As a performing musician, I have often wondered why it is that the classical concert scene in Europe (or at least many parts of Europe) generally has so much more vitality than in America, in terms of both the volume and quality of public participation. For example, I can never forget how German audiences, packing a church or hall for perhaps a town’s third oratorio performance in two weeks, would silently savor the musical experience well after the last note had ended, until the effect had fully sunk in, and only then would begin their heartfelt applause; whereas during my seven years living in one of America’s major cultural centers, I’m not sure I once attended a concert of the city’s foremost symphony orchestra at which the generic standing ovation was especially distinguishable from the mass flight to the exit that seemed to begin before the music had even had time to end properly.
What are we doing wrong? What do we have to do to become as cultured as the Europeans? Like the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17, I think the problem is largely encapsulated in our question itself. The problem is not merely that we are less cultured per se; the deeper problem is that we have a flawed understanding of what it means to be cultured: we think it is based on attainment; for us, “appreciation” means being able to pronounce judgments that sound educated to some degree. In other words, Europeans tend to appreciate art; Americans tend to appreciate their own appreciation.
This is hardly surprising in light of America’s consumerist and thus heavily self-centered society. So it is equally unsurprising that a corollary “symptom” that progressively haunts American society seems to find its way into the concert hall as well: an apparent and probably unconscious fear of anything beyond ourselves and the immediate sphere we feel we control. To a society plagued with this dis-ease, silence is the great threat; there is something vaguely terrifying about it: hence our addiction to gadgets, stimuli and busyness. Likewise, in the American concert hall, there is a curious need in between movements of a larger work to cough loudly, rustle paper, or do something to fill that awful silence. I will never forget attending a concert at a major American concert hall in which a renowned German singer, with a remarkable combination of apparent disbelief and good humor, had to educate his “elite” audience—from the stage!—on the importance of not breaking the mood between the songs of a song cycle with excessive noise.
It would seem that to the extent we are the object of our own admiration, we tend to become not merely indifferent toward the outside world but actually in some subtle way fearful of it. Could it be that we Americans as a society have hardwired into our nervous system a fear that the Deity whom we (think we) know so well as the God of our fathers is indeed standing at the threshold of our own personal “sphere” and knocking on the door? Could it be that at some level our collective faith has been replaced not so much with level-headed unbelief as with fearful avoidance of this God who speaks into the silence to decimate everything we always thought was our justification, to strip us of everything we always thought was our identity, and to call us out of everything we always thought was our comfort?
The European mindset provides a fascinating contrast: rather than appearing subtly fearful of encountering dynamic reality beyond the self, Europeans actually pursue it as a means of personal refreshment. European society seems to have retained (at some level of consciousness) the paradoxical realization that the greatest personal fulfillment comes not through self-absorption but through captivation with an “other.” Live music achieves this marvelously, drawing us out of ourselves by drawing us not only toward itself but also toward our fellow-man. And here we find another dimension of the paradox: just as the greatest personal fulfillment comes through being captivated by an “other,” so the strongest interpersonal or communal bonds are formed by side-by-side pursuit or experience of something external to that community. I am more fully myself when called out of myself by society, and society is more fully itself when called out of itself by something external to it. As representing this paradigm at both the individual and social levels, music stands not only as a powerful symbol but as a vehicle of actual individual and social growth—one might almost say “transformation.” Sensing this, European audiences tend to take a far more active role in the concert experience than American audiences, such that there exists a great dialogue of energy not only within the body of performers but between performers and audience, creating something that is strikingly greater than the sum of its parts: a glimpse of transcendence. And so the concert assumes a nearly spiritual significance in post-Christian Europe as an indispensible preserver of this sense of transcendence that has fueled European society through the centuries of its Christian past.
This is interesting from a cultural and sociological perspective, but the whole matter suddenly takes on a far broader and deeper relevance when we consider it in light of the nature and significance of entertainment itself. The word “entertain” literally means “to hold between” (entre + tenir). We use similar language when we talk about having some food to “tide us over” till the next meal. But it is important to realize that the thing that we choose to “tide us over” is of the same kind as what is anticipated: if what we are anticipating is eating a meal, then we will eat food to “hold” us until that anticipated meal comes.
So the question becomes, what does my approach to entertainment tell me about the functional hope of my heart? What am I ultimately looking forward to? If a self-focused state of vegetative distraction is what I am seeking in my entertainment, then that’s either an incredibly grim existential statement or else an indicator that the eyes of my heart are so fixed on this broken age that they are not being lifted up in hope to the glorious future I would otherwise profess to believe in.
But what if our European friends were onto something in the things they appreciate in their entertainment? What if these already-not-yet times do indeed look forward to an ultimate Other in whom alone we find ourselves truly? And what if this Other has not only called us out of ourselves personally but has ordained for us to live in restored, recast, and redemption-permeated society that similarly calls us out of ourselves to participate in one another’s stories? And what if the glue that binds this society together is not found within itself but rather in the great Other, as our own stories and the story of this renewed society become caught up together in the cosmic story of Him who fills all things through the transcendent power by which His body, the church, is made greater than the sum of her parts?
Could it be, then, that post-Christian Europe is actually longing for the living Jesus it has long since replaced with an attenuated figure relegated to the pages of historical mythology? And could it also be that many who disavow the One to whom their functional hope points actually perceive the implications of that hope more clearly than many who profess to believe in Him? (at least if our approach to entertainment is any indication…) I think we very easily believe tenets of our faith at most intellectually without having any real grasp of their meaning or beauty; otherwise I’m sure we would instinctively turn for entertainment to those things in which we find their glory reflected, as we would turn to a hearty meal after a long day’s work. But perhaps these imperfect “mirrors” of divine truths serve not merely to sustain us, to provide a “hold-between,” until the perfect comes; perhaps they also serve to teach us of this coming perfection by experientially illustrating beauties in the gospel that might otherwise have remained mere theological abstractions to us. God’s fingerprint is indeed all around us, if we will only see. And here is the marvel: that although “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by hands… yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:24, 27).