Burke United Methodist Church held our second community open mic this past Thursday at our local Sweet FROG frozen yogurt place. Ten people performed, including several very talented kids from our church. And the most beautiful moment of the evening occurred when fourth grader Katherine Helms played Beethoven on the piano and the whole room got completely silent to listen to her play. That was when I knew that life as usual was being disrupted by beauty.
It was kind of like the moment in Shawshank Redemption when Tim Robbin’s character puts the opera singers on the PA system at his prison and all the inmates stop what they’re doing to listen in awe at their voices. The sociologist Mircea Eliade wrote a famous book called The Sacred and the Profane that I read my first year in college. It talks about the way that humans in all cultures divide time and space between the sacred moments and places, which are holy, and profane moments and places, which aren’t necessarily ugly but are completely ordinary.
In the suburbia where we live, it’s hard to access the sacred even when we go to church because everything in our lives has been Day-plannered into ordinariness. We don’t like to be caught off-guard because that usually means we weren’t prepared for something, which then results in embarrassment, inconvenience, and complaining on the part of our kids. The problem is that when we design our lives to avoid being caught off-guard, we have also designed them in a way so that we cannot be moved by God.
You can pray, read your Bible every day, and take copious notes from every sermon in church, but remain unmoved by God if all that you encounter is simply filed away into the realm of the practical. It’s not bad to be practical, but a life that is only practical lacks the heart-felt worship and delight that is our greatest vocation as human beings.
There’s nothing practical about listening to Beethoven. Well, some would argue there is, I suppose. We did play it for our sons was they were infants because it was supposed to help with their brain development. Both of our sons have actually requested that we put classical music on in their rooms when they go to sleep, perhaps because of primordial memories that they now have.
In any case, I just can’t get over the way that Katherine brought everything to a standstill on about the third or fourth note of her Beethoven song. I had actually gotten a little annoyed during some of the other performances because the chitchat wouldn’t stop. Of course, why should people who have gone out for frozen yogurt eat in silence? We invaded their space with our open mic. When the room was silenced by Beethoven, there was no longer an us and them. We became a worshiping community, if we define worship in the broadest sense as delighting in beauty.
I have often said that one of the biggest problems with American popular culture is its lack of local culture. Many of our ugly values are created through the marketing needs of mass pop culture. For example, if you’ve got to sell music or fashion or whatever else on a national level, then the one thing that sells better than anything else is sex. And then we create national rock stars with oodles and oodles of money to spend on cocaine and decadent mansions and expensive marriages that fall apart after a year.
What if instead of a trashy national rock star industry, every town had a few locally popular musicians who made a living performing at local venues? It may be impossible for this to ever become a reality in the information age, since the expectation created by the Internet is for all culture to be free. No one would pay a cover charge to eat frozen yogurt and listen to fourth graders play Beethoven. And yet I still want to believe that something will change about our local culture for the good the more Beethoven is played live in the Burke Sweet FROG. It certainly makes me dream of a world in which our culture could be resurrected.