I want to do a 3-part series on how to view the world: sentimentalism, cynicism, and gratitude—the last of which is, though it is not a comprehensive response to these other two, it is a good beginning to seeing the world through biblical spectacles.
We are ‘Glorious Ruins’ as Francis Schaeffer so aptly put it; glorious because we are made in God’s image, and ruins because of the Fall and our rebellion against our Creator. In this 3-part series I am going to look at two enemies of the Christian faith: sentimentalism and cynicism. Sentimentalists, as we’ll see, fixate on the ‘glorious’ aspect, and cynics the ‘ruin’ part. Or Jesus said that we should be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matt 10); again, sentimentalism focuses on the second part and cynicism focuses on the wise as serpents. They are both destructive of biblical Christianity, and on a spectrum they are polar opposites, they pull in opposite directions. However, the cure is to not to mix one with a bit of the other. In that case, we no longer have a one-headed monster but a two-headed monster! (cynical sentimentalist or reverse!)
We all have laughingly groaned about some overly sentimental cards we may have received, but that barely scratches the surface of what we are looking at. It goes much, much deeper than shallow cards.
Sentimentalism may sound sweet, nice and innocuous, but in its strong form, it truly is destructive of our faith because it renders Christ's death unnecessary, as we’ll see. I believe that sentimentalism is incredibly huge in America/UK and is having an enormously corrosive effect on our culture and the truth—but very few see it for what it is because it is so NICE. (reminds me of the beautiful side of evil) It is massive in scope and I’m convinced that it is thoroughly under-evaluated, under-analyzed, and under-appreciated for the negative impact it is having on culture and the church. Why? Again, because on the surface, it appears and sounds so sweet and nice, especially compared to some foes of the faith that are more militant—like paganism or atheism. Strident atheistic critics of our faith are much more easy to spot and to respond to.
Both sentimentalism and cynicism are like glasses through which we view all of reality; they are worldview glasses. Some of you wear glasses but you are not aware that you are looking through them when you wear them. You may take them off to clean them or go to the optometrist to make sure that you are seeing clearly. And that is what we need to do—clean our worldview glasses; take a long, hard look at how these ‘glasses’ of sentimentalism effects how we see everything. It effects how we see ourselves, our inner life and emotions, reality, God, His redemption, our relationships, ect. Remember that sentimentalism has become ubiquitous and can be seen in every aspect of American culture; art, media, politics, entertainment, relationships, etc. Its devastation is all the more insidious and dangerous because it sounds so lovely on the surface. I won’t have the time to dissect how it has effected culture in all respects because it is enormous, and because some of it depends on human taste and subjectivity (e.g. art).
First, let me say very strongly that I am NOT coming down on emotions or sentiments. We need emotions to be human and they are a lovely part of life. Nor am I criticizing strong expressions of strong emotions/sentiments—just think of the emotional life of our Lord and how He showed deep emotion or sentiment (e.g. tomb of Lazarus). So, the issue is not emotions/sentiments per se, but a selfish or twisted use of them.
Let me define sentimentalism, and then you will see the need for concern. (I need to give credit to Dick Keyes from L’Abri who helped in this study) In it’s strong form it consists of three things: first, there is a denial of evil, sin, ugliness, dirtiness, brokenness and complexity; second, emotions are self-referential—emotions turned in on themselves (I’ll explain this shortly); and lastly, emotions do not lead to action, especially if it is self-sacrificial or costly in any way.
There is an inner coherence or twisted logic that holds these three together, though they may be experienced individually at times.
Let’s look at each one and then show how they collide with biblical Christianity. The first aspect of sentimentalism is the denial of evil, sin, suffering, ugliness and complexity. What it wants and sees instead is: goodness, niceness, sweetness, peace, and simplicity. In fact, it’s watchword is ‘niceness.’ It does not want to face the ugly side of life. It refuses to see it. It will do all in its power to mask, trivialize, or downplay the harsh realities of life in a fallen world.
That is not real life in the fallen world, and sooner or later they will have a very rude awakening to the harsh edges of God’s world. We may deny evil and sin but we cannot escape living in God’s world. But this sin and ugliness denial is so very prevalent, and it starts young. Think of the message of Barney and Friends—all areas of life are covered with a pink cloud of optimism and PC values. Disney has created a similar world, which is also devoid of God, sin and redemption. Our kids are being exposed to a sentimental view of life from early age. Sesame Street and Kaptain Kangaroo had real kids without scripts and things went bump. Even classical children’s stories that speak of evil step-parents are being downplayed. We want stories that always have happy endings but that is not life in the real lane.
Let me give an adult example. Joseph Goebbels was the Minister of Propaganda for the Nazi Party from 1933-1945. He had a fascinating strategy for masking the evil that was becoming increasingly ensconced in that culture. On State radio he mandated the music. One might think that he would have played Wagner and military marches but instead he required the playing of non-stop syrupy and sappy love songs. Hour after hour, year after year, Goebbels played these love songs while all the while all around them Hitler was turning their country into a police state based on racism. The people’s perception of profound evil was being affected and distracted by this relentless barrage of sentimental music, which blinded the people seeing what was right in front of their noses. The trivialization and denial of evil, ugliness and suffering through music was state controlled and very effective in controlling the masses.
I am amazed that after the bloodiest century in the history of mankind (170 million non-combatants were slaughtered by Communists) we are experiencing this profound evil denying worldview.
Immediately it is apparent how this radically impacts one’s ability to see a need for a savior. If we deny sin and evil, then there is no need for a savior; Jesus becomes an irrelevant nice guy or even a joke. Sin is the whole reason Jesus came into the world, so if we deny or trivialize sin then we will not see a need for a savior. They may like Easter (because of its positive energy) but not Good Friday. Do you see how serious this is? And we are talking about a view of the world that has become enormously popular, and aspects of it have entered the church as well. Not so sweet and innocuous as it first sounded is it? It is sending many to hell because it is undermining the entire message of redemption; no sin, then no need for a savior. With these glasses, the gospel seems primitive and obscene.
But it is not just salvation. It blinds people to the true suffering that people are going through. This mindset is reflected in what is the life goal for many: personal peace and affluence; just leave me alone and I don’t want to see the ugly underbelly of your life. I read recently that one woman said that all she wanted from life was to be drama free and to have fun and laugh. That is a recipe for not only wasting one’s life here but for losing it eternally.
The mega-popular authors and pastors alike often avoid speaking of dark themes which the bible speaks so frankly about. We live in a terribly broken and fallen world, in which we are glorious ruins. However, sentimentalism is: we just want to have fun and no drama in relationships. They fixate on the glorious aspect to the total neglect of the ‘ruin’ that has befallen all of us.
A singer songwriter from NC is James Taylor who is internationally famous. And the song which jumpstarted his career in 1970 was ‘Fire and Rain.’ This song is about drug addiction/heroin withdrawal, suicide, career slide and emotional collapse, as he was institutionalized a few times. Nevertheless, at a large fund raiser 40 years later, there was Taylor grinning as he sung this song about horrible realities but brought back sentimental feelings for the audience—they were grinning and swaying. There was a total disconnect between the awful lyrics and our wanting to squash harsh reality and focus on sentimentalism. That is an example of musical sentimentalism. I hate to face the ugly side of life so leave me alone.
This avoidance of the ‘ruin’ is what is driving many people’s fanaticism about fitness. Fitness is wonderful and I enjoy it, but for many, they do not want to think about the ugliness of death, so they throw themselves into all kinds of activities that distract them from thinking about the inevitability of death. Instead of doing the rational thing and making sure we are ready to die well, we avoid and deny it. In truth, we are not ready to live well unless we are first ready to die well…it will always be haunting us. So, sentimentalism denies or mutes the harsh realities of life, like sin, brokeness and suffering. They don’t have a corner on denial of evil; paganism and a host of other -isms deny evil too.
From Genesis 3 to Revelation God’s assessment of all mankind is that we are sinners: ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’(Rom. 3:23) So, this aspect is a total denial of reality, as we know and experience it, and most importantly as God declares it to be. Our feelings are not the ultimate criterion of truth; God’s Word is. Our experience is to be sifted through the bible and not vice versa.
Second, sentimentalism is emotionally self-referential; emotions are turned inwards. Its directing your emotions towards your own emotions, so you are the subject of the expression of your emotions. What I mean is that we are more concerned about our experience of our emotions than we are for the people who we are emoting to because of their pain. Instead of feeling true sadness for a person who is suffering, the sentimentalist feels good about themselves that they are expressing sad emotions. So, what may look like feelings for others, really may have ‘me’ as their object. For example, do I really love this person or do I love how this person makes me feel? And what happens when they don’t make you feel good about yourself? Sentimentalism has done great damage in relationships and marriages because true love is not the goal—self sacrificing love. Many on dating sites speak of initial chemistry, how this person makes me feel? It is fine and good to be attracted to the one you want to marry but how will this chemistry handle the first argument you get into, when they no longer make you feel good? As a former pastor who has performed many weddings, I really like the classic vows because they force one to think through all the possibilities of when your spouse may not be ‘chemistry on fire’ anymore; for better/worse, richer/poorer, sickness/health, til we are parted by death.
It has been said that sentimentalists see all of reality revolving around them. Whatever happens, their response is always: how does this affect ME? It is a terrible situation where they cannot even acknowledge that there are other people, and an entire external world, which is outside of them.
A biblical example of self-referential feelings is King Hezekiah. In Isaiah 39 Isaiah rebukes the king for his hubris in showing all his riches—he tells the king that his country will be utterly destroyed. And Hezekiah’s response? Classic self-referentialism—‘what you have said is good.’! He had positive emotions because all the devastation would occur after he died. Incredible selfishness.
Another example is Tennyson’s long poem entitled ‘In Memorium’ which is about the tragic death of his 22 year old best friend Arthur Hallum and sister's fiancée. It is 50 pages long but hardly nothing is said about the dead man; we learn nothing about Arthur Hallum; it is all about Tennyson’s reflections on HIS emotional response to this tragic death; his struggle with his emotions and doubts about his faith. It is all self-referential; its all about his feelings about his friends death but nothing is said about the man himself. It’s all self-referential; the dead man is lost in the shuffle of his emotional turmoil.
The media is very good about eliciting an emotional response from the audience that makes them feel good about their emotional response of feeling bad. It is all about making one feel good about the fact that they have expressed themselves; pride in one’s emotional response. It is quite twisted.
Have you ever told a friend about a trial you are experiencing, only for them to reply how this inconveniences them? ‘I had a flat tire’. ‘Oh what a bummer because I wanted to borrow your car tomorrow.’ That can get old real quick for those on the receiving end. Or take the counselor who feels the need to be needed, and so he does not really want you to get healed. Pastors sometimes do this too; need to be needed.
Worst, perhaps, is when a person has heard potential or real devastating news regarding their friend's health. But they express extravagantly (perhaps on Facebook) how much it has kept them up at nights, but you have not even heard from them. They are more concerned about how noble they feel about the sadness they feel for your devastating news.
Those who are on the receiving end of such self referential emotions feel like prey; they can tell that its more about the other person and their feeling pleased about themselves, than a proper compassionate concern for you. After such an encounter the true sufferer may likely have a ‘hunted’ look on his face—he has fallen prey to this persons selfish quest for emotional self-validation as a ‘caring person.’ The reality is that they are emotional vampires.
This of course flies in the face of countless biblical texts about putting others before oneself. It is also destructive of true expressions of genuine compassion. Jesus was quite indignant about those who did good things for show. This aspect undermines all true compassion and turns people into selfish folks…deep down, shallow people. However, I need to add that we all struggle with hypocrisy at some level.
The third aspect of sentimentalism is that our emotions do not lead to appropriate action; especially if that action is sacrificial or costly. If we refuse to see evil and our emotions are self-referential, then it only makes sense that that person is apt to close their eyes to evil/suffering and do nothing.
I heard the story of wealthy couple in 19th century England and they go to the theatre on a cold wintry night. They are both moved to tears about the story of a poor person who is belittled and battered by uncaring rich folks. Meanwhile, the carriage driver who drove them is outside and almost froze to death while waiting in the cold. He forgot to clean the snow off the step of the carriage and the woman got snow on her shoes. The husband gets verbally abusive and furiously horsewhips the driver for this oversight. They are totally oblivious to the disconnect between their response to a play and how they treat their driver in real life. They can weep at a play but have no compassion on the poor man outside, nearly frozen to death—sentimentalism can elicit strong emotion but it does not lead to costly expressions of love.
For the sentimentalist, their strong emotions stop with their emoting and feeling good about their emoting. They don’t feel any compulsion to reach out to anyone who is need, especially if they have to roll up their sleeves to do so. If there is no evil, and if the feelings we do have are self-referential, then it only makes sense that that person is not likely to do anything to help.
This is why sentimentality is so dangerous because it is all about niceness and warmth. It is very easy for Christians to overlook because it looks so sweet and kind and we are used to getting worked up about raving atheists, like the late Christopher Hitchens. But to realize that much we value is being undermined by niceness is a strange shift of gears for us. The bible is full of warnings about the dangers posed by sentimentalism. The following passage from James captures and condemns all three aspects of sentimentalism.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
First, in this text James is condemning the attitude that denies in practice the reality of suffering because they are looking squarely at folks who are nearly naked and starving but seem to look right past it. They do not take seriously another person's suffering; they don’t see it. But since it is a sin of omission and not commission it is easy to overlook. But sins of omission are a brutal reality in a sentimentality soaked culture. Second, they seem to feel quite good, smugly self-satisfied and self-congratulatory about their emotional and verbal response. However, their shallow and self-centered emotions do not result in any action at all; it would cost them something—like interrupting their supper. They neither clothe nor feed them. Instead they feel quite content with uttering a pious cliché and slamming the door in their face. To this James says that that kind of faith is dead. And it critiques all 3 aspects of sentimentalism.
Do you see how sentimentalism is not just confined to Hallmark cards? It is an entire worldview that has America and the west in a tight death grip. With its categories, the redemptive work of Christ is rendered useless and unneeded. If there is no evil and man is basically good then who needs a savior? That is why we must hammer home the law to reveal that all of mankind is in desperate need of a savior.
Not all three aspects of sentimentalism are present in every situation; sometimes it may just be just one-like the first aspect. But that in itself is enough to dissuade anyone from looking seriously at the gospel. The church is not immune to this dust of death which is settling everywhere. All three aspects have crept in the back door. The Christian bookstores are filled with bestsellers which make people feel good about themselves; shallow in theology but rich in sentimentalism. Some mega pastors virtually deny sin and evil by not mentioning it from the pulpit. ‘If you only have enough faith, then you can make your suffering go away’, then like Job’s counselors we may become blind to people’s true suffering—throwing sentimental biblical clichés at them. We feel in clichés and talk in clichés. Not enough worship music mentions the blues and becomes biblically imbalanced.
The beguiling attractiveness of sentimentalism is that it can be mistakenly connected with fond memories of a loved one. Please, I am NOT saying that we should be cold and emotionless robots. It all depends on how we define sentimentality. My deeply fond memories of my deceased parents and siblings are a profound sentiment of mine. But deep sentiments is not to be equated with an -ism, in this case sentimental-ism. In most instances, the root word is perfectly fine until the suffix ‘ism’ is added.
In close, I want to reiterate how massively sentimentalism has infiltrated our society and the insidious damage it has done, and continues to do. It is wrecking havoc in every area of life. But the tragedy is that this tsunami leaves hardly a trace of even a wake, because it is not being seen. Our glasses are fogged. It is truly the child of the angel of light; a ‘nice sin’ of omission.
Mark Hunnemann is the author of Seeing Ghosts Through God's Eyes: A Worldview Analysis of Earthbound Spirits. It's also available in eBook forma