Sentimentalism would not be high on pastors’ lists of threats to the church, were they to be polled for such a thing. False doctrine, lack of commitment, entertainment culture, the homosexual lobby, Youtube attention spans, radical Islam, the prosperity gospel, declining missions, pornography, moral failure in leaders, pragmatism and a host of others might be on the list. Sentimentalism? You think a few sappy Christians who get teary-eyed over Kinkade and kittens are a mortal threat to the church? No, not when you put it that way, which is, ironically enough, a sentimental way of defining sentimentalism.
Sentimentalism, as Jeremy Begbie puts it, is at least three things. First, it is a distortion of reality by trivialising or evading evil. A fiction of innocence is projected onto self, others, and the world. This can only be done by mentally avoiding the irrationality and horrific nature of evil, and selecting those parts of life which are pleasing and good – and exaggerating them. Ambiguity and disharmony are spray-painted over with glib trivialisations, “it’s not that bad”, “people are just people, in the end”, “he’s in a better place, at least”, “death is just a doorway”, or the musical trivialisations of pop tunes.
Second, sentimentality uses that air-brushed view of the world to be emotionally self-indulgent: loving its own feelings more than any reality which supposedly evokes them. It does not merely cry, it loves to cry; it does not simply hate, it enjoys the hate; it is not simply “passionate”, it is passionate about being passionate; it is not only sincere, it deeply moved by how sincere it is. In fact, it is even more satisfied with how its emotion will impress others (how many likes and comments did my Fakebook rant over the poor service or my post goo-gahing over my child get? I’ve checked at least every five minutes). The sentimentalist’s emotions have become a kind of narcotic, a high he seeks to avoid the hard edges of reality. Music is just a soundtrack to the movie he’s starring in, other people are the audience, relationships are the characters that orbit his absorbingly compelling existence.
Third, sentimentality takes no appropriate costly action. A sentimentalist uses life as a backdrop for his selfie, which he then views repeatedly. He is not responding to life as it is, and making changes. He is responding to his falsified version of life, which allows him to keep feeling his treasured feelings. He lives in his own little hall of mirrors, and that is as he would have it.
Granted, this sounds amusing at first. But imagine, for a moment, that sentimentalism is a bigger problem than you’ve thought. Imagine, for example, that the following kinds of people existed:
- “Worshippers” who love their deep worshipful feelings with scrunchy-face intensity, who believe that bands and preachers that can make them cry are totally deep.
- “Worshippers” who long for the ‘beautiful old hymns’, by which they mean the Smiley-Face hymns of 19th century Victorian Romanticism.
- Listeners who want sermons that ‘make us feel uplifted’ and hate sermons on sin, judgement and Hell.
- Listeners who want sermons that ‘tell it like it is’ and hate sermons on mercy, compassion, and Heaven.
- Preachers who take their listeners on an emotional rollercoaster, but safely deposit them exactly where they were at the beginning, knowing they’ll wipe their tears and come back next week.
- Preachers who use gutter-talk, racy illustrations and gruesome descriptions because they’re keeping it real, man.
- Married couples whose marriages are devastated because they were searching for passionate feelings that never seemed to last, who do nothing with biblical counsel, because they are waiting for passionate feelings to develop and propel them into action.
- Christians in chronic depression over the world, because it is darker, more disturbing, and more ambiguous than they want it to be.
- Christians in chronic cynicism over the church, because reality is darker, more disturbing and more ambiguous than most Christians admit.
- Parents who are drooling with ‘love’ over their widdle-munchy-munchykin, but will have all the brutality of a death-camp commander should their child be denied something by the Sunday School teacher, or should the church make demands on family-time.
- Christians whose believe their deepest spiritual experiences have been while watching The Passion of the Christ, Fireproof, Ben-Hur, or Facing the Giants.
Imagine if such people existed.