I’ve been reading a (sort-of) autobiography of the Guarneri String Quartet. Sort-of because, as author Arnold Steinhardt points out, one can’t really write an autobiography of a four-man entity. He shares the hilarious and awkward moments in the history of the quartet as various stage managers, adoring fans, and appreciative concertmasters attempted to treat a fundamental plurality as a singularity.
Well-meaning people after a concert would sometimes present the quartet with a single gift, such as a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of wine. That entitled each of us to four daisies, one rose, and several swigs from the bottle we might pass around later that evening. Once, as a token of their appreciation for the many times we had played for them, a concert society awarded us with a leather-bound diary with a lock. Did they imagine that, kneeling in unison, we said our prayers together every night, and before getting into the same bed and turning out the light, we wrote in the diary together, ‘Today we met a mysterious stranger’?”
If any performing group could be justified in exploring and pontificating on the complexities of unity, diversity, and teamwork, the Guarneri Quartet has earned this right through years of labor. Formed in 1964, the quartet managed to defy odds and expectations and remain a cohesive group for 37 years. The extraordinary longevity of this quartet is best noted by contrast: when the first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet retired in 1997, the new violinist became the the tenth member of the group and the Budapest String Quartet, named by its founding members in tribute to their native Hungary, was composed entirely of Russians when the curtain fell on its last concert. The Guarneri Quartet stands out among quartets for never replacing a member of its group in its long and storied lifetime.
While perhaps evincing a hint of egoism that is birthright of all first violinists, Steinhardt draws a comparison between the finely-tuned teamwork necessary to the success of a group of astronauts working on the space station or climbers preparing to scale Mt. Everest to that of his string quartet. The goals, drive, and personalities must mesh together in perfect harmony and admit no impediment—no overbearing ego, grating personality, or variegated vision—to produce the delicate and fragile fruit of success. But perhaps the analogy is not too far off; after all, a string quartet aims at nothing less than harmonizing the various understandings and interpretations of one manuscript by four individuals, in real time, with no quarter given for disagreement. The nuances, suggestions, and directions of each member must be instantaneously recognized and responded to by three other human beings, even while each person is fashioning his own musical voice. The ability of each member to maintain his position in this flying caprice of interpretation marks the difference between gaining the summit of falling headlong into a chasm of discord.
Steinhardt’s sense of the dangerous journey the Guarneri String Quartet embarked upon at their first concert is profound:
There stood four men with different faces, body frames, playing characteristics, and souls. What kind of folly was the precise and deeply personal task we had set for ourselves?”
A similar question could be asked of other, less glamorous relationships—a marriage union, discipleship, new birth into the mystical Body of Christ, joining the membership list of a local church. What kind of folly is it to engage in the precise and deeply personal task of committing to unconditional love? After all, each of us have different faces, bodies, histories, and souls and there are no guarantees that these differences will be brought together in harmony simply because we so desire. What could be more foolish than believing that despite our differences we can be united together and enjoy a level of communion and fellowship that is indivisible? It’s hard enough finding a pair of blue jeans to complement the average body type, what is the probability of finding a soul mate, or a whole community of individuals, capable of matching the soul of any individual fallen man? This is the sort of folly Jesus referred to when he told his disciples to count the cost of coming after him—it’s a folly that cannot be quantified because it’s only justification is the eternal promise of God.
Foolish as it may seem, this sort of activity, entering into meaningful, binding, covenantal relationships with other human beings is not only what God expects of us, it is the means by which He blesses us. Imagine that! The labor-intensive activity of struggling to communicate with others and work together with them in pursuing a common goal is a blessing—and it’s supposed to result in a deeper beauty and clearer harmony than the best string quartet could ever attain to.
[I pray] that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may know that thou has sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.”
The unity that God has planned for His people is a unity that can only exist in a plurality. Just as musical harmony is impossible without multiple voices or instruments, and yet creates one meaning, one sound, one beautiful composition, so the harmony of the Church, and of God Himself, is impossible without a fundamental plurality in composition. The wonder of a unified Church, or a unified marriage or a unified friendship is that such different people are united in such inextricable ways while yet remaining differentiated from one another. Steinhardt argues that the strength of the Guarneri Quartet, and the secret of its longevity, can be found in the fact that each member of the group never surrendered his identity to another; every decision was made through a heated process of discussion and practice and mutual submission that allowed each voice to remain distinct while forging a harmonious identity with the other three.
This secret to success is not such a secret to the Christian. After all, whenever theologians are forced to make any positive and incontestable statement about the nature of God they always are left with this simple affirmation: the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father or the Son, and the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. Fundamental plurality in unity. Each person is separate and distinct yet indivisibly united with one another. This truth ought to undergird our attempts at Christian folly—undertaking the deeply personal task of forming an indivisible union between ourselves and our Holy God.