Cultural Clues to the Abundant Life


The most disturbing problem that many people face is not deciding what to put first in their lives, but how to put their lives together. It is not enough to know the truth; we must embody it. As President Harold B. Lee has said, “A truth of the gospel is not a truth until you live it.” It is no accident that we have come to stress “working out” our salvation. Such a phrase is precisely descriptive. The wholeness of life that the gospel demands must be achieved.

When Plato long ago insisted that the true, the good, and the beautiful are all one, he was not trying to blur distinctions or to support the comfortable thought that if we concentrate on any one of the three we will automatically have the other two. What he did hope to do was to raise our sights, to help us to see that the partial life, no matter how intensely it is lived, is never really satisfactory. To say that we are so concerned with goodness that we haven’t time to look for the beautiful is to confess that our concept of goodness is not as high as it should be. For, as Emerson has suggested, “Beauty is the mark which God sets upon virtue.”

The whole life is the happy, significant life. How embarrassing it is to hear someone say that he is not interested in music, art, drama, or literature. It is not a question of substituting these for something else. These are never adequate substitutes, but they are necessary supplements if we are not to be victims of cultural poverty.

The most obvious symptom of cultural poverty is boredom—the self-imposed jail of cultural deprivation. The young man or woman who confesses that he is bored is revealing more than a narrow range of interests; he is asserting his refusal to grow. Lack of opportunity can usually be remedied, but refusal to participate is fatal to the achievement of wholeness. It should give us pause that integrity originally meant completeness; now it often suggests no more than adherence to a limited set of values.

We are mildly incredulous when we read of the ancient Chinese custom of binding feet, but we are often fooled into applauding the dedicated skier who frets away the golden summer, waiting for the snow that never lasts long enough. Bound feet are only a physical inconvenience. A soul bounded by narrow interests mocks the Creator who gave it being and its potential for development.

It should not be inferred that failure to participate in cultural arts is the only, or even the most serious, gap in the lives of young people who want the fullness of the gospel, but it is the one most often discounted or rationalized. In a world where the common gauge is material value, the arts will never be completely at ease. Culture is useful, but it resists translation into monetary units. The balance sheet that the whole life strikes is not adequately described by double-entry bookkeeping. There is an accounting, however, that can fairly evaluate cultural assets. It is the accounting that we each will be called on to make some day at the judgment bar, and it is prefigured for us in the parable of the talents as recounted in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. Note that the essential point here is not how much we have but that we do something to increase what we have.

The special opportunities that the cultural arts present to expand our lives can easily be understood if we reflect for a moment on the nature of the activities they offer. Music, for instance, presents an unusually effective hedge against loneliness, yet is given richness by group participation. Shared interests turn a household into a family, but how few activities lend themselves so satisfyingly to participation in by young and old, skilled and unskilled, as music. A love of reading not only supplies an unending source of information, but it also helps to develop a sensitivity and ability to discriminate that transfers easily to all the areas of our life in which evaluations must be made. Who does not read the scriptures with greater understanding when the precision of his vocabulary has been fostered by wide and continued reading? What person who has tried his fumbling hand at artistic representation can fail to appreciate the creations of God?

The cultural arts are never ends in themselves. In the crisply focused words of Thoreau:

“My life is the poem I would have writ
If I could have both lived and uttered it.”

Fortunately, however, the choice is not between being an artist and being a whole person; the real choice is whether we want to be integrated or whether we want to be partial. The abundant life that Christ promised suggests a completeness toward which the cultural arts can make a significant—and wonderfully enjoyable—contribution.

[illustration] Art by Richard Hull

Dr. Thomas, academic vice-president of Brigham Young University, was formerly a professor of English and received the Karl G. Maeser Award for teaching excellence in 1967. He serves as counselor in the BYU Eighth Stake presidency.