Dulled Ears

Posted: October 20, 2010 by Jim Killam in church culture, music, pop culture
Tags: , , ,

The Washington Post conducted an experiment in January 2007. Reporter Gene Weingarten sent world-renowned virtuoso Joshua Bell and his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin into the L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, D.C., during the morning rush hour. For 45 minutes, as more than a thousand commuters passed by obliviously, Bell performed some of the world’s greatest classical music – Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Chaconne,” Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and several others.

  A total of $32 in tips was tossed into the violin case. Only seven adults stopped, even briefly, to listen. But …

 “The behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent,” Weingarten wrote in the story which won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. “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.”

(Take a few minutes to read the story. It’s wonderful.)

 Only one person recognized Bell. The other six who stopped to listen only recognized that this was something special, something beautiful.

 I like to think I’d have stopped to listen to Joshua Bell, but I’m just not sure. The artist and the music would not have been instantly recognizable. Our culture is so noisy, so fast-paced and so full of cheap counterfeits, we often blow right past unfamiliar beauty.

 Our ears have been dulled. A street saxophonist playing “The Simpsons” theme in the parking garage below Chicago’s O’Hare Airport gets about the same notice and shrug as Joshua Bell playing Bach in a DC subway station. And the Simpsons guy makes more money at it.

 In “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” C.S. Lewis compared sensory deafness to the confection Turkish Delight offered to Edmund by the White Witch. The more we eat, the more we lose our taste for the finer delicacies.

 “At first Edmund tried to remember that it was rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat…”

 “She knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, to go on eating it till they killed themselves.”

 In the Post story, Weingarten also noticed the number of passers-by who never even heard Joshua Bell playing because they had their own, private concerts blaring from their iPod earbuds. No doubt, a lot of that music was pretty good. But it wasn’t shared.

 “For many of us,” he wrote, “the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.”

 It’s interesting that those sage observations come from a newspaper writer. As a journalist, I’ve had a front-row seat to an incredibly fast, steep decline in the newspaper business. We believe it’s happening for a reason similar to why most people ignored Joshua Bell in the subway station, and why the church has become increasingly unnoticed by American culture. It’s not that Americans have differing, irreconcilable worldviews. It’s that so many Americans lack any worldview at all.

 Our high rate of divorce, cheap Internet, hyper-materialism and 24-hour infotainment noise have converged to create a generation (society?) of nihilists: people who believe the outside world has no meaning and is, in fact, too painful to pay attention to. Cell phones and Web-based media provide a suitable substitute to the pain and confusion of the unfiltered world. They’ve become the new reality of choice for an alarming number of Americans. 

Robert Putnam’s important 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” was researched and written before the mobile-device explosion. But even then, Putnam pointed out that America had become far less connected than in decades past – more individualistic, less community-minded. People are less likely to form a worldview because, well, we aren’t viewing the world. Just our little corner of it. 

 I once observed two female college students approach each other from different directions on a sidewalk. Both were talking on their cell phones. They glanced up and recognized each other. They smiled and hugged – never saying a word to each other and all the while never interrupting their phone conversations. Then each did a little wave to the other and continued on their separate ways.

Cell phones and their offspring, smart phones, have stolen much of the community from college campuses and our culture in general. If community is what occupies the space between people, then we here in America and in the American church have lost a lot of community in favor of … well, nothing. We’re a bunch of individuals, simply co-existing in separate, noisy realities.

One evening at church a couple of years ago, our pastor interrupted his message for a “moment of Sabbath.” One minute of silence, with no one milling about or talking. Cell phones turned off. He timed it on his watch. Some people fidgeted nervously. Some looked around every few seconds. Some prayed. Some just stared straight ahead, either deep in thought or fighting sleep.

 By the end, many had become comfortable with the unfamiliar silence – almost like it was a delicacy we’d forgotten all about while stuffing ourselves with Turkish Delight. Suddenly we could identify with those children who wanted to stop and listen to Joshua Bell but were hurried along by their parents. And all it took was to turn down the noise so we could hear the beautiful music playing underneath. The moment ended too soon.

 Weingarten observed in his Post story:

“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?”

  1. […] addressed this problem last October in the post, “Dulled Ears.” Robert Putnam’s important 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” was researched and written before the […]

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