Today I’ve been coming down after a busy but enjoyable few days at the American Trombone Workshop (preparing for the trip is one reason I missed blogging last week), and haven’t been particularly productive. While scrolling through my Facebook feed I came across what was certainly a bit of “click-bait” but indulged in it anyway. In the video a little girl puts a bit of money into the hat of a bass-playing street musician, and over the next few minutes a flash-mob assembles, performing an abridgement of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (i.e. the “Ode to Joy”). The performance was of good quality, especially considering the venue and circumstances, but not particularly remarkable. What struck me about the video was the reactions of the children in the area, who happily danced, conducted, and generally reveled in the beauty of the moment. One is reminded of the experiment of a decade ago when world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell played for an hour or so in a Washington, D.C., Metro station. Few adults took notice despite the exquisite playing of masterpieces of the repertoire, but “every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.” The children recognized that something special was taking place, but the adults wore blinders.
That our children have an innate sense of beauty should be unsurprising. After all, the God who made us has revealed himself both in Scripture and in Creation to be a God who values beauty for its own sake, so human beings made in his image could be expected to do the same. And yet, the American way—and this ethos has crept into other cultures as well—has typically been to prize utility over beauty, with the creation and enjoyment of the beautiful for its own sake without any quantifiable economic or social benefit being seen as a waste. The same attitude has crept into the church, where millions of dollars are spent on facilities and programs but the idea of raising artistic standards by, say, training and compensating musicians is sometimes viewed with suspicion, to say nothing of offering rudimentary musical instruction to congregations so that the quality of singing improves. And, sadly enough, sometimes even our own arts institutions have contributed to a loss of this simple, childlike love of beauty—ask yourself, what would happen if a parent allowed his child to joyfully dance and conduct along with Beethoven at an actual orchestra concert?
Now, am I arguing for the abolition of the mores governing concert etiquette, or for an expansion of publicly funded arts programs, or for bigger and more professionalized music in the churches? No. I have written frequently in opposition to the latter (music should be of good quality but not overshadow preaching), I view the question of public arts funding as a state or local matter rather than a federal one, and I think that some decorum in concerts is helpful and necessary. Nevertheless, I think it is appropriate for us to examine ourselves as individuals and as a society and ask what we are doing that by the time we reach adulthood snuffs out the appreciation for beauty that our children seem to have innately. More importantly, we should ask what we can do to recover it. This is not only good for us subjectively; it is a divine command!
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)