Culture At Large

Learning to Love (Well, Like) the Office Radio

Michael Morgan

I recently started a new job, which comes with new people, a new commute, a new dress code, schedule, and all that. One thing doesn’t always spring first to mind when you think of a new job: the sonic environment. Some places are noisy, with bleeping phones, whirring copiers, and people who decide to loudly debrief their meeting right above your desk. Other places are unsettlingly quiet. My new office? Well, it has a radio. And it plays the same station. All day.

This has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, since the dial is tuned to an oldies station, it has been fun listening to the intro and verse of a tune that you’ve never heard only to have the chorus hit and you realize you have heard the song hundreds of times, sung and quoted by other people, and now you’re finally hearing the source material. On the other hand, I can emphatically report that listening to the nauseous treacle of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” multiple times a day will test the limits of your sanctification.

While we’re on the other hand, it is with no small dismay I report there are really only two sponsors on this station. There’s the used-car salesman who wouldn’t settle for just one tagline and so ends his commercial rattling off three or four. And there’s a jewelry store whose advertisers at least had the decency to record a couple of different spots for the sake of variety.

One modern convenience could save me from the office radio. I could just pop in some earbuds or slip on some headphones and retreat into a soundscape all my own. This is the default mode for people my age—not just at work but in the car, on the train, walking the grocery aisles, and waiting in lines. The only drawback is that when you plug in and tune out, you can come across as a bit aloof. When you’re working in a small office with three or four other people, aloof won’t fly. So I sit and endure the steady pound of wacky sax, synth pop, people taking other people’s breath away because they want a new drug but they also worry about who is going to drive whom home (which is probably wise considering, you know, the drugs) and I wait and hope for Joshua Tree-era U2, maybe some Skynyrd, and, if I’m lucky, the quicksilver tones of Freddie Mercury and Brian May. That is the cost and the reward of being here in the room. It has been a good experience.

I can emphatically report that listening to “I Just Called to Say I Love You” multiple times a day will test the limits of your sanctification.

As the physical size of technology has diminished and the array of media to consume has abounded, the ability to personalize our headspace has magnified to the point where it seems common experience teeters on the brink of extinction. The strangeness of this compounds when you consider more and more people are condensing into cities where actual personal space becomes more and more scarce. It would appear that having more people nearby actually gives us a sort of permission to be less engaged. The more we withdraw into the personal experience of our choosing, though, the more we risk presuming ourselves perfect consumers, viewing the entire world as a product fully customizable to our preferences.

Church can quickly disabuse us of this weird perception. Church is the place where we are called to gather and be in the same room together. A church should also, when it is healthy, be a place of surprising variety. In Ephesians 2, we read that Jesus has destroyed the dividing wall of hostile social barriers, so it’s in the church that we should expect to see people standing side by side who would never cross paths if it weren’t for bumping into one another while answering the summons of Christ. It’s a beautiful design that makes Jesus’ grace unavoidably surpassing. It is not without its kinks. We can be honest here. Much like the office radio, the fellowship of believers can be, well, annoying. The holy mess of the church can test the limits of our sanctification.

Being that we usually don’t like to feel annoyed, we might try to treat church as another frontier for customization. Personalize our spiritual headspace. We float around from church to church, even from circle to circle in the same church, looking for the “right fit” for us. The right personalities with whom we mesh without much conflict. The right preacher who makes us feel affirmed, be it with a warm sense of comfort or a cool sense of superiority. We even try to tailor the sonic landscape to our choosing, looking for a church that plays the right songs in the right style to suit us.

Giving a lecture at Calvin College several years ago, Christian thinker Marva Dawn offered the perfect response to those who would grouse about worship style: “Well, we’re not singing it for you.” And that gets right down to it. Church isn’t about the personal experience. It’s about the shared experience. Sure, just like the office radio, we may have to endure some songs—some personalities, some decisions, even some literal songs—that we wouldn’t put on our own personal playlist. But there will also be things that are pretty OK and even things that we truly love. And above the good and the annoying sits Christ who called it all together and is calling more yet. We’re singing for him.

If we submit to the common experience that God has called us to, if we manage to not forsake the fellowship of believers, we can expect that God will extend the limits of our sanctification as he sees fit. That is the cost and reward of being in the room.

Topics: Culture At Large