Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Dangers of Sentimentality

I have been influenced by the life and thought of Francis Schaeffer so I was excited to receive the book Francis Schaeffer: A Mind and Heart for God (edited by Bruce A. Little, 2010) a couple of years ago.  Most of the chapters revolved around the work of Schaeffer but the last chapter by Dick Keyes picks up a topic of current relevance.  His topic, however, was a bit perplexing to me when I first saw it.  His chapter was entitled "Sentimentality: Significance for Apologetics."  Sentimentality?  This is a crucial topic for Christian apologetics?  Those were my first impressions from the title but after reading the chapter I found Keyes to have important insights regarding this topic.  This was just as Keyes predicted in his introduction:
I will look at sentimentality as a serious, but largely unnoticed threat to the Christian faith.  It may seem strange to you to raise sentimentality as anything but a frivolous pop-culture phenomenon, but as we progress, I think you will see its significance.  (p. 89)
Keyes begins by addressing the kinds of problems that sentimentality poses for Christians.
First, if sentimentality has seduced the Christian community, that itself is a serious enough problem to Christian integrity.  But insofar as this seduction has happened, it then becomes a reliable turnoff to honest people who are investigating whether truth might be found in Jesus Christ.  They will conclude that faith in Christ is only sentimentality, and scorn it.  It has become a negative apologetic in the sense that it contributes to the implausibility of Christ in the public mind.  Second, it presents a challenge to Christian apologetics in that the sentimental person who is not a Christian will have built-in filters and barriers to real Christian belief which will block him or her from taking Christ seriously.  (p. 90)
Sentimentality is defined by Keyes under three points:
First, sentimentality sees a world without sin, evil, brokenness, ugliness, cruelty, complexity, or confusion.  These unpleasant things are denied, trivialized, or euphemized.  It is a world of niceness, warmth, harmony, and simplicity.  Second, sentimentality is self-refrential emotion.  It is a turning of the feelings back on themselves, feeling about your feeling.  This means that people in the grip of sentimentality who think they are in love may actually not so much love another person, as love their own emotions about that other person.  Their love may be largely for what the other person does to and for them.  Third, sentimental emotions do not result in responsible action.  This makes sense if feelings are self-refrential (about me, not the outside world).  Sentimental emotions distract and anesthetize us from what might be appropriate responses, especially if those responses are costly or inconvenient.  (pp. 90-91)
In reference to the third point--a lack of response to the emotional stimulus--Keyes points to a familiar and ubiquitous example:
Think about the vast popularity of TV news.  What is it designed to do?  Of course it is designed to entertain in order to make money, which it can only do by keeping you from changing channels.  But how does it keep you from changing channels?  Much of the TV news is designed to make you feel good about yourself for feeling bad.  TV news is designed to engage your emotions, not that you would do anything about the news (how could you possibly?), but that you would feel right and good about feeling those things--grief, outrage, compassion, and empathy.  Could it be that some TV news builds feelings of satisfaction about myself for feeling compassion about the victims of murder, assassination, flood, earthquake... much more than it encourages actual concern or action for the people who are hurt?  (pp. 97-98)
This kind of sentimentality is already being seen in some of the current responses to the Newtown, CT murders.  There are those who eschew complexity and look for simplistic answers.  The primary way this is being played out is the hue and cry for gun control.  There are also well-meaning people who want to "do something" but the something they end up doing doesn't make much sense.  Locally a group of people responded to the murders by collecting four and half tons of toys to be sent to Newtown.  As I watched this I shook my head.  It's a nice but largely meaningless gesture.  Newtown is an upper-middle class neighborhood--I've heard the average house is valued around $400,000.  They don't need a huge quantity of toys to help them cope.  Now if this had been a natural disaster with families displaced then maybe this "toys for tots" response would make sense.  As it is Newtown doesn't need this but to point this out is to somehow present oneself as a grinch.

Christians need to be especially alert to sentimentality in the church.  Keyes points out that:
many Christians can't stand to face doubt, uncertainty, or conflict in areas close to their faith, so they have a sentimental language code that filters them out and replaces them with warm, nice euphemisms.  It is not the doubts, uncertainties, and conflicts that create cynics as much as it is the denials and euphemisms of the code.  (pp. 100-101)
This is much in line with the thoughts of Klaus Issler and J. P. Moreland that they outline in their book In Search of a Confident Faith.
 Thus, we now have a stifling, stagnating situation in the evangelical community: People do not feel safe in expressing doubt or lack of belief about some doctrinal point—even the question of whether they actually believe in God.  The result is that people hide what they actually believe from others, and even from themselves, all the while continuing to use faith-talk to avoid being socially ostracized in their local fellowship.  Because we do not fully understand assensus (and fiducia; see below), we have unintentionally created a situation in which people do not know how to distinguish what they believe from what they say they believe.  Thus, they substitute community jargon for authentic trust.  To effectively address this situation, we must create safe, honest, nondefensive fellowships in which people are given permission to be  on a faith journey, with all the warts, messiness and setbacks that are part of such a journey.  We must also address general and specific intellectual doubts, provide insights about the affective, emotional hindrances to growth in confidence in God, and become more intentional about bearing credible witnesses to each other regarding answers to prayer and other supernatural experiences that strengthen faith.  (p. 22) 
Sentimentality undermines reality and, thus, undermines the gospel message.  The people of the gospel must be willing to face the brokenness of the world with honesty.