I recently wrote a review for the Gospel Coalition website of Randy Newman’s forthcoming book, Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, Crossway, April 2011. I’m going to post two or three extracts that particularly caught my eye. Here’s the first:
A few years ago, The Washington Post conducted a social experiment in what they called “context, perception, and priorities.” They arranged for Joshua Bell, one of the finest violinists of all time, to play classical masterpieces at a Washington subway stop during rush hour. They wanted to see if anyone would recognize the world-famous virtuoso and stop and listen. They caught the entire episode on video.
For close to an hour, Bell performed great works of the violin repertoire—Bach’s “Chaconne” from Partita No. 2, Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Ponce’s “Estrellita,” and more—on a violin handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari, valued at over 3.5 million dollars. More than a thousand people walked by without even glancing in his direction. A few paused for a moment, and several people tossed loose change into his open violin case. (He collected a total of $32.17. Yes, some people gave him pennies!) Only one person recognized the star who, just a few nights later, would accept the Avery Fisher Prize for being the best classical musician in America.
The Post writer and his colleagues had to admit their hypothesis was wrong. They had anticipated that, despite the stress of rush hour and the noise of the trains, beauty would transcend.
You can imagine how people interpreted this experiment. “We’re too busy today.” “We don’t take time for beauty.” “We have become musically illiterate.” “We need more funding for the arts.”
But Gene Weingarten, the Post writer covering the story, had a different take. He saw the problem as one of context. People expect a virtuoso when they pay large amounts of money to sit in beautiful concert halls where the lights are dimmed and the background noises are deliberately eliminated.
But in a subway, at rush hour, with irreducible noise, you don’t expect Joshua Bell. You might not even want him! Weingarten concluded, “He was, in short, art without a frame.” It was the context that shaped “what happened—or, more precisely, what didn’t happen …”
In a similar way, we sometimes present our gospel-masterpiece in a context that belies our message. We speak of measureless love, unmerited grace, and infinite goodness but our tone of voice, demeanour, and lifestyles convey the exact opposite. We want people to quiet their hearts so they can hear the music of the gospel, but we’re performing in a context of judgmentalism. We want them to feel loved by God, but they feel unloved by us. We want them to be amazed by grace, but they can’t get past the smell of condemnation.
Perhaps we need to work on the context as well as the content of our evangelism. (128-129)