Over the past few days, I have been engaged in some much-needed family immersion. Among other things, I rediscovered the joys of eating jello pudding with children, playing an impromptu “turkey bowl” football game (with players ranging in age from eight to forty-something), and whipping some teenagers at the board game Risk.
Another aspect of the immersion was 24 hours of driving (round trip). During this time, I found myself drawn to a CD containing John Denver’s greatest hits. The initial attraction was purely a function of impoverished choices: Southern Illinois does not have many radio stations, and the only people who thought to bring music were my wife (mostly Christmas CDs) and my daughter (mostly music I do not understand). I have never considered myself a John Denver fan, so I was surprised to find that I knew the words to so many of his songs. (Of course, the words are not difficult. John Denver was noted for simple, straightforward lyrics.) What surprised me even more was that I liked so many of his songs.
Actually, I was even a bit embarrassed when I found myself singing along to “Sunshine on my Shoulders.” I have heard people mock this song for its simplicity (“only two chords”!), but certainly that was part of the challenge in writing the song. (Right?) Anyway, in a troubling bout of self-analysis, I then found myself being embarrassed by my embarrassment. Why does everything have to be so complicated before I can enjoy it? I can’t just eat cheese; I have to eat artisanal cheese. I can’t just read a novel; it has to be a complex and intricate story. And so on.
Being a sophisicated consumer of almost anything usually implies an appreciation of nuance and subtlety that is lacking in novices. I suspect that most of us associate such sophistication with increased joy. We think of “sophistication” as a good thing. But there is a dark side. The critical eye shifts easily from being merely careful and exacting to judgmental and snobbish. This natural inclination, combined with the fact that many of us order our lives to ensure minimal engagement with matters on which we are not “sophisticated,” forms the foundation of a potential problem.
One of the areas in which we fancy ourselves “sophisticated” is the Gospel. Are sophisticated consumers of the Gospel different than sophisticated consumers of cheese or music or literature? When sophisticated consumers of the Gospel attend sacrament meeting, they are tempted to read a book rather than listen to the talks. When sophisticated consumers of the Gospel sit in the Gospel Doctrine class, they are bored by the “Sunday School answers.” Even the interesting answers seem unsatisfying because they require some unpacking, and Gospel Doctrine teachers rarely have the time (or inclination) to unpack.
So this is what I learned listening to John Denver: I want my understanding of the Gospel to be deep, but I do not want to lose my appreciation for simple things. “Jesus lives!” is a transcendent fact, with all sorts of interesting implications for our lives and behavior, but it is also a message my youngest children can value. And while I have, in Kristine’s words, “glimpsed … the joys and the redemptive possibilities of intellectual engagement,” I also want to revel in the simplicity of the Gospel message from time to time.