Blind, Deaf, and Dumb


I don’t normally change my plans for posts for the week, but my brother e-mailed me a story yesterday I just couldn’t believe. And I couldn’t believe it on so many levels that I could probably blog about it for the next month and not limn its depths.

As a musician, I enjoy a wide range of music. I think I can appreciate just about any genre of music. Punjabi sitar to punk rock to Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma”—hey, I like it all.

Which is how I know of Joshua Bell.

Sort of the classical music version of Bono, Bell’s the pre-eminent violinist of our times, under-forty, charismatic, and a lady-killer, too. He plays the noted “Gibson ex Huberman” Stradivarius worth $3.5 million. He commands $1,000 a minute performances all over the world.

But the Washington Post wondered what might happen if Bell were asked to dress down and play as a street musician near one of the busy subway connections in DC. An experiment in sociology, so to speak. Famed musicians were asked to weigh in on what might be the outcome. Most predicted problems. The biggest worry? Crowd control.

So Bell, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, took his multi-million dollar Strad down to the Metro to play incognito for morning rush hour. Hidden video camera still of Bell playing in DC subwayHe chose superb violin works unperformable by the less skilled. He played masterfully for the commuters.


The Washington Post has the whole tale (plus hidden camera video) in a fascinating story called “Pearls Before Breakfast.” Please read the whole thing.

Leonard Slatkin, the noted conductor, when asked what he thought might be the outcome, suspected that Bell would draw a large crowd and garner about $150 for his effort. The result proved far less stellar.

In truth, less than a dozen of the 1,097 people who passed by seemed to notice Bell’s presence. Fewer yet paused even momentarily to listen to the finest music in the world played by a virtuoso. Of those who did stop, a couple possessed past experience with the violin, enough to know the guy with his case left open for tips played on a level far beyond what could be expected from a street musician. One woman recognized Bell and stayed around simply because she couldn’t understand what she witnessed. She tossed in a bemused $20, making Bell’s total take for 43 minutes of stellar playing $32.17. And yes, a few folks threw in pennies.

I find it impossible to read that story and not consider that something’s profoundly wrong with us. In our hurtling from one place to another, our lives on perpetual fast -forward (at least until we hit the numbing reality of the cubicle), we’ve allowed the system we live in to rob us of time, relationship, culture, beauty, and every other mark of true humanity that simmers in our God-breathed souls. We act as if wonder itself might be purchased at Target for $9.99 on sale. We get our cheap, adulterated fix, then it’s head down and don’t get in our way.

One vignette within this cautionary tale tells of a mother whose three-year-old kept tugging her away from her objective so he could pause to listen to the guy playing the fiddle. I couldn’t help but think, and a child shall lead them.

Jesus Christ didn’t die simply to secure us a ticket to heaven. He died and rose again that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

In her book The Companions, science fiction author Sheri Tepper imagines a future in which people wear veil-like clothing in public in order to preserve their own cocoon of privacy. In many ways, I fear that Tepper’s world is already our own. What else can explain the silent shrouds we wear that cut us off from others, that speak to a child and tell him not to want to listen to the beautiful music, or to interact with the man playing it. That shroud descends over all of life, smothering it.

When I hear people telling me they prefer attending their local megachurch because it affords them some anonymity, I wonder when Jesus gave His divine imprimatur to our privacy. Yet we guard ourselves to the point of losing our souls. We numb our hearts to life going on around us. Wrapped in our cocoons, we literally fail to stop and smell the roses—or listen to Joshua Bell playing a Bach piece that once summoned tears to even the driest eyes.

Are we that beaten-down? That blind, deaf, and dumb?

It comes as no shock to me that much of Jesus’ ministry dealt with healing the blind, deaf, and dumb. We understand the physical component, but do we understand the spiritual and emotional portion of our marred humanity that compels us to walk by the world’s greatest violinist and not even pause for one moment to revel in his skill? To drop out of the ever-rushing torrent to soar on music crafted by the greats? Bach wrote “To the glory of God” on every work he penned, yet that glory wafts past us and we perceive it not.

How can it be that we have fallen so far, even those of us who claim to be Christians?

52 thoughts on “Blind, Deaf, and Dumb

  1. Dee

    I think most of us are out here fiddling away and many times feel completely unnoticed. It hurts to consider it, but it seems to be the reality of our times. I, too, am guilty of being oblivious to others’ contributions.

    Thanks for pointing out this article, Dan. It is fascinating reading and provides much food for thought.

  2. I’m afraid the Washington Post article has shattered me a bit. I found myself in tears at the end, and that because of a sense of loss, as though someone dear to me had died young. So much promise, flushed down the toilet. Oh, not the talent of a young man, I didn’t even know who Joshua Bell was. But at the loss of over 1000 people who did not consider it possible to stop and listen. Children, who have no need to be anywhere, saw it. But their adult caretakers didn’t. 3 people, out of over 1000, were willing to stop and wait. And merely listen.

    We are indeed lost if all we can think about is where we have to be next. And those around us are lost, if we are unable to take the time to notice them. I found it interesting that the Brazilian philistine compared the ignored violin player to the dead homeless man. People around us are dying, and their death is eternal, but we don’t see it because we are too busy “making a living.”

    “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”(Matthew 6:22-23

    There was a book, written in 1960, about a cricket that played classical music. He could never get anyone to listen, until one night, there was a huge power failure, and all New York went silent. And in that silence, came the sounds of beautiful music, lofting from a tiny Cricket in Times Square. It was a morality tale, and I can’t imagine the context has changed much in the nearly half century since it was written.

    Like Dan, I think I could go on for some time on this. I don’t feel outrage at the ignorance.

    I feel sorrow at the loss.

    • David, et al.,

      I felt the same way about this article. The loss is just stunning to me.

      I in no way want to pump myself up here, but I ALWAYS stop to notice the unusual. I don’t care what it is. If it catches my eye or ear, I will look. Mysteries surround us and I can’t be so focused on My Thingâ„¢ that I miss what’s going on around me.

      I may not always throw in money when I hear or see performers, but I will always stop to look or listen. I may even interact with them. If they’re good or move me in some way, I will definitely contribute.

      My wife responded in a more horrifying way than even I could imagine. She said that she would not stop because, as a woman, it makes her more vulnerable to crime if she stops moving and looks unfocused in what she’s doing. As a 6’4″, 215 lb. man, that would never cross my mind, but God help us even more if women out there are thinking what my wife’s thinking.

      Something’s wrong with us. We’re missing so much. If we act like this with something so simple, how are we doing in our spiritual lives?

  3. B

    That article made me want to cry—not in a wrenching way, just cry. It wasn’t even as much that this great musician is playing, and no one notices, it’s that anyone plays, and people can’t take five minutes to stop. People don’t want to notice, because they’re responsible, then, to give money, to slow down, to take a few minutes out of their prepackaged, vacuum sealed lives to listen to something that won’t get them more money, prestige, a new car, a bill paid, anything. It didn’t surprise me that the kids tried to slow down and listen.

    Kids instinctively realize that right now, something good is happening, and we should enjoy it. That’s why a kid will stop dead, right in the middle of the street, to watch a paraglider that’s so close, and isn’t that cool Mom, do you think he’s going to crash, Mom, look, look.

    Sometimes, I wonder why I seem to attract strange people—I don’t mean bad, just people that you can tell seem a little “off” somehow, and they’re always happy to talk, usually for as long as you’re willing to listen. And they always to seem to gravitate towards me—I think now maybe I just give off too many “I’m not going anywhere fast” vibes. So, I nod, and smile, and listen to them talk about their train collection, and their new girlfriend whose ten years older than them (and isn’t she better than that horrible wife I was married to for 20 years) and their old record players, and on and on.

    I don’t know. Maybe I should be glad about it.

    (That was one incredible article. Thanks for pointing it out.)

    • B,

      We’ve become utter pragmatists in everything we do. If we can’t see some sort of immediate benefit to ourselves, we pass. The problem comes when we realize that not everything displays an immediate personal benefit. Some things benefit the greater whole of society. Some things bring benefits far down the road. Some things just ARE, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good for us in some intangible way.

      It’s how this translates into our serving the Lord that strikes me as profound. I think you can explain a lot of dysfunction in the Church in America from this little experiment with Joshua Bell.

  4. Like David and B, I choked back tears while reading that article and I wondered why. The usual “tear-jerker” centers around a death or a loss…so maybe I am lamenting my own losses…the number of times I will never know that I have been “blind deaf and dumb”…or the times I have rushed my own children past a treasure in my own pursuit of nothingness. Wow, Dan, there is much to ponder here.

    • Patricia,

      I’m glad to hear that this article is affecting people as much as it is. I know I was just dumbfounded and solemn by the time I finished reading it. I hope we all learn something.

  5. Absolutely fascinating! Thank you so much for pointing this article out. It has made me think, and I wish I could say that I would have stopped and listened, but I am not sure I would have even noticed. That is what frightens me – that I wouldn’t have responded any differently than the people in the story.

  6. Wow. I was training early in my life to be an opera singer…. and despite all the jokes, it was hard training. To think that so many people just don’t get it.

    Anymore this world doesn’t understand the difference between filet mignon and a burger from McDonald’s. The scary thing is, they’d prefer McD’s.

    • Ronni,

      Back when my wife and I had some discretionary income, we honeymooned in Paris. Toward the end of our week, we took the train out to Versailles and met a couple from Pittsburgh who were also newlyweds, though a couple years younger than us.

      We got to talking about our time in Europe. They’d actually taken two weeks and had started in Italy, finishing up in Paris. When we compared notes, we talked about all the amazing restaurants we’d eaten in. We’d taken chances on little mom and pop places that turned out fabulous. We’d eaten at one of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, where a meal for two people cost $500. We’d gone to a neighborhood joint off the beaten path, where everyone sat at one extended table and you were rubbing shoulders with lifelong Parisians. In short, we’d tasted Paris.

      The Pittsburgh couple then horrified us by saying that they’d only eaten in Planet Hollywood, McDonalds, TGIFridays, and places like that. They bragged about NOT eating in the European restaurants. My wife and I were dumbfounded that anyone could spend their time in Europe eating in the same kind of slapdash restaurants we had in the States. And it wasn’t like this couple didn’t have money. They told us about all the shopping they’d done. Plus, we ate in one American chain restaurant while we were there just to see how it translated, and it was more expensive than the finer local fare.

      We still tell that story because it typifies Ugly American to us. People who just blow through and consume without ever stopping to see what lies just around the corner. No mystery exists. No risk. Just bland conformity and lowest common denominator thinking.

      I can’t live like that. There’s something soulless and dead in that kind of existence.

      • I hate the term “Ugly American” If you’ve read the book, it was the “Ugly American” who sacrificed himself in an effort to change lives. It’s the “Beautiful American” that is the travesty…

      • I understand totally. I never have understood the standard American mindset… people who can barely afford the car payment working their tail off for a car when they could drive a beater like mine, and afford a few books and take in a baseball game or go to a museum, but they’d rather work overtime to afford the big car.

        I’ve always thought of myself more as a “world citizen” than an American. I’m grateful I was born here, but honestly, sometimes I’m embarrassed and a bit angry at the un-graciousness and selfishness I see surrounding me.

        I’d travel with you guys in a second. Sounds like my kind of trip!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        Though I don’t go outside the US, I have taken road trips cross-country. (Or at least I used to.) When I do, I make a point of stopping at the local motels and eateries. (Like the ex-HoJos at the south end of San Luis Obispo with the all-you-can-eat spaghetti feed on Monday nights. Or the OLD Dow Villa in Lone Pine.)

        If I wanted to drive freeways and eat at McD’s or Denny’s, I could stay in Los Angeles. I still grieve that Steel City Diner in downtown Pittsburgh is no more; I used to pig out there when I was in town for AnthroCon (yes, I’m one of those Furries). It’s where the cops, delivery drivers, and construction workers ate.

  7. I think we live in a fast, busy world. Sometimes we just don’t realize what we are passing up (in this instance, the beautiful music) because we are in such a hurry. As I’ve grown older, I often find myself stopping and doing things I would not have done in my earlier years. We’ve grown old, being in a hurry, and just imagine how much we have missed in this life!

    I’m constantly wanting to go out and just explore, but my husband is usually busy. He went back to work after being retired for 6 yrs – that was 4 years ago. Now, he’s busier than ever before. So, it’s a treat when I get out with him to do something that isn’t on our regular agenda. I want to ‘slow down’ and enjoy the surroundings, etc …… before I’m too old to enjoy them, or even be able to get out to see/hear them.

    • Barb,

      Now if only you could get your husband to slow down!

      I know several retired men who simply could not enjoy retirement because of this problem of not knowing how to get off the hamster wheel.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        That’s what finally killed my father. Funny thing about workaholics; they always look forward to retirement (“Finally Getting Out of the Rat Race”), but once they do, their health usually fails pretty fast with Nothing To Do.

  8. Like this is news? Any serious artist out there who reads that article will nod knowingly. Classical musicians today do not enjoy rock-star status…or even finalists’ fame from American Idol. Pavarotti is an exception because he has enjoyed a long career mixed in with movie and television spots. Remove film and TV from his resume, and he would be unknown.

    We may not want to admit it, but public relations work is difficult…as difficult as creating an excellent work of art, in many cases. PR must convince a skeptical, time-pressed, cash-strapped public to buy a product or service, which art is in a consumerist worldview. What if Joshua Bell had worn a tuxedo? What if a small stage had been assembled on which he could stand?

    Many who go to symphonies do not go to listen to the music anymore than many churchgoers are at church to worship the Lord. They are there to hobnob, see and be seen, network for business deals, and provide a positive influence to their children, whom they drag into the seats.

    It is a sad state of affairs, but it reminds me of a Biblical principle on which Gary North writes from time to time called The Remnant. To summarize as best as I can, anything worth doing in life typically has little mass appeal. And even those things that have mass appeal have small audiences compared to the world’s billions of population. So what if one of Eminem’s albums sold eight million records? There are six and a half billion people in the world!

    Anyway…I did not read the article. I have too much to do today. *sigh*

  9. Peter Smythe

    Dan, I found the article on the Washington Post and clicked on the video(s). Watching Bell play, so animated and enthralled in the music, while no one paid him any mind reminded me of the Old Testament prophets – “Speak though they won’t listen to you.”

    Thanks for the article.

  10. brian

    very interesting, reminds me of a book (maybe Blink by gladwell) where it shows how orchestras changed when they started having blind rehearsals. Many more women made the cut when the judges didn’t know the sex of the performer.

    it’s plain and simple prejudice…you see a guy in the subway, it might be good, but the guy is performing in the subway, so you don’t think about it.

    in defense of all the heartless people who passed by, the article stated some of the ones who did stop by were music/violin enthusiasts. I don’t know that a lack of music ed/appreciation is a sign of the end of the world.

  11. Helen

    I see a different side to this issue. What we have become as a society is horrifying, but maybe the reason no one wants to stop and listen is because in the back of their minds, they know they could be recorded for whatever reason.

    Privacy is almost nonexistent in our culture. There are many law-abiding citizens who don’t want to get sucked up into what increasingly looks to be hopeless culture we are in, full of cameras everywhere.

  12. Matt Self

    I don’t think I’m stereotyping when I say the average American couldn’t pick objective skill and talent in music if you forced it on them. American Idol is a good example of this. They’re looking for the young, good-looking, semi-talented youngster who can sell whatever they’re attempting to package. I like Bono’s voice, Sting’s voice, etc., but in terms of objective skill and talent for singing, they are limited to their own stylistic material.

    As a musician, it is a badge of honor for me for some critic to tell me the jazz I’ve played is “indulgent.” I”ve never gone to gig thinking, “man, I hope it’s all about me tonight.” I feed off the interaction with other musicians. If I didn’t, I’d just be a solo act, and that’s just boring. But for some reason, if I play a few more notes than people are accustomed to, challenge the listener at all, it’s considered “indulgent.” We just can’t tolerate musicians who explore the width and depth of the instrument’s capabilities. And I’m not talking about chops monsters like Ynwie Malmstein or Steve Vai. I’m simply talking about musicians who’ve taken plausible risks.

    As Christians, I believe we’ve adapted to this mindset. It’s called “pragmatic Christianity,” and it’s just as demented a faith as box-confining theology of the Reformers it criticizes. It “walks right by” the beauty of God to something more easily digestible. There is objective truth you simply cannot deny if you have any real Biblical faith. The Gospel was surely meant to be understood by anyone of any rational ability, but it is the truth of a complex God who stands firm in His timeless truth and beauty — the true objective beauty — that empowers the Gospel. You can’t have the simplicity without the incomprehensible complexity of an omniscient, omnipresent God.

    • This is hardly an American issue. Yossif Ivanov, a famous Belgian violinist, was asked to do something similar, only at a beachside park, during the summer. He made enough to buy an ice cream cone. Bruce Springsteen, 20 years ago, played “The River” with a street musician in Copenhagen, with similar results.

      Distractions cross cultural barriers.

      If Jesus stood on a street corner and preached, would people stop and listen?

      “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

      Apparently not.

  13. Great… now I feel like I’d be “one of them” if I didn’t stop to leave a comment!

    I honestly have to say that I’m not surprised one bit. Not at all. But then again, I’m one of the many “angry white twenty-something Calvinist dudes” so that’s to be expected, I suppose.

    And I think that whole attitude I just described is yet another symptom of the same problem. I would probably weep more if I’d slow down enough to really let things effect me. Maybe I just let them get to me enough to irritate me, and then I’m off to the next thing.

    Maybe I really am “one of them.”

  14. I attend a mega-church because I feel a “Christ” (love) connection with the people from the moment I walked through the door. I am actively involved in my church of almost 30,000. It is sad to read that people attend a mega-church for anonymity, yet this is a reality. Our of 30,000 people, our volunteer base is only about 4,000. That’s 13% of the people doing 100% of the work.

    We have become a society that walks as if we have blinders on like the horses in Central Park. We forget to stop, listen, thank and give.

  15. Speaking of corner artistry, when was the last time any of us saw a street preacher on the corner? The last I remember, a black man dressed in a purple suit holding a large Bible preached loudly on a corner in New Orleans. Some had stopped to listen to him, too. That same day, if I recall, I saw many of the horrors of Bourbon Street: a young boy tap dancing (badly) for money, an almost open-air strip club, a brothel, a drug dealer, a voodoo shop, and Lucky Dog hot dog vendors, which my best friend, a former drug addict, explained had seemed like the meaning to life when he and his drifter friend were stoned one day down there. Then we had beignets at the Cafe Du Monde.

    • Michael,

      Yes, I remember far more of them in my youth.

      I saw a whole slew of them when a friend asked me to join him at an Ohio State football game. I’d never gone before and the whole event seemed like a zoo. But the street preachers really got me because they were joyless. They appeared to be part of the same group, clean cut young men in 50s style suits, young women wearing Bill Gothard-approved clothes, and not a smile to be found. They preached hellfire and carried the prerequisite signs of apocalypse soon to be upon us. I just could not escape the joylessness.

  16. I read the article about Bell via David Kuo’s blog, and my first reaction was that I wasn’t surprised. And my second reaction was — and I know, know this — I would have stopped and listened. Mainly because I don’t have a busy job to get to. I’ve gotten my friends irritable for standing and listening to street musicians in Europe.

    I know I would have listened.

    At the same time, in another sense, I walk by people who need help every day. This tells me I have time for the beautiful and not for the “ugly” and that is not Christ-like at all.

    Some work to be done inside, for certain.

  17. francisco

    Thanks for this. I read the whole article at the WP. I can summarize it with a phrase: the day Bell played at L’Enfant, Beauty was stabbed in the back by a couple of insolent thugs: Busyness and Indifference. I guess that is the bottom line.
    Now, we who bear the name of Christians should ask ourselves: do we delight in God as revealed in Jesus Christ or do we ignore Him because of our busy agendas? do we take risks to make people glad in God or do we numb ourselves with cheap entertainment? what are we investing our lifes in? We should ask ourselves the same question the young Jonathan Edwards asked himself (very sobering):
    “Monday, February 3, 1724. Let everything have the value now which it will have on a sick bed; and frequently, in my pursuits, of whatever kind, let this question come into my mind, How much shall I value this on my deathbed?”
    John Piper says it this way:
    “There is an old saying: ‘No man ever lamented on his dying bed, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’ [or…in front of the TV, or watching Youtube endlessly, etc]…No one will ever want to say to the Lord of the universe five minutes after death, I spent every night playing games and watching clean TV with my family because I loved them so much. I think the Lord will say ‘That did not make me look like a treasure in your town. You should have done something besides provide for yourself and your family. And TV, as you should have known, was not a good way to nurture your family or your own soul’ (Don’t Waste Your Life, pp 119-120)
    We should all grieve at how people waste their lives because they have lost sight of the infinite worth of Jesus. And yes, going beyond grief toward action…we need wisdom from above.

    Oh, God have mercy on us, glory-robbing sinners…

  18. Yes!!! It isn’t about the music, it’s about what we treasure and the thieves (you said busyness and indifference, in this case) that we allow to rob us of our treasures. And, oh…the “infinite worth of Jesus”…yes, God have mercy on us all! Thank you for saying so perfectly what I wanted to, but didn’t know how.

    • Patricia,

      Thanks. I’m convinced that busyness, especially in its symbiotic form with materialism, is another of the sins we simply fail to account for in modern American Christianity. You never hear sermons on the breakneck lives we live, nor on what our work lives are doing to our souls. I wish someone Christian of some notoriety would speak up and start addressing this issue.

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  22. Thank you for sharing this story. I’d not seen it elsewhere. But it does reflect how in our busy lives we’re not open to accepting the influence of the beauty and wonder all around us.

    I wonder if I would stop and listen. I once heard a wonderful saxaphone player in the Chicago airport and stopped, listened, and donated. I hope that I’d have been moved to stop and listen…and be moved to donate.

    Don’t we do the same with our love of Christ? He’s present in so many ways but we fail to stop and recognize Him. The power of the Holy Spirit is present, but we fail to stop and recognize it. This story compells me to stop, smell the roses, and recognize the true source of the wonderful fragrance.

    Thanks for the post.

  23. Mark L

    Over thirty million people voted last week on American Idol.
    It seems apparent that Joshua Bell has more talent and music ability (literally) in his little finger than the 12 idol finalists put together, many times over. Clearly, this isn’t about talent. Then what is the problem?

    I believe most of those people in the video were in a state of waking sleep, even as they went about their day- Seemingly on auto pilot. Take a look at the people driving by next time your at a stoplight. Blank faces, forlorn expressions, music blaring, yakking on cell phones. Why? For What?

    Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” Gen 28:26

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