"Walk On By"
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
April 10, 2008 - For his story “Pearls Before Breakfast” about Joshua Bell – a world class violinist who played during the morning rush hour in a Washington D.C. metro station – journalist Gene Weingarten received a Pulitzer Prize. In a recent interview with NPR about his prize-winning essay, Weingarten recounted the nature of his cultural experiment.
“A couple of years ago,” Weingarten explains, “I was coming out of the subway, and I noticed there was a keyboard artist there, and I just thought he was terrific. But nobody was stopping; nobody was looking; nobody was giving him any money. And I thought, ‘Boy, if Yo-Yo Ma himself were there, people would just pass him by.’ So, after trying and failing to get Mr. Ma for a little bit of time, I finally decided that a violinist would be even better and managed to persuade the man I think is the best violinist in the world.”
So, during the morning rush hour commute just over a year ago, world-renown violinist Joshua Bell “positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket” in the halls of the L’Enfant Plaza station of the Washington D.C. metro, wearing “jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap” and performed 43 minutes of music fit for Carnegie Hall.
Remarkably, only 7 people of the hundreds who passed by stopped to listen to his stunningly beautiful performance for more than 1 minute. And despite the presumed cosmopolitan wisdom of the denizens of D.C., only 1 passerby actually recognized Joshua Bell. This was all the more ironic given that, as Weingarten explained, the greatest concern about the experiment when discussed among the editors at The Washington Post was crowd control! In the end, Bell made $32.17.
When asked, during his NPR interview, about what this experiment says about our culture, Weingarten mused that we’re not “unsophisticated boobs” with an inability to “see beauty.” Rather, he suggests quite succinctly, “I think it means that we’re in too much of a hurry.” Weingarten adds that our hurriedness reflects in an imbalance in our priorities. “There’s something wrong with our priorities if we cannot be wakened out of the stupor of a morning rush hour by something that we are never likely to see again.”
Weingarten’s analysis is surely right. But the hurriedness that characterizes contemporary culture is symptomatic of a deeper underlying alienation that is created by the patterns of life in large metropolitan areas. Hurry is a coping mechanism. It enables us to avoid the gnawing emptiness of soul that we feel in the presence of crowds with whom we have no meaningful, human connections – aside from the fact that we have all been herded into the same steel box and are headed in the same spatio-temporal direction.
From a biblical viewpoint, it is worth noting that one of the earliest efforts to create a skyscraper – an emblem of urban life – ended in alienation (Genesis 11:1-9). While it might be over-reaching to conclude from this that cities are essentially destructive of human flourishing – since some would quickly point out that our eternal destiny in the New Jerusalem is not pastoral – there is surely wisdom to be gleaned from the warning of Babel.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Christians should be in the business of thinking about whether the very patterns of urban life that we construct support or work against human capacities that are central to worship: stillness, awe, wonder, and sense of transcendent beauty. After all, if we support patterns of life that make it impossible for us to stop and appreciate the human greatness of an artist like Joshua Bell, how do we expect to be able to “be still” and stand in awe of the greatness of our transcendent God?