Stop seeing difference as dissonance; see it as life-sustaining, says Rev. Randall K. Bush

“We have to recognize the important place for dissonance in the intervals of music, as well as in our lives together,” the Rev. Randall K. Bush told the congregation at the 9:15 a.m. Monday, July 4, ecumenical worship service in the Amphitheater. 

His sermon title was “A Necessary Dissonance,” and the Scripture text was Genesis 11:1-9. 

Bush continued the “Music 101” lesson that he began on Sunday. There are 12 half steps in every octave, and the two closest are in the minor 2nd interval. 

DYLAN TOWNSEND / staff photographer The Rev. Randall K. Bush delivers his opening sermon of the week Sunday in the Amphitheater.

“The vibrations are always at odds, and they are not meant to come together easily,” he said. 

As an example, Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organ, played a well-known tune on the Massey Memorial Organ — the theme from “Jaws.”

A minor 2nd is the smallest possible interval, Bush said. 

“The two notes are a half step apart, and on the chromatic scale they sound OK, but together they sound like a mistake,” Bush said. “Why do we have dissonance? Why not just the sounds that I like and are harmonious? I think that is a flawed wish.”

In the Christian liturgical year, the story of the Tower of Babel is often associated with Pentecost, when a variety of visitors to Jerusalem heard the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection in their own language. 

On the plain of Shinar, the people clustered together, speaking the same language and wanting to make a name for themselves. God scattered the people and gave them each a different language, which is today’s reality.

“The story looks neat and tidy with God punishing the people. We need to think about this story in a fresh way with a minor 2nd,” Bush said.

Bush shared the story of the Chinese treasure fleet that operated during the Ming Dynasty. Under Admiral Zheng He, from 1405 to 1433, 3,500 ships sailed as far as the eastern coast of Africa and brought home great treasures. The U.S. Navy, in comparison, has only 480 ships.

The leadership of the Ming Dynasty changed and became afraid of the growing merchant class, the lowest classes in the Confucian social order. The Ming leadership brought the ships into harbor, burned some, and left the rest to rot.

“Within 60 years, the Portuguese, under Vasco da Gama, sailed up the coast of Africa, and then Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic. Control of the seas passed to the Europeans,” Bush said. 

“There are similarities between the Ming leadership and the people of Babel,” he said. “The people were nomads who were settling down, planting crops, domesticating animals, and they wanted to make a name for themselves. Like the Chinese, they were afraid of the world around them.”

The people of Babel were afraid of being scattered, so they built a wall and a tower and turned their back on God’s world. 

“People do want to associate with people who speak their own language, their own culture, but the God of all intends us to live together as a family,” Bush said. 

In the first creation story, God created human beings and told them to be fruitful and multiply. After the flood, Noah and his family were told to be fruitful, multiply and be good stewards. 

“The people of Babel made their own rules instead of living into their name as children of God and citizens of the earth,” Bush said. “They were like the self-centered tribe of Britain who claimed the sun never set on their empire, or Hitler’s proclamation of a 1,000-year Reich. We can serve the world or look after No. 1.”

When the Declaration of Independence was written, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness did not include all people. 

“Only men of property were included; others were not,” Bush said. “For too long, we have erected towers of power, wealth and vanity, and see others as a threat, a dissonance to be silenced.”

At Babel, Bush said, God acted not to punish the people, but to set things right. 

“God is a sower who sows abundantly,” he said. “One language at Babel allowed the people to become too self-focused. Having different languages stops the focus on our own walls. Given diversity, we have to trust God, and with humility, we need to learn the languages others speak and sing the songs others sing.”

The minor 2nd is part of God’s plan, vital to the harmony of the world. 

“We need to stop confusing dissonance with difference,” Bush said.

In his book Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, author Umberto Eco explored how serendipities — unanticipated truths — often spring from mistaken ideas. 

These mistaken ideas can lead people to treat others as barbarians, or to only look at the world through their own lenses. 

“Marco Polo went to China looking for the unicorn and discovered the rhinoceros, which he thought was a unicorn,” Bush said. 

“Ideally these encounters lead to mutual give and take and mutual respect,” he said. “If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that we are all connected. The air binds us together as closely as the half-step interval. We have to stop seeing difference as dissonance, but make it life-sustaining.”

The people were sent from Babel to get on with their lives, to spread out, but be as closely connected as two notes on a keyboard. 

“We have to find meaning in difference,” Bush said. “God always has. That is good news for all of us.”  

The Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor for Chautauqua, presided. The Rev. Mary Lee Talbot read the Scripture. The prelude, played by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organ, was “Improvisation” (minor 2nd). The Motet Choir, under Stafford’s direction, sang, acapella, “The Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee,” by Jean Berger. For the postlude, Stafford played an improvisation on “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Mr. and Mrs. William Uhler Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy.

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.