Sentimentalism: Religions Besetting Sin

February 9, 1997


Sentimentalism: Religion’s Besetting Sin

No one could have guessed, from last week’s sermon title, what it would be about: “Singing Trees, Dancing Whales” did not give much of a clue, and I did that on purpose to arouse at least a passing curiosity. But this morning’s title, which speaks of religion’s besetting sin, is not obscure at all. To “beset” is to besiege, and what I intend to say is that something called “sentimentalism” distorts the Christian religion and causes many fine but tough-minded people to give up on it. Since hard-headed, realistic people are the very ones I like to see in church, I am not fond of sentimentalism, but this is a very tricky topic and before we any further we need to make a distinction between sentiment (which is good) and sentimentalism. (which is not). I discovered in my years as a professor of literature that the distinction is not always easy to make, so I need the help of some very thoughtful listening.
The dictionary won’t take us very far, but it’s a good place to start. It points out that sentiment has to do with emotions or feelings, and I’m sure we can all agree that we don’t care to know people who are without sentiment. There must be feelings that can be touched; otherwise, we are dealing with something sub-human — perhaps even someone like the killer of Bill Cosby’s son, described by a newspaper columnist last week as “a loathesome thing masquerading as a human being.” Without feelings there cannot be a conscience, and one of the most troubling things about American life at the moment is that we have so many untaught children growing up without a conscience. So — sentiment is a good thing.
But good things can become bad things when they are misused or when they are taken to excess. For example, wine is a good thing if you believe the Bible when it says, “wine gladdens life” (Eccl. 10:19), and when it relates without a hint of disapproval that Jesus provided an abundance of excellent wine at a wedding, but the same book has no doubt at all that excess — drunkenness — is bad. So, while sentiment is a good thing, when it is not reined in by reason and common sense, it turns into that excessive indulgence in emotion which is calledsentimentality . And because this can be addictive, the sentimentalist may go looking for a chance to be intoxicated by emotion, which is why certain movies set out so deliberately to wring tears from us by the bucketsful, no matter how mawkish or illogical the plot.
The problem with this whole business is deciding where the line is, where sentiment crosses over into sentimentalism, where an appropriate emotion degenerates into bathos, because it’s mostly a matter of taste — and taste can be a very risky thing to talk about. Cousin Carl reads the Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times and cannot imagine how his wife Jessie can stand the romance novels she buys at the grocery store. One of your friends likes country music, another one listens only to classical. What one person enjoys in a Sunday morning worship may embarrass someone else. I found out the hard way about differences in taste in my classes in literature. We used a textbook which defined sentimentalism as bad for you, like an overdose of sugar, and then tried to show the difference between it and sentiment by putting two short stories or two pieces of poetry side by side, without comment, and asking the students to make critical judgments about them. Far more often than not, the students would throw everything into confusion by preferring what the textbook editor (and the teacher) thought was the hopelessly sentimental story or poem — and then quite naturally resisting the idea that it might be useful to them if their tastes could be elevated. The difference in experience and taste between them and their text and teacher was a gulf too great to leap in a few class sessions, and I finally stopped trying. Tastes usually change because of age and experience, and not because somebody tries to force it, so I decided to let life do what I was not managing very well. After all, I reminded myself, some of the poetry I had liked as a teenager now struck me as so hopelessly maudlin or melodramatic that I could no longer bear to read it.
I should probably remind you right now that I haven’t forgotten that we are in church. There is a vital relationship between what we are talking about and how people approach religion and the Bible, and I plan to get there, but not quite yet. Because it occurs to me that if I were sitting out there hearing this, I’d be thinking, “OK, why don’t you give us a sample of one of those classroom exercises so we can consider just how sentiment and sentimentalism are different?” I should know better than to respond to that risky question, but fools rush in where angels fear to tread, so if you’ll promise to forgive me if our conclusions are different we’ll try it. Here, then, is a poem you may have read which the editor of that textbook chose for purposes of illustration:
“The little toy dog is covered with dust,/ But sturdy and staunch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,/And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,/And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue/Kissed them and put them there

“‘Now, don’t you go till I come,” he said,/’And don’t you make any noise!’
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed, /He dreamt of the pretty toys;
(I skip a few lines where the little boy dies that night in his sleep, &
where we’re told that over the long years the “little toy friends are True!”
And then it concludes:)

Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand/Each in the same old place —
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,/The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through/In the dust of that little chair.
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,/Since he kissed them and put them
The editor of our text , much to the annoyance of many in the class, called that poem hopelessly sentimental, manipulating its rhythm and its imagery to coax tears from the reader, and falsifying real life by dimming the darker colors and brightening up the warm ones. There is, for example, that sweet nickname — this child is not Bobby or Donald or Jack: he is “Little Boy Blue,” to make us remember a beloved nursery rhyme from our childhood. And the boy in the poem is himself rather abnormally sweet, playing nicely with his toys on the very night he died, although one would assume he must have been sick, and then toddling sweetly off to bed at the appointed time wihtout a single protest, quite unlike ordinary boys. If he ever disobeyed or had a temper or talked back to his parents, we do’nt hear about it. Only pretty actions have been selected, like kissing his toys.
Did you notice, the textbook editor would ask my students, that the word “little” is used an amazing 11 times to describe the boy, his hands, his face, his chair, his toys. Most of those “little’s” are superfluous, and they are obviously used to manipulate our emotions by calling to mind what is small and helpless and endearing. And how does the poet know that the little boy dreamed about his toys if he died in his sleep? And what can it possibly mean in real life to say that the toys (inanimate objects) are “true”? And can they really “wonder” what has happened to the little boy, or is this simply a way of sentimentalizing them? And then, using a second poem, the textbook editor tried to show how it was honest and true to real human life, celebrating deep feelings without cheapening them, and I agreed with him in our class discussion, and when the bell rang the kids walked out muttering, “I don’t care what they say! I liked the one about ‘Little Boy Blue’!”
So what does all this have to do with religion? I’m sure most of you can guess my answer. I think one of the worst things that has ever happened to Christianity has been the tendency to sentimentalize Jesus… the pictures we paint of him, by many of the songs we sing about him, and perhaps most of all by our misguided notion that he makes everything all right. But he could not avoid his own terrible death, and when his starry-eyed disciples vowed they would follow him, he warned them that he was a homeless person without even a bed to call his own, and that if they tried to live by his principles the world would most certainly make them suffer.
Since then, sentimentalism has reduced his philosophy to a warm, fragrant bubblebath, when in all honesty it was more like being scrubbed with lye soap. The man was radical, tough, demanding, often so enigmatic you didn’t know what he was talking about and you were afraid to ask (cf.Lk.9:45). Sometimes he was so blunt you would wish you were somewhere else, as James and John must have wished when they wanted to retaliate against some unfriendly village people and Jesus told them off, and as Peter must have wished when Jesus said, “Get yourself out of my way, Satan.” Peter was probably not in the mood at that moment to sing What a Friend We Have in Jesus . And if Jesus could say that to one of the Twelve who was being a bit gushy, what makes us think he wouldn’t say it to us when we let sentimentalism blind us to the hard realities of life?
All sentimentalists want to be loved, sentimental preachers more than most, so what happens to our emotional bubble-bath when Jesus says, “Woe to you when all people speak well of you”? How is it then, that in his name, so many people look for ministers who never challenge their audience with a controversial issue and who make the power of positive thinking the heart of their gospel message? Jesus was light years away from that don’t-upset-anybody behavior. Over and over he cut straight through to the very heart of things. I’ll give you some examples. He seems to have felt that being rich or poor was not nearly so important as what you did with wealth, or how you handled poverty. You probably read, as I did the other day, about that relatively unknown man of immense wealth who so quietly gave away millions that the general public was unaware of it. Do you think for a moment that Jesus would say to such a man, “It doesn’t matter how much good you’ve done, you’re rich, and wealth is a curse”? I think not. I find no place, ever, where he made a blanket indictment of wealth.
But unlike some of us, he was never for a moment intimidated or overly impressed by wealth, and never for a moment did he lose sight of what was more important than money. To that rich young ruler who bubbled sentimentally about how eager he was for eternal life, but who really cared more for his money than for goodness, he wrote a bitter prescription: “Go sell what you have and give to the poor, and follow me.” It wasn’t a general commandment. He tried that radical cure on no one else, but he obviously saw that this man was in bondage to his fortune and only kidding himself about a nobler life, and he refused to play games with him. So the rich young ruler walked away indulging himself in feelings of sadness because he really didn’t have the will to change his priorities. No soapy sentimentalism on the part of Jesus in dealing with this man.
And to that Samaritan woman at the well, who had had so many husbands, and lots and lots of trouble, surely, believing in herself, he said in effect: “This conversation we are having is not really about well water, it’s about living water. It’s about a different kind of love. Quit kidding yourself about how things are with you and learn to believe in yourself again.” He didn’t soften his words, he didn’t pamper, he struck straight through her pretenses — and she ran off to tell her neighbors that she had met Somebody who really knew the truth about her.
And to that group of flea market entrepeneurs who had set up shop in the temple and were compromising the integrity of worship what he did not sweetly say was this: “I know you fellows have to make a living, and you have kids and all, and times are hard, and inflation has gone wild, but if you could just see your way clear to not doing this it would really be appreciated.” What he said — this unsentimental, no-nonsense man — was: “Get this stuff out of here, you gang of thieves, get it out in a hurry….and I have a whip if you need help!”
Jesus was a man of sentiment, of deep and honest feeling, but never for a single moment was he a sentimentalist. With uncompromising realism, he faced the toughest and most painful truth about life and about people…..and had the greatness to go on believing in both. We have coined a thousand sentimental slogans about Christianity so sweet they would put a diabetic into a coma, but we never got them from him. I often think, when religion gets sticky-sweet, that if we have read about this young Jewish teacher with any understanding at all, we might not be quite so romantically eager to have him read our hearts.
You have guessed by now that while I think sentiment (the ability to feel emotion) is absolutely essential to a fully human life, I think sentimentalism (over-indulgence in emotion) refuses to face reality and is ultimately not healthy. So much so, I must confess, that I always rather like it when I find something that stands glib optimism on its head, the way the following verse does, which I offer as an antidote for those days when you, too, are fed up with glib optimism: “One day as I sat musing — Alone and melancholy and without a friend — There came a voice from out of the gloom, — Saying, ‘Cheer up! Things might be worse.’ — And sure enough…things got worse.”
Well, they do sometimes, even when you have listened most earnestly to easy moralizing. I have to say one more thing. Sentimentalists are often victimized by their non-critical approach to life. Do you remember Lewis Carroll’s wonderful verses about the Walrus and the Carpenter, and how nice the Oysters thought they both were because they said sweet things and cried a lot? Well, the sentimental Oysters — mistaking tears for genuine emotion — ended up, all of them, being eaten. My own dear mother was a sentimentalist who sent her scarce dollars to a television evangelist named Jim Bakker because he cried a lot in the name of Jesus.
Maybe Jesus guessed such things might happen. He did not simply tell his followers to love. He told them to be smart — not to pretend life was sweeter than it is, but to face its darkest truth and still find faith to smile and live with courage. It’s because I think that’s what you do, that I feel so much at home in this place. In the name of the world’s realists, keep it up!
Gracious God, may the One who opened the eyes of the blind, open ours, so that
we may see life without distortion and without fear. Amen.