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)