The odds are good that at some point in your life you’ve had the chance to play a revolutionary musical instrument called a soft-loud.
These days we usually call it a piano.
For the better part of three centuries (the early 1500s through the early 1800s) the harpsichord was the primary portable keyboard instrument available to European musicians. It’s essentially an innovative way to play a harp that is lying on its side. By striking a key you pluck one of the harp strings. The sound is bright and brittle – perfect for the multi-layered compositions of J.S. Bach and his fellow Baroque masters.
The drawback of the harpsichord is its absolute tonal inflexibility. Each key produces a certain fixed sound – and that’s it. Do you want to play that note a little louder? Or perhaps a little softer? Sorry, that’s not possible. Since a harpsicord makes no provision for adjusting volume, it’s difficult to express feelings.
This was not a drawback for Bach and his cohorts, since the keyboard was rarely considered a solo instrument. And emotions were rarely considered worth sharing.
Then came a brave new artistic world. Beginning in the early 1800s, Romanticism swept Europe. It was a path blazed by Beethoven, Liszt, and Brahms. This music exalted the heroic, the heartsick, and the suffering individual – an unexplored new universe of deep feelings. There had to be a new instrument capable of communicating such emotions. An Italian inventor named Bartolomeo Cristofori had just the ticket.
Cristofori yearned to create a keyboard that was more “dynamically sensitive.” He experimented with felt-covered hammers that struck the strings instead of plucking them. By the 1720s he had produced an instrument he called un cimbalo di cipresso di piano e forte (“a keyboard of cypress with soft and loud”). By the middle of the century his invention was known as a pianoforte (“soft-loud”), because musicians were now free to play compositions either quietly or vigorously, as their emotions guided them. By the early 1800s, the name had been shortened merely to piano – the Italian word for “soft.”
Millions of parents who over the years have listened to their children banging away on pianos must be relieved to know their kids were merely playing a soft.
Beethoven revolutionized keyboard composition. During the first quarter of the 19th century he treated the piano as a veritable orchestra. Sometimes he played so aggressively that he snapped the strings (piano makers were constantly upgrading their instruments to accommodate his fury). Other times he played so quietly and expressively that audience members wept openly.
Followers of Jesus could stand a revolution of their own. It’s high time we learned where to find the emotional volume knob in our public discourses and personal relationships.
Currently, a lot of the sound that emerges from various Christian groups is set on loud.
Evangelical preachers and teachers routinely proclaim a Jesus who is rigorously masculine. He’s a “man’s man.” As Kristin Kobes du Mez documents in her book Jesus and John Wayne, a movement has been afoot since World War II to present a Savior who is more than equal to America’s enemies – whether communists, terrorists, drug dealers, or secular humanists bent on stealing our freedom. Conservative Christians fear that the next generation will be weakened if Jesus is primarily depicted as someone asking us to pray for our foes. Instead, he’s more like a Marvel comic book hero or a William Wallace (Braveheart) leading us into holy combat.
Progressive Christians, on the other hand, routinely proclaim a Jesus who is going to war against injustice. He leads the struggle against systemic evils and calls us to stand alongside him. This Jesus is far less interested in instructing us to “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.” Instead, our vitality is judged by the kind of progress we are making in protecting human rights and transforming social structures.
Does Jesus care about both security and social justice? Of course he does. And Scripture makes it clear he is not a passive person. In the gospels he is audaciously bold. He stands up to Herod Antipas when others encourage him to run away, and he walks into Jerusalem at the end of his life without deploying an army or a legion of angels – even though he knows full well that the authorities are determined to lynch him.
But Jesus was also unaccountably gentle – a character quality that is rarely embraced in many of today’s angry, frustrated, polarized congregations.
Gentleness, in fact, is at the heart of the New Testament. Most people, if asked to name the fruits of the Holy Spirit – the nine inner realities of Galatians 5:22,23 that correlate with spiritual maturity – will be able to come up with love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control. Fewer people will remember gentleness and kindness. Paul writes in Titus 3:1,2, “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.”
Always be gentle toward everyone.
Five words to live by.
This is not to say that there aren’t moments when God calls us to speak loudly. We must raise our voices on behalf of the vulnerable. We must declare that truth matters, and call out the kinds of lies and misdeeds that compromise the common good. But it’s worth noting the soft-loud balance of the New Testament. There’s not a single verse that commands God’s people to be publicly defiant. But there are myriad verses that remind us that others are best won over by kindness and gentleness.
So turn down the volume. Adjust your emotional thermostat. Be like Jesus: “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5).
God has given us the emotional bandwidth to be soft-louds.
Relying on his grace, may we all choose to teach, listen, serve, and use social media with ever-deepening gentleness.