Beauty as Spiritual Food

This is a follow-up to a post from our friend BILTRIX which we subsequently re-blogged here, the subject being a rather unique ‘social experiment’ done in a Washington, DC metro station in January, 2007. 

—–

I went back and read the entire article by Washington Post staff writer Gene Weingarten, listened (twice) to the 43-minute audio of Joshua Bell’s solo violin performance and–while listening–read the author’s lengthy question and answer session with readers which took place two days after the article was published in April of that year.   

I was fascinated not only by the details of the article (which I remember reading back in 2007), but by the varied comments of the many readers who wrote in two days later. Most thanked Gene for his article. Many confessed that they either (1) had in fact walked by that day, or (2) thought they would have done so, had they been there.

Quite a few said that reading it moved them to tears.  Here’s one:

“Gene, your writing normally doesn’t make me cry…This story did, and it was also sent to me by a friend who described it as “heartbreaking.” I cried because I find it scary and depressing to think of how obliviously most people go through daily life, even smart and otherwise attentive people.

Who knows what beautiful things I’ve missed by just hurrying along lost in my thoughts?

It’s almost a panicky feeling, that if a performance by Joshua Bell on his Strad (i.e., his 1710 Stradivarius violin–ed.) gets lost in the shuffle, what about all the smaller beautiful things that happen every day and could be making people happier, if only they paid attention?”

Gene Weingarten replied,

“Yeah. (Gene’s editor) explained it this way: ‘People are spiritually starved, and feel, just below the surface, that their culture is strangling them’

I think that’s it. I think that’s what people are feeling.”

——————-

I love this quote, and have spent some time pondering it over the past day. Weingarten felt that in some way, those who read the article with tears recognized something about themselves and their culture which grieved them. They realized that they’re missing something important. In some way, not attending to beauty equates to spiritual starvation.

People have different ideas of what constitutes the “spirit”…for many, the closest they get to a ‘religious experience’ is an emotional reaction to some bit of beauty, however they define it. It might be music, or a piece of fine art, or a gorgeous landscape viewed against a perfect sky.

As a Christian, I do believe that such experiences are both spiritual and necessary.  I think we need to cultivate them. The apostle Paul said it plainly:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.”          

 -Philippians 4:8 (Holman)

Why? Because “Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.” (James 1:17 NLT) God the Creator has made the world, and His creation is filled with beauty.  And this beauty evokes a response in us, whether we recognize it or not.

It is the impulse to worship.

“… because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.”

–Romans 1:19-20

People who read the article certainly wanted to make excuses, however. Some claimed that “beauty is in the ear of the hearer” and accused the author of being ethnocentric in assuming that Western music should evoke a universal response. Others said that the time and place were inappropriate because people were rightly focused on getting to work on time, etc., etc.

In this culture, the impulse to worship is often strangled by cares of the everyday life, just as Jesus described in his parable about the sower of seeds (see Matthew 13). Our modern life is very like the weed-choked soil. 

Actually, I suspect that life in virtually any time period would have been the same. There is nothing new about “worldy cares and the seduction of wealth” pushing out less tangible concerns. That’s the very reason that the parable still speaks to us. 

A theology of beauty, art and worship is way beyond my scope and my ability here, although the book to the left, The Beauty of God, is now on my “want to read” book shelf.

If we argue that an appreciation for what is beautiful is important to one’s spiritual health, and that this enjoyment can in fact lead one to worship the Author of beauty…then those of us who create art need to think about how to frame our work so that it can be received.

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If no one has ‘time” to stop for five minutes to listen, when the artist is just a few feet away, why should we suppose that they will go out of their way to pay admission to a concert hall to hear the same performance?

‘If they do not respond to Moses and the prophets,’ Jesus observed, ‘they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ 

–Luke 16:31

As much as I want to believe that people will be led to a God-encounter through my artistic endeavors, I know that it is also true that many will not appreciate such endeavors until they encounter God. We must support a variety of efforts to speak the truth of the Lord into our culture, not relying on any one medium.

I believe that God speaks, in every moment, to hearts which are open. Pray that His voice is heard.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
 Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they display knowledge.
 There is no speech or language
    where their voice is not heard.
 Their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.

–Psalm 19:1-4 (NIV)

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4 responses to “Beauty as Spiritual Food

  1. Just a thought, how many timese we’ve heard of people getting shoved in front of subway trains…. but something like this would be unremarkable by media. No time for God moments either. Not a pretty reflection on culture, as you say.

  2. A song that seems to fit

  3. There was a recurring theme to many of the comments on that article, wasn’t there, Bullright?

    I’m not sure why there was a basic assumption that Europeans would automatically have enjoyed this more. Western culture is becoming ever more homogeneous.

    Many missionary friends who live abroad tell me the main difference is that there is LESS spiritual sensitivity in Europe…but they really love their dogs!

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