Avoiding Sentimentalism

Creating true art and defining it are both difficult.

One way to understand art is by contrasting it with sentimentalism. For writers, the difference is crucial.

In The Evangelical Imagination, Karen Swallow Prior offers clarity and direction for us.

Sentimentalism is an emotional response in excess of what the situation demands; it’s an indulgence in emotion for its own sake . . . . Emotionalism can also be evoked by external manipulation. This is what sentimental art does: it attempts artificially to create feelings that exceed what the situation warrants. . . .

If the purpose of art is to recreate human experience, the purpose of sentimental art is to create emotional experience. . . .

Sentimentalism can do harm when emotions are evoked apart from or subordinate to other aspects of the human experience (such as intellectual, spiritual, or physical experience) and thus to the totality of what is real. Whether portraying things in terms overly sweet or overly sad, or whether interpreting people (who are complex) as one-dimensional heroes or villains, sentimentality smooths over the rough edges of reality and glosses over hard questions so as to tie things up neatly in a bow.*

Some Christians have a tendency to do just this. We prefer simplistic answers to more truthful but incomplete reflections. We hesitate to show how both heroes and villains are genuine mixtures of faults and virtues. Here are two brief cases.

First, a nonfiction example. The problem of evil is possibly the most intractable difficulty in Christianity (as well as for every religion). Though I have been helped by many discussions of the topic, in all my reading, I have yet to find any completely logical answers that are morally, emotionally, spiritually, and theologically satisfying. In fact, I don’t think any are possible this side of heaven. Even the book of Job offers no explanation for the origin of evil or justification for why evil exists. God does not give any reasons for innocent suffering. We do a disservice to our readers, to reality, and to our faith if we suggest that the problem is completely solvable. Possibly we can see hints, but we must be honest that we cannot answer it fully.

Second, let’s turn to fiction. In Shūsaku Endo’s Silence we have a historical novel set in the 1600s during a period of great persecution of the growing Christian movement in Japan. The protagonist, Father Rodrigues, acts faithfully throughout the book until the end when he is faced with the threat of torture and death for himself and his fellow believers. Ultimately he disavows his faith—yet the book portrays this simultaneously as an act of faith as well as unfaith.

The antihero of the book, Kichijiro, repeatedly betrays Father Rodrigues in the face of threat and persecution. But ironically, in the end it is Kichijiro who is martyred for maintaining his faith.

There are no nice, neat bows in Silence. All we find are gritty reality and lots of questions. Is it right to save the lives of others by recanting our faith? How do we faithfully love Christ and love others? What are the ways we are pressured to compromise our faith in a modern, individualistic, consumerist society?

This is what true art does and what art that is true to faith does. It doesn’t merely affirm what we already believe. It propels us to a deeper life of faith.

*Karen Swallow Prior, The Evangelical Imagination (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2023), pp. 126-28 (my emphasis).

Lent and Fasting

As series editor for the Through Old Testament Eyes commentaries, I’m excited that the newest volume on Matthew (releasing in March 2024) is from my good friend and first-rate scholar David Capes. To give you just a taste, here is a brief excerpt that is apt for the beginning of Lent.

Matthew 4:2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. Jesus fasted for forty days and nights, perhaps in imitation of Moses who remained on Mt. Sinai forty days and forty nights without bread and water (Dt 9:9; cf. Ex 24:18). We have seen already how often Matthew finds the correspondence between Moses and Jesus. Whether on the mount of temptation or Mount Sinai, both men were preparing for the next phase of their remarkable missions.

Fasting, of course, is part of Israel’s discipline before God. Jesus affirms it in the lives of his own disciples . . . . Throughout the Old Testament, fasting appears to come at various times for various purposes: (1) to mark seasons of joy (Zec 8:18–19); (2) to express deep mourning (Ne 1:4); (3) to ask for a safe journey (Ezr 8:21); (4) to demonstrate humility (Ps 69:10); (5) to seek answers (Da 9:3); (6) to accompany repentance (Joel 2:12). There are others too, but these represent some of the many faces of fasting. Scholars note that fasting seems to be on the rise with and after the exile. By the time of Jesus, fasting appears as a regular feature of Jewish piety for the Pharisees and the followers of John (cf. Did 8.1; Tertullian, On Fasting 16; Tacitus, Hist 5.4.3). But fasting, in and of itself, may not have any rewards if it is not done in the right way for the right reason.

According to the prophet Isaiah, fasting without a life of repentance, a life turned Godward, leads to nothing (Isa 58:2–5). But fasting that addresses injustice and meets the needs of the poor brings healing and help in time of need (58:6–9). Proper fasting, the Scripture says, results in your light breaking forth like the dawn and God’s glory standing watch over your rear guard. Perhaps Jesus fasts after his baptism—after this turning point in his life—inspired by the words of Isaiah 58. If he had meditated on the prophet’s teaching, he leaves his wilderness experience expecting the Lord to guide him and satisfy his body and bones in these parched places.*

David B. Capes, Matthew Through Old Testament Eyes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2024), p. 76.

Today’s Evangelicals Are Yesterday’s Fundamentalists

A few years back, my wife was describing me to some new friends. When she used the word evangelical, their faces twisted as if they’d eaten a moldy lemon. She realized immediately that she had meant one thing by the word and her new friends understood another.

They understood evangelical to mean:

♦ Politically Republican and right-wing
♦ Anti-gay
♦ Anti-intellectual
♦ Angry and hateful
♦ Probably racist

My wife meant I was:

♦ Christ- and Bible-centered in my faith
♦ Open to engaging culture constructively
♦ Intellectually curious
♦ Politically independent

The word evangelical has a long history, going back about three hundred years in England to describe a movement intended to revive the token Christianity that was widespread at the time. In the mid-twentieth century, Billy Graham (who welcomed Catholics and African Americans) adopted the label to distinguish himself from fundamentalists. This latter group emerged in the early twentieth century, coming to national attention with the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. They believed the Bible was literal and inerrant, were doctrinally conservative, anti-science, and separated themselves from mainstream culture as well as from any believers who didn’t agree with them.

If fundamentalists sound like what my wife’s friends meant by evangelical, it’s not a coincidence. As I’ve written here before, a few decades ago, fundamentalists in the U.S. began dropping that label (partially to avoid confusion with Muslim fundamentalists) and adopted (co-opted?) the term evangelical.

In addition, the former fundamentalists became more politically active and power focused, beginning a series of moves within Christian denominations and organizations to wrest control from “moderates” (most notably among Southern Baptists).

Evangelical social involvement has seen many changes over the centuries. Two hundred years ago evangelicals were at the forefront of ending slavery, reducing alcoholism, fighting poverty, and defending Cherokee rights. A hundred years later, however, fundamentalists had withdrawn from the public sphere.

Now those who formerly called themselves fundamentalists have become much more socially and politically engaged. Today they support pro-life causes, second amendment rights, a strong military, and advocate restricting voting rights, immigration, and affirmative action for minority groups. These last three are often seen as evidence of racist outlooks.

The political emphasis in the U.S. of today’s evangelicals has come to dominate what Americans understand by the term, as it did for my wife’s friends.* This is both because the media views everything through the single lens of politics and because of the movement’s own emphasis on a political program at the expense of a spiritual one.

All this leaves me with a problem. While I’ve considered myself an evangelical for decades, it has become a problematic label to use. It doesn’t seem to communicate the right things to anyone. I don’t think I’ve changed over the years from what my wife meant by calling me evangelical, but the meaning of the term has changed all around me.

___

*Evangelicalism (in the original sense) is not just a North American or Western phenomenon. It is a worldwide movement estimated to encompass 600 million people. For most of these, it is religious and spiritual in nature and not associated with any political party or philosophy.

Photo credit: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, Urbana 64.

Was I Wrong about Malcolm Gladwell?

In Write Better I critiqued the opening of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Blink, a book on intuition. Although ultimately the book raises serious questions about snap judgments, the subtitle (The Power of Thinking Without Thinking) and its compelling opening story make us think the book is entirely positive about our hunches.

I found this problematic and said so. When my son Dave read Write Better, he wrote to me to say he thought my critique of Blink was convincing. He concluded with this:

Andy Le Peau: 1
Malcolm Gladwell: 5 million copies sold

(Leave it to our children to keep us humble!)

I’m still a fan of Gladwell who is a skilled and insightful journalist. I was therefore interested to hear on a recent episode of his podcast, Revisionist History, that many people were confused about Blink. Gladwell said:

Nor does it surprise me now after thirty years of writing books that people don’t read or listen to the end. . . . My second book Blink was a book that looked critically at, when I say critically, examined both the pros and cons of snap judgments. But you had to keep reading. It started out on the pros and then as I dug deeper, got interested in the cons. The number of people who either supported or loved that book or hated that book because they perceived it as being a book about celebrating snap judgments was limitless. Any time you tell a story with a twist, you’re going to leave some people along the way.

So was I wrong? I don’t think so. Gladwell didn’t address how the subtitle misdirected people. In addition, as I recall, he doesn’t make the point about pros and cons in the book as clearly as he did in the above quote. He doesn’t make it explicit to readers that he starts with one notion and moves to another. He fails to offer necessary signals that there is “a twist,” that things are moving in a different direction than he first thought. Without that, readers will draw the wrong conclusions, and as he says, they did.

It’s ok to write a nonfiction book beginning with one premise and slowly moving away from that to a different conclusion. But if we do, we need to plainly tell readers that is what is happening. We could write: “Here are the pros I found,” and later, “But I also found some cons.”

We could say something like, “But then I began to find evidence that contradicted my initial ideas.” Or, “I was stunned! Could I have been wrong about how beneficial intuition is?”

Or this: “Although this opening story seemed to confirm the universal value of snap judgments, as I pursued the topic I began to question this idea. This book is about how I changed my mind.”

Probably all of these (or ones like them) should be used because in the course of a couple hundred pages, we need to keep reminding readers of where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.

Reading is hard work. When writing nonfiction, we need to be sympathetic to that. Our job is to keep readers with us. If they don’t, we shouldn’t immediately blame them. We might look at how we could have done a better job.

*Malcolm Gladwell in “The Bear Was Poked,” November 1, 2023, about minute 10:00 to 10:45, www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/revisionist-history/the-bear-was-poked-with-maria-konnikova.

My Year in Books

I usually don’t plan out my reading, and this past year was no exception. As I look back, however, I’m happy with my mix of topics and genres.

On average I read or listened to a book a week in 2023, about thirty of them being nonfiction. Of those, twenty covered topics like the Christian life, the church calendar, Christian political involvement, and the New Testament. The other ten were general nonfiction titles including three memoirs and two in American history.

Of the twenty-two fiction titles, the biggest single group (nine books) was SciFi and Fantasy which is a favorite for me. Another three were young adult and the rest general fiction, set mostly during the last hundred years.

Here are some of the best from my year:

Educated by Tara Westover (2018) is the astounding memoir of a woman who grew up in a radically survivalist family in Idaho, who never went to school and was only self-taught till she, amazingly, was accepted into college. The story is almost unimaginable how she managed to extricate herself from the iron grip of this sub-subculture reinforced by its extremist religious beliefs, violence, and emotional intimidation.

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (2020) is another memoir which opens a window into a very different culture. The author (now an adult) writes from the perspective of his young self, forced out of Iran as a refugee and ending up in Oklahoma. He delightfully communicates his obvious love for his native Persian culture even as he, his mother (the book’s hero) and his sister escape the religious persecution of his homeland. A book full of heart and sorrow and hope.

Tell Her Story by Nijay Gupta (2023) carefully unpacks the life and ministry of women in the New Testament that is hidden in plain sight. In everyday prose, he also provides valuable cultural background which the New Testament authors left unsaid because they would have assumed all their readers would have known it. While ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures were clearly patriarchal, many women of note were exceptions which we likewise see in the earliest Christian communities.

Rembrandt Is in the Wind by Russ Ramsey (2022) offers a wonderful meditation on the worth and importance of beauty in our lives. In nine chapters this consummate storyteller highlights nine artists from the last five hundred years of the Western world. In each he tells the story of the artist, or of a particular artwork, or of the subject of the art. The tales and their backstories are fascinating, engrossing, and sometimes tragic. Ramsey weaves together mysteries, human drama and more into compelling tapestries. A book of wisdom, of grace, and of beauty.

My local library has used the tagline: “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” Whether your reading is fun or serious, long or short, many or few, may your reading fill you in the coming year.

The Book We Need This Year

When I was recently asked to do a six-minute radio interview on Francis Schaeffer’s classic The Mark of the Christian, I was reminded what a good book it would be to read this year. With all the political vitriol sure to be spouted incessantly, Christians will be challenged. Will we follow the world’s ways or follow Jesus’ command to his disciples to “love one another” (John 13:34)?

If we frequently listen to radio, TV, podcasts and even sermons that tell us that people who disagree with our political views are ignorant and unbiblical, if not downright in league with the devil, how can we help but think and feel the same?

Schaeffer makes two compelling points from John’s gospel in this book that can be read in just an hour. First, if we don’t show love toward other Christians, then non-Christians have the right to say we aren’t Christians at all. “By this,” Jesus says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

And Jesus was right. That is exactly what happens when my neighbors see how much Christians show hatred toward others. “How can they call themselves Christian when they act so unlike Jesus?”

Schaeffer’s second point is perhaps even more dramatic. When Christians show loving harmony and grace toward each other, that is “the final apologetic.” It is proof that the gospel is true. When Christians are “brought to complete unity,” Jesus says, “then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21). Schaeffer’s timeless book closes with some very practical counsel on how to do just this.

In 2024 reading The Mark of the Christian can set us on the right path. Who’s lead will we follow? The polarizing voices of our political persuasion? Or the voice of Jesus?

Keeping Our Hearts Warm

Our eyes are riveted to news updates about earthquakes, wars, and shootings, even though so much of it is depressing. But there can be other negative side effects.

Twenty-five years ago, Christine Pohl wrote, “News reports and documentaries broadcast the most terrible details of the lives of refugees or famine victims thousands of miles away, and regularly bring their faces and stories into the most intimate spaces of our homes.”

This, she says, can have two unintended but related effects. “A steady exposure to distant human need that is beyond our personal response can gradually inoculate us against particular action. It can also dilute us into thinking that by simply knowing about it we are somehow sharing in the suffering of others. Isolation from local need, and over exposure to overwhelming but distant need, make our responses to strangers uncertain and tentative at best.”*

What can we do to not become numb to those in need nearby or far away? One obvious option is to stop following the news, or at least to consume much less (for this and other reasons discussed here).

But then how would I know where to contribute when a crisis arises? Simply by giving to a relief organization you trust on a regular basis, regardless of whether or not there is a special need. Such crises, sadly, happen often. Send your gift to someone like the Red Cross, World Relief, Doctors Without Borders, or World Vision and designate it to “where needed most.”

Volunteering locally can also keep us from going numb. Tutoring, helping at a homeless shelter, and many other options are easy to find through your church, your library, or a quick web search. A neighbor recently joined me regularly at a food pantry, and she loves it.

Rather than constantly watching the news, these opportunities can put us in direct contact with people who need help and at the same time keep our hearts warm.


*Christine Pohl, Making Room (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 91.

Photo credits: Andrew T. Le Peau

The Night We Needed Rescue

One winter day, almost four decades ago, our family was driving south on the plains of Illinois on our way to visit relatives. All too soon we experienced white-out conditions, and we ended up in a fifty-car pileup on Interstate 55.

With the blizzard still raging, our car was eventually able to limp to a nearby exit for a small town where Phyllis and I sheltered in a restaurant with our four young children, all of us dazed and uncertain what to do. As we were standing there among dozens of other stranded motorists, we heard rumors that the town was going to open up the local high school gym so people would have a place to stay that cold winter night.

A local family saw us and our four small children and said, “You’re not staying in the high school gym.”

“We’re not?” we responded somewhat confused.

“No,” they replied, “you’re staying with us tonight.”

That night, we were the strangers. We were in need of a warm place, warm food, and friendly faces. These people welcomed us into their home, fed us all we wanted, had us join in their family activities, and as we left the next morning, I was astonished to hear them say, “It has been wonderful to have you here. You blessed us. You’ve reminded us of what’s important in life, of how good God is.”

I could hardly believe it. We were the ones in need. We were the ones who had been helped, but somehow they were the ones who were blessed.

That night we were reminded vividly how God welcomes us into the hospitality of his love through the gift of his own Son sent to the people of earth. We were reminded that God calls us to find ways to follow his example by also reaching out to those in need, those who are weak or oppressed—just has he had done for us, entering this world as a baby who would give us the greatest welcome of all.

And this was especially vivid to us because that winter night in which the six of us were stranded and helpless, that night in which we needed rescue—that night was Christmas Eve.

Credits: Blizzard photo: uknowgayle on Pixabay.
Nativity: mskathrynne on Pixabay.

The Environmental Crisis Is Over

A year ago today, the environmental and energy crises ended.

“What? Seriously? They ended? Did I miss something?”

Yes, you did. And so did almost everyone else.

We now have the solution to pollution from oil and coal-burning power plants along with a nearly endless supply of clean energy.

So what is this miracle technology? And why don’t we know about it? Both questions are incredibly important.

What Is the Technology?

The technology is fusion energy. On December 5, 2022, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California demonstrated fusion ignition in the laboratory for the first time after six decades of research and effort by a dozen countries.

Instead of splitting the atom (the fission technology that makes nuclear bombs possible), “nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier one while releasing massive amounts of energy.” Unlike today’s nuclear power plants, no radiation is created, and the technology cannot be made into a weapon—as evidenced by the fact that even during the whole Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated on fusion research!

There are nearly fifty companies working now on implementing this technology. In ten years the first nuclear fusion power plant could be contributing to the grid. In twenty years a hundred plants could be online. And in forty years all coal- and oil-burning power plants could be decommissioned. Much remains to be done, but the solution is here.

Why Didn’t We Know About It?

How could we have missed something this monumental? That is an equally important question. This could be the most important news story of the century, and yet people don’t know it. Now that I’ve reminded you, you may vaguely recall hearing a report about this first successful fusion test. But you likely don’t remember much about its implications.

The reason few people are aware of it is that the news industry almost never reports what’s important. The sensational, the visually arresting, the emotionally compelling—these dominate our news. And these daily reports have almost no lasting significance to us personally or to our communities.

The news industries emphasize these ephemeral items because their purpose is not to inform but to make money. As I’ve written about before here and here and here, they focus on what will get them eyeballs and ratings.

What’s the solution? How can we be better informed if the news media (or worse, social media) is not the way to do it. This requires multifaceted, multilayered answers, but here is just one: Stop following the news and instead read books.

I have a much better understanding of what’s going on in the world by reading books like Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Factfulness by Hans Rosling, or Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. These consider important issues and trends from the last forty years which have much more explanatory power about our crazy world than anything you will ever hear on CNN, FOX, or MSNBC.

I also include long form journalism in this category—whether print or electronic. I learned about the massive implications of nuclear fusion by listening to one of the in-depth (usually three-hour!) interviews by Lex Fridman.*

When we stop following the news, we can be calmer, kinder, and better informed people.

* Lex Fridman Podcast, “Dennis Whyte: Nuclear Fusion and the Future of Energy, “ January 21, 2023.

Image credit: Pixabay

A Book’s Not Worth Writing Unless. . .

Are there ideas in a book that the author didn’t intend?

I asked this in an earlier post regarding interpreting the biblical authors. It’s important for understanding the Bible or any piece of literature. C. S. Lewis once weighed in on this very question.

In 1944 Charles Brady wrote a review of Lewis’s output up to that point, including the first installment of Lewis’s Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. Brady commented on the scene when the main character, Elwin Ransom, first encounters a race of intelligent beings from Mars, the Hrossa. This, Brady thought, could “be interpreted . . . as an allegory of racial fear and repugnance.”

Lewis wrote to Brady a few months later, thanking him for the overall positive review, and in the process made this insightful response: “When you talk about meetings of human races in connexion [sic] with Ransom and the Hrossa you say something that was not in my mind at all. So much the better: a book’s not worth writing unless it suggests more than the author intended.”*

Even though Lewis didn’t mean to say something about racial encounters generally (something that still concerns us today), nonetheless, he was happy to acknowledge that sometimes books take on a life of their own. Lewis seems to imply that that is the whole point of writing a book—that it be subtle, complex, evocative, and carry more ideas than the author even consciously anticipated.

That is what makes for great writing. If all the meaning is on the surface, it won’t stand the test of time. But a book with layers and depth can become something worth pondering for generations.

*These two quotes are from Mark Noll, C. S. Lewis in America (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023), chapter one: Charles A. Brady, “C. S. Lewis: II,” America, June 10, 1944, 269; and C. S. Lewis to Charles A. Brady, October 29, 1944, in Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931–1949 , vol. 2 of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 630.