After the Great Hush

“The Great Hush” occurred for the last time in world history on July 21st, 1937, during the funeral of Guglielmo Marconi. Wireless operators around the world stopped sending for precisely two minutes. In a brief span of about fifty years the “global village” was born. Anybody could talk to anybody . . . and anybody else could eavesdrop. At first these long “Hertz Waves”, transmitted from mammoth power stations to “radio-conductors” aboard ships and inside newspaper offices seemed magical. Indeed, pure scientists denied it was even possible and it took a well-funded amateur experimenter to prove it, create a monopoly, and make a fortune (decades before Bill Gates).

Consultations and coaching have kept me traveling all winter, and I discovered the documentary-novel “Thunderstruck” by Erik Larson (available in better airports everywhere) to be stimulating for the missionary mindset. Larson intertwines the story of Marconi’s wireless experiments with an equally sensational Victorian story of murderer Harvey Crippen. The public came to sympathize with Crippen. He was a mild-mannered physician, married to an abusive wife, unable to divorce because of archaic Victorian laws, and in love with his adoring secretary. What would later capture the interest of the Victorian equivalent of “Entertainment Tonight” was the fact that he did not just kill his wife. He dissected her, buried her, and lives in the same house with his true love like nothing had happened. An accident caught the attention of the police. They would have escaped to Quebec, except for Marconi’s wireless. The ship captain recognized the fleeing couple, sent a message to Scotland Yard, who sent an inspector, and the chase of two ships across the Atlantic Ocean chronicled by wireless is what awakened the Victorian world to the relevance of radio.

The missionary mind boggles over the implications of this story . . . repeated over and over today. All those “too busy” church members long to return to the “Great Hush”. It is the single most common characteristic of so-called “traditional” worship. Yet what captures their attention in daily life is more likely murder than grace. They could use the technology to appreciate the culture next door, but prefer to use band width for U-Tube and idle chatter. The first outsider to pray beside Marconi’s deathbed was Mussolini. What’s a poor missionary to do? Pray that the Holy Spirit will reach out and touch someone?

Larson’s talent is that he sets the story of both Marconi and Crippen in a larger context of cultural ferment and human yearning. How interesting that every great telecommunications breakthrough has been accomplished during a time of desperate yearning for God? The Gentile mission happens across Roman roads. The Protestant Reformation occurs when the printing press is built. In Marconi’s time, the public was fascinated by the supernatural. The elite were attending seances. The most highly respected scientific body of the day was the Royal Institute, established for the “diffusion of knowledge and facilitating useful mechanical improvements”. But it included the “Society for Psychical Research” with a “Committee on Haunted Houses”. Today, all the advances in media technology happen in a climate of intense spiritual yearning. Missionaries should not only use technology for grace, but be aware of the deeper spiritual yearning that lies in the heart of every engineer, technician, entrepreneur, and inventor.

At the end of his life (says Larson), Marconi established a separate wireless station to listen for signals from Mars: “Listen for a regularly repeated signal.” It won’t be long before humans land on Mars, and we are already listening for signals from other galaxies. But there is something deeper here. There is some compulsion that is more mysterious that missionaries should grasp. People are in a fever for God, even though they deny it. They are secretly tuning the radio-conductors of their hearts, listening for a regularly repeated signal. What is it?

Tom Bandy