Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Beholding Beauty

Apparently, this article from the Washington Post has been heavily discussed in the Blogosphere for the past several weeks. The Desiring God blog and my friend Nate have also commented. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for me to be a day late and a dollar short. Nevertheless, I will add my two cents.

For those of you who have not heard of this story, let me give you the gist of what happened. The Washington Post enlisted Joshua Bell, a world renowned violinist, to act as a street musician at the top of some escalators near the subway in downtown Washington D.C. The idea was to see if average, busy people would recognize true skill and beauty if they heard it. In some ways, the actual result is startling; in other ways, it is not remarkable at all. Either way, it says something about us. If we are willing to look in the mirror, we may not like what we see.
“In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.”
From the moment I first heard about this story, I have been strangely moved on an emotional level. The idea that a virtuoso with a $3.5M violin could play music that has stood the test of centuries and have virtually no one notice breaks my heart. What does this say about beauty? What does this say about our ability to recognize beauty? Is there such a thing as beauty, and could we know it if we saw it?

I asked two of my daughters similar questions. Yes, they said, one can know beauty if they see it. The Minneapolis skyline is beautiful. A sunset is beautiful. That building over there is ugly. Classical music is beautiful. Rock music is scraggly.

When I asked my oldest daughter (11) if a magnificent violinist playing on a street corner would be noticed, she immediately and without hesitation said no. Why? Because he is in disguise. No one would know who he is. No one would know his name. But, I replied, wouldn’t they know good music when they heard it? The answer back was that it was in the wrong place. Hmmm. Is this deep perception in a child, or simple pragmatic reality?

Before I start drawing spiritual conclusions, I think we need to ask a more basic question that has only so far been assumed. “Is what Joshua Bell played close enough to true beauty that we can consider what happened to be tragic? The music has transcended centuries. The musician is undeniably gifted. Can the music be rightly defined as beauty?”
“The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician's masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang -- ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.”
If we answer no, then this whole discussion is a waste of time and you need to close your browser and go talk to your spouse. If we answer yes, then we must ask the next question, “Why did so many people miss it?” The answer to this last question, of course, is that part we don’t like when we look in the mirror. The answer is painfully obvious. C.S. Lewis gives the answer so much better than I can; so, I will quote him:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (from The Weight of Glory, Harper, 26).
We have over-indulged on the trivial. We have consumed cheap entertainment. We are saturated with the likes of American Idol, 24, Lost, Cosmo, McDonalds, and one-hit wonder boy bands ad infinitum. We consume whatever makes us feel good; only the affections we feel for a moment leave our souls empty and more shriveled than before. The fact that 1,070 people walked briskly past beauty in a 45 minute span is merely a symptom of a much deeper disease. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19).

Let us take this line of thinking where it ultimately needs to go: what does this have to do with our ability to see God? If you know Lewis, you know that the context of the above quote was specifically in relation to what one sees in the New Testament. Jesus offers “unblushing promises of reward…in the Gospels,” yet we are far too easily pleased. The gospel offers true beauty (Isa 33:17), true blessing (Mt 5:3-11), true forgiveness (Luke 24:46-47), true pleasure (Ps 16:11), and true freedom (John 8:36). Unfortunately, and much to our sorrow, the vast majority of people simply walk on by (Mt 7:13).

What then is our response? Why did those seven people who did notice the beauty of Bell’s music not try to stop everyone around them and awaken them to the wonder and beauty and majesty flowing from his Stradivarius?
“It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington,” Furukawa says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?
The picture in the mirror takes another turn for the worse. The answer is the same, yet infinitely more deplorable. I am deeply convicted by my answer as shown in the poor way in which I proclaim the good news. May Christ help us.

(HT: Desiring God, The Richochet)


Nate said...

You ask some very thought-provoking questions, Jason - especially about the nature of appreciating beauty.

I suppose most of us feel that we are born with a well-developed sense and appreciation of beauty, but that is probably an assumption enabled by pride. Yeah, we can recognize beauty, but unless we cultivate that ability to recognize and rejoice in it, our depraved and distracted souls will get callous and lazy.

I like the way you wrestle with these ideas, because I think the struggle to understand beauty is part of learning to apreciate it.

I think the fact that the story had such an impact on you means that part of you was rightfully jarred (offended?) by reading it. I just sort of shrugged at the article, and my immediate thought was not of the implications of its content, but of the buzz-worthiness of it blog potential. So I posted it, not out of vital concern for its implications, but so that I could use it to do my small part in filling the troughs of entertainment for the masses to munch on.

I wish it bothered me as much as it did you. Thanks for writing about it.

Jabell said...

Your idea of cultivating beauty intrigues me. Yes, I think we need to cultivate beauty. How many of us really enjoy a violin concerto as much as Switchfoot or Rich Mullins (both of whom I enjoy a lot)? The point being that we have to cultivate an appreciation for the beauty of a truly magnificent sonata.

The same works for our relationship with God. If we do not cultivate truth in our lives, then worship of the utmost beauty imaginable will lack greatly in any true appreciation of that which is truly beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem of this issue isn't that we as people are unable to recognize Beauty; but rather that unless given an expectation of being selfless in a situation or circumstance, we cannot emerge from our first priority - our inner selves. We are constantly focused on selfishness. We are rarely jarred from our focus, especially out of context and with no reward. The original article only proves the sad truth that our society caters to serving only our selves - and that means sometimes beauty escapes us entirely - because we think ourselves the most beautiful thing of all.

MICHAEL said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. When I look in the mirror, I see God. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You