Tuesday, May 3, 2016

God Speaks through Nature & His Word: Do We Hear?

Recently, a former student and friend1 shared a link to a video featuring the work of Bartholomaus Traubeck.  Interestingly, Traubek, an Austrian media artist, has modified a traditional turn-table record player to generate music from thin sections sliced from the trunks of trees.  At first, I wondered how the needle of the record player scraping over a wood surface would make anything but a noisy “GrrrrChikkKrrrKtttKkkkTTtttUUuuu.”  But then, I read that Traubeck has replaced the needle of the record player with a camera which scans the anatomical “landscape” of the sliced wood sections as they rotate.  You may want to listen to Traubeck’s music for yourself before you read on.

Traubeck's modified record player and a slice of wood.
There is no doubt that Traubeck can bring music out of the wood.  But there is no evidence that trees or other parts of “Nature” or “Creation” each have a characteristic voice or song waiting for us to record and broadcast.  Therefore, we must ask, “How much of Traubeck’s music is an objective expression of the anatomical properties of the wood, and how much is merely a subjective result of Traubeck’s method of translating wood anatomy to sound?”  The answer to this question requires that we understand two key elements of Traubeck’s music-making method. 

First, we can agree with Traubeck that each tree species has its own unique wood anatomy—its unique fingerprint.  Each species differs from another according to the width of gaps between annual rings, representing the radial growth (from center outward) for each year.  Some species have large diameter vessels and more slender tracheids (elongated microscopic tubes that carry water and nutrients upward within the trunk of trees).  Gymnosperms, including pines and spruces, have no vessels at all, only tracheids.  Species may also differ in wood color and texture. Traubeck’s scanning camera “views” the rotating wood anatomy of each tree species and creates a dynamic digital profile of the characters he has chosen to include in his algorithm. 
Ttree trunk cross section
with annual growth rings.
The second element we must consider is how Traubeck translates his chosen wood parameters into music.  Although the wood anatomy of each tree species is unique, it is Traubeck who ultimately composes the music that emanates from each species.  His modified record player with camera and a computer algorithm is designed to “see” only a selected number of traits of the “landscape” of the wood sections.  If you or I were to design a similar system with our programming, the music we bring out of the wood slices would be different from Traubeck’s music.  As Matt Weesner writes about Traubeck’s music in Colorado Public Radio, a fir tree grows quickly, therefore has larger gaps between the rings, which means the resulting music is more minimalistic (Traubeck chose the key of C minor for firs). Throw a slice of ash tree (with rings very close together) on the player and the music is more compressed and complex.

Traubeck’s method of producing music from wood sections is a fitting metaphor for the way we view the landscape of the world around us.  Every corner of nature, whether the tree rings of an old oak tree or the landscape of a forest ecosystem, represents an objective reality that invites us to observe and explore with our five senses.  However, as we observe real objects and landscapes of nature, we assign meaning and significance based upon how our particular “spectacles” filter and color our interpretation.  In other words, our worldview determines how we interpret the world around us.  For example, an artist, an ecologist, and a lumberman each view a forest from a different worldview—one sees aesthetic qualities; another sees energy and nutrient relationships; and another sees economic gain.

Let’s look at some examples of how our “worldview spectacles” are at work scanning the world around us, selecting and filtering parameters that we allow us to define our reality.  First, let’s consider how a person’s worldview influences their understanding of the origin of the universe.  Second, we will see how special or divine revelation influences worldview of those who acknowledge the existence of God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

How many objects of "intelligent design"
can you see?
Many of us differ in how we account for the complexity in nature or creation.  For example, relatively few people who accidentally find a music CD lying on the ground in the wild would listen to the music it contains and then attribute these complex, highly ordered sounds and the CD itself to random chance events, or undirected natural causes.  We may not understand how the CD was formed and imprinted to produce beautiful music, but we would agree that what we heard is not noise.  Instead, beautiful music is the result of design as expressed through the deliberate, purposeful, action of an intelligent agent responsible for both the original musical score and the technology of the compact disc and CD player.

If we can agree that a music CD and related broadcast technology are the results of intelligent design, then it should follow that the complex wood anatomy of a slice of tree trunk is also the result of intelligent design?  We are only beginning to understand how the specified complexity of the coded sequence of nucleotides of DNA within each living cell can produce the characteristic genetic traits of each organism including the wood properties of each tree species.  But if genetic theory is correct, Traubeck’s music based on wood properties is an expression of the unique DNA sequences of each species. And behind all of this there appears to be an intelligent designer.  I believe God through His Son, Jesus Christ, is the Intelligent Designer of creation (e.g. Genesis 1-2). 

Not all readers will agree that music from a musician, or from a songbird or Traubeck’s wood slices, owes its existence to the God of the Bible.  But all of us must recognize that our opinions are ultimately influenced by our worldview--our way of interpreting the world around us and our place and purpose (if any) in the world.  It also determines the quality of our life on Earth and the destiny of our eternal souls.  Thus, a theistic worldview is based on faith in a “higher power” and divine revelation.  The Bible represents the divine revelation from the Judeo-Christian God (Yehweh) and affirms that “nature” is God’s creation which represents a general revelation of His truth and existence.

The atheist and the agnostic are also persons of faith.   Instead of divine revelation, their faith rests on human reason which either denies the existence of God or simply dismisses the notion of a divine being.  The Greek philosopher Protagoras summarized the atheistic worldview when he proudly stated, Man is the measure of all things.  Much of current thinking in the natural sciences today is based on atheistic, naturalistic philosophy which acknowledges no reality beyond the bounds of the five senses.  In contrast, Martin Luther King Jr. articulated the Christian worldview when he wrote2:

Christianity affirms that at the heart of reality is a Heart, a loving Father who works through history for the salvation of his children. Man cannot save himself, for man is not the measure of all things and humanity is not God.  Bound by the chains of his own sin and finiteness, man needs a Savior.   

Why should we think it odd that a human artist like Bartholomaus Traubeck could produce inspiring music from the “anatomical landscape” of a section of wood?  Even without the aid of camera and computer, the landscapes of creation have from the beginning been inspiring those whose spiritual and aesthetic senses are attuned to our Creator.  The psalmist David wrote, as recorded in Psalm 19: 1-3:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard.

But God’s Voice also comes to us through the inspired words of Scripture—words that speak of human origin, the fall into sin, and the only Way of reconciliation through the shed blood of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.  Consider the following words from 1 Chronicles 16: 30-34 and notice the powerful Voice of God and how creation responds—indeed, how we ought to respond:

Tremble before Him, all the earth;
Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
And let them say among the nations, "The LORD reigns."
Let the sea roar, and all it contains;
Let the field exult, and all that is in it.
Then the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the LORD;
For He is coming to judge the earth.
 O give thanks to the LORD, for He is good;
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

The Voice of God in creation and His inspired Word through the Bible are continually streaming toward mankind from every corner of His creation.  So evident is God’s revelation that the Apostle Paul wrote, in Romans 1: 20:  For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

Expounding on John 1: 1 (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”), A.W. Tozer writes, The whole Bible supports the idea.  God is speaking.  Not God spoke, but God is speaking.  He is by His nature continuously articulate.  He fills the world with His speaking Voice. …The Voice of God is the most powerful force in nature, indeed the only force in nature, for all energy is here only because the power-filled Word is being spoken. (The Pursuit of God (Regal, 2013), p. 72).

God is near unto all of us.  Creation itself awaits His coming as the Righteous Judge of all the Earth and mankind (Romans 8: 19).  How then is it that many do not “hear” His Voice in creation and respond when even creation responds as we have just noted:  the sea roars, the field exalts, and the trees sing for joy before the LORD?  Tozer answers,

Scanning electron microscope view
of wood vessels & tracheids
I venture to say that the one vital quality which [men and women of faith in the past] had in common was spiritual sensitivity…they had spiritual awareness and that they went on to cultivate it until it became the biggest thing in their lives (Pursuit…p. 66).

The “landscapes” of creation from the genetic and epigenetic structures inside living cells to the microscopic anatomy of tree wood, to the landscapes of forest and woodland; all proclaim, without the hindrance of language translation, that God is Creator and Designer, and that He is and has been speaking with a powerful Voice since creation. 

What about you?  What do you see and hear as you walk in creation, view the intricacies of God’s creatures, read God’s Word, or hear it proclaimed?  May the God Who gives us physical life and (by faith in Christ) Eternal Life, enable us to become more spiritually aware of His love, plan, and purpose.

1 Thanks to my former student and friend, Dan Delancey, for referring me to the work of Bartholomaus Traubeck.

2 From:  M.L. King, Jr. “How Should a Christian View Communism?”

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