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).

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

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