  
  
  
  
Jesus is God’s Voice in Synesthesia

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