Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Do You Even Know What You're Missing?

Could you be failing to appreciate something vitally important in your life? Something that's all around you? It’s possible, maybe even likely.

Classical violinist Joshua Bell is widely considered to be one of the finest musicians in the world. At the age of four, he was able to stretch rubber bands across dresser handles in order to reproduce music his mother had played on the piano. At 14, he performed as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He debuted at Carnegie Hall three years later, and received a Distinguished Alumni Service Award from Indiana University just two years after he graduated. The man, as they say, can play.

I should also mention that Bell creates his music on one of the most well-crafted violins in history, the Stradivarius “Gibson ex Huberman.” He spent nearly $4 million to purchase the 300 year-old instrument, having sold his previous Stradivarius to do so. 

Consequently, when he plays classical masterpieces—music that has withstood time, the most severe of critics—one can witness one of the world’s greatest musicians employing one of its finest artistic tools to interpreting some of its greatest musical art. 

All this is why an experiment instigated by the Washington Post was so interesting. What would happen if an incognito Bell played in a subway terminal at rush hour? That’s exactly what he did, for 43 minutes on a Friday morning in January of 2007.  Post writer Gene Weingarten later chronicled the event in “Pearls before Breakfast,” a fascinating article for which he won a Pulizter Prize.

And what did Washington commuters do in response to Bell’s playing?

Mostly nothing.

Of the 1,070 people that passed by, according to Weingarten, only seven stopped briefly. Twenty-seven gave money, for a total of $32.17, a sum that likely wouldn’t get you a seat at one of Bell’s concerts. (One person did recognized him, a woman who had seen him pay three weeks earlier.)



Toward the end of his article, Weingarten asks a rather searching question: “If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that—then what else are we missing?” I wonder if Weingarten’s question hints at something more important than even he realizes. I say that because the appreciation of beauty is, theologically speaking, of no small significance.

Why? Because, like any good gift we experience, all genuine beauty—be it in the form of a prismatic sunset, a child’s grin, or a virtuoso violin performance—originates in God himself. Most of us who follow Christ are likely to understand that God is holy, righteous, truthful, gracious, or simply good. But I wonder how many of us grasp that he is also the source and standard of beauty? David seemed to understand, writing in Psalm 27:4:

    One thing have I asked of the LORD,
        that will I seek after:
    that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
        all the days of my life,
    to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
        and to inquire in his temple.

Understanding the glory of God’s beauty made David long for his fellowship. One thing I have asked, he says, one thing that I need above all others: that I might dwell with him and see his beauty. 

But as Steve DeWitt points out in his excellent book, Eyes Wide Open, all this means that, wherever it might found, beauty can be appreciated for more than the attention it draws to itself. It also points beyond to its source. Thus it’s capable of drawing us to the one who we were in fact made for, the one who really can finally and fully satisfy us.

DeWitt supplies this analogy: the beauty we see all around us is very much like the moon and its light, which in fact is simply a reflection of the greater light and glory of the sun. 

For those with eyes to see, then, beauty can be a great help in growing closer to our God, the one that can turn a bloody cross and an open grave into a masterpiece of glory and grace.

So take a look. It just happens to be all around you.

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