Too Much Sentiment, Part I

The Working Catholic: Too Much Sentiment, Part I


 By Bill Droel

“A Christian worldview can exist in writing that is not necessarily Christian,” asserts Lisa Ohlen Harris in the February 2015 issue of a terrific evangelical publication, Books and Culture. Meanwhile, she continues, “our own [Christian] literature often lacks the bite and angst our worldview ought to embrace.”

Harris has in mind most of the novels in the “Spiritual” or “Christian Fiction” section of many bookstores—though there are not so many bookstores these days. She doesn’t like all the sweetness and sentimentality. “We do the same with Bible stories, sanitizing and simplifying them,” she says. “The story of Noah becomes a sweet means of counting by twos instead of a story of apocalypse.” Life, she reminds us, is not tidy. Most tensions are not resolved in a moment during which we “receive Christ” and shout “yes and amen.”  Indeed, many tensions are never totally over.

Harris draws upon a 1957 article by Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) that appeared in America magazine: “The Church and the Fiction Writer.”

“Sentimentality is an excess,” says O’Connor. It is “a distortion of [proper] sentiment, usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence.” Writers who traffic in sentimentality do not respect the limitations of their craft. Fiction can “reinforce our sense of the supernatural,” but only when it stays true to its nature and is grounded “in concrete observable reality.” Grace builds on nature.

Christian art does not need to overtly reference Christianity; in fact, the artist may not have Christianity in mind at all. God wants art with all its teeth.

What is true of artists is also true of those in crafts, in the trades, in education or in journalism. For example, high-quality bloggers who appeal to a Christian audience (perhaps like your Working Catholic writer) are not compelled to hammer home any Christian message, nor even mention religion as such. It is enough to report accurately on a human condition, to write thoroughly and to trust that an engaged reader will see some thread of the mystery of cross and resurrection in the report, if she or he is so disposed. Puff and fluff, sugar and cinnamon, banal pleasantries and hallow compliments, or noble intentions and laying it on thick—all undermine what their purveyors presumably think they are accomplishing.

Of course, cultural comment like in this column makes generalities. There are complexities and exceptions. But the flood of sweetness in our culture, albeit sincere, is ruining our public life.

Why does sentiment appear where it doesn’t belong? Why is it a common default position? What are its side effects? What can be done? To be continued…

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.