‘Post-Diana, Britain will indeed be another country. That week we witnessed a defining moment in our history.’1 Thus Professor Anthony O’Hear ends his infamous 1998 essay claiming that in the extraordinary public reaction to the tragic death of the self-styled ‘queen of people’s hearts’ we were witnessing an apotheosis: sentimentality personified and canonised. The then British prime-minister Tony Blair called such commentators ‘right-wing old-fashioned snobs’2 Some of the tabloid papers revealed a darker side, labelling O’Hear as a ‘poisonous professor, a rat-faced, little loser.’ Now, on the twentieth anniversary of those tumultuous events, events which the media have made us live through again in painstaking detail, O’Hear would seem to be vindicated. For all the genuine sadness, solidarity, and determination of the human spirit, recent public responses to terror attacks, tragedies and celebrity deaths have highlighted a pervasive and unbearably icky sticky sentimentality, seemingly immune from criticism, which continues to seep into all areas of cultural life in the UK. Ostentatious public expressions of emotion, media interview after interview about how such-and-such an event made the interviewee ‘feel’, more frequent and increasingly lengthier ‘minutes of silence’ at major events, lapel badges that we feel obliged to wear, simplistic analyses (‘terrorism has no religion’), and banal platitudes (pick any one of a thousand versions of ‘we just need to love one-another’) are slowly suffocating us. It’s all too much because it’s so false, or to be more apposite, fake.
Now immediately I’m caught in a dilemma. I want to say some things about this sentimentality epidemic to an international audience, but I fear I can’t without coming across as that stereotypical Brit: somewhat repressed, ‘buttoned-up’, ‘stiff-upper lipped’ and worst of all, a cynic. And I’m not. I’m really not. Ethnically, I tick the amorphous UK Census box known as ‘mixed’ (I’m half English, half Indo-Guyanese). Environmentally, I’m not the product of the kind of English educational system sometimes associated with these characteristics. Personally, I like to think I’m fairly self-aware and consider myself prone to bouts of passion and excitability. I’m more a heart-on-my-sleeve guy than not. Moreover, theologically, in my seminary teaching over the years, I’ve enthusiastically supported and advocated the Reformed re-discovery of a ‘kardioptic’ wholism in our understanding of Christian worldview, biblical anthropology, and cultural apologetics, all of which shape our preaching, discipleship and leadership. The work of scholars such as David Naugle, James Sire, and James K. A. Smith in these areas has been a helpful corrective to what can be a Cartesian rationalistic bent within conservative evangelicalism.3 I am sympathetic with John Frame’s perspectival take on the human personality and his critique of the ‘primacy of the intellect’.4 In short, emotion and affection are not second-class faculties. And yet, the corruption of emotion that we see in sentimentality is worrying and needs to be addressed because our individual and communal Christian lives are not immune to this blight.
Tracing the roots of sentimentality back to the Enlightenment Romantic tradition is pretty obvious.5 However defining what we mean by sentimentality is notoriously difficult. We may well have heard various aphoristic definitions. ‘A sentimentalist’, Oscar Wilde wrote, ‘is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.… Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.’6 D.H. Lawrence defines sentimentalism as
the working off on yourself of feelings you haven’t really got. We all want to have certain feelings: feelings of love, of passionate sex, of kindliness and so forth. Very few people really feel love or sex passion or kindliness, or anything that goes at all deep. So the mass just fake those feelings inside themselves. Faked feelings! The world is all gummy with them. They are better than real feelings, because you can spit them out when you brush your teeth; and tomorrow you can fake them afresh.7
The novelist Milan Kundera is often quoted as catching the essence of the sentimental: ‘two tears flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass.’8
Jeremy Begbie helpfully delineates three linked elements in the sentimental: (1) the misrepresentation of reality through the evading or trivialisation of evil, (2) emotional self-indulgence and (3) the failing to take appropriate costly action.9 Sentimentality stifles. Drawing on Metrovic’s study Postemotional Society10, Dick Keyes notes that ‘our real and authentic emotions are there, but are buried under feelings that we feel we are meant to feel in whatever situation we are in.’11 As a result, our emotions have become dead and abstracted with no commitment to action.12 Sentimentality simplifies. There seems little room for nuance, complexity and fortitude. Our world consists of clear-cuts: of goodies and baddies, victims and perpetrators, oppressed citizens and oppressive authorities. Every situation demands an immediate answer. Intractability is never entertained. In this sense sentimentality is infantile. Sentimentality is selfish. As Roger Scruton puts it, ‘Sentimentality is that peculiarly human vice which consists in directing your emotions toward your own emotions, so as to be the subject of a story told by yourself.’13 Although it pretends to care for the ‘other’, it really only care cares for the self to the detriment of the ‘other’ who becomes a peripheral means to an end.
Public sentimentality has a peculiar character that often accentuates these traits to monstrous proportions. Theodore Dalrymple speculates that the rise of public expressions of sentimentality relates to the impact of mass media: ‘In such a world, what is done or happens in private is not done or has not happened at all, at least not in the fullest possible sense. It is not real in the sense that reality television is real.’14 And as he later notes, ‘Emotions are now like justice: they must not only be felt, but seen to be felt.’15 If sentimentality means the need to show that you really care, then to be noticed in public one has to embark on a ‘really show you care’ one-upmanship programme which becomes more and more excessive in its expression and therefore less and less appropriate with the social situation itself. Add to this media and social media getting in on the ‘caring act’ and things are quickly whipped up into a care-fest frenzy. Is there any harm in this? Yes, because very quickly it is revealed that not to play the care game is to be seen to be cold or callous (cf. the ‘rat-faced loser’, O’Hear). In this way, public expressions of sentimentality are coercive and monolithic, demanding an emotional conformity or an emotional correctness which denies that emotional expressivity might differ among people and among cultures. I think this is partly what was underlying the criticism of British prime minister Theresa May’s response to London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy earlier this year.16 Public expressions of emotion should have a health warning attached. They should be engaged with responsibly, reflectively and possibly with restraint. As Dalrymple notes,
On the reasonable assumption that it is under conscious control, the degree to which an emotion is expressed is therefore a moral question. What is permissible and even laudable among intimates and confidants is reprehensible between strangers. Indeed, the wish or demand that all emotions should be equally expressible on all occasions and at all times destroys the very possibility of intimacy. If the entire world is your confidant, then no-one is. The distinction between private and public is abolished, with a consequent shallowing of life.17
Indeed, he goes even further. Not only should expressions of emotion be the subject of discipline but the emotion itself. He recognises that this is thoroughly counter-cultural to what he calls the ‘Cartesian point of moral epistemology: I’m angry therefore I’m right.’18 To say to someone that they are not ‘feeling’ right does not go down well. However, emotions are not self-justifying and can be controlled to the point that a new disposition may be grown. Once again it is the appropriateness of our emotional response in a particular situation comes into question. Michael Hann has written that the mourning sickness felt over a celebrity death is down to the fact that “those born in the 1950s and 1960s were the first generations to be co-parented by popular culture.”19 Therefore when a celebrity dies we feel we have lost a family member. But on reflection we haven’t have we? We have had no real personal relationship with this person. We do not know them, only about them and the image they and others have manufactured of them. Sad and sympathetic yes, but grief-stricken and hysterical?
In terms of theological anthropology, sentimentality reflects the disintegration of human personhood that follows the suppression of human dependence on God. In modern society this is what Andrew Fellowes calls the intensity over profundity principle.20 The modern self has turned in on itself and has lost its identity. We feel like ghosts – nothing is real and everything is an image: How do you make a ghost feel real? The criteria are simply physical sensations. When I feel something as a physical sensation then I know I am alive. The ghost comes alive. Physical sensations are tied to the body and that means search for myself will focus on my body. The more emotional I am the more alive I feel. However, sentimentality is an example of the rebellious image bearer’s suppression of truth. It detaches us from reality because we do not want to face reality. As Scruton notes, ‘Sentimentality causes us not merely to write in clichés, but to feel in clichés too, lest we be troubled by the truth of our condition.’21 Sentimentality is fantastical. It is tragically ironic that the loser in all this is the ‘other’ who forgotten and neglected. Sentimentality’s pressure for simplicity and quick response means that authorities are bullied into quick fixes and not the hard slog of reflecting on what might be long term solutions which really would be caring. While it testifies to the ruined imago Dei, a stadium rendition of ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’, however heart-felt, is not going to defeat Isis.22
But as well as confronting sentimentality, we are able to connect with it. Suppressed truth is exactly that. First, the public expressions of sentimentality we are witnessing, are a strange and unstable love-child of materialistic and pantheistic worldviews. Emotions are the way we participate in fundamental reality which when shared in mass movements offer a way of transcending the physicality of emotional response. Emotional openness is openness to the concerns of others which somehow opens up into ultimate concerns.23 Second, while we note that under the sun, ‘troubles do not melt like lemon drops’24 the soaring rendition of a song like Over the Rainbow speaks to our inbuilt and God-given recognition that our home as we currently know it is simply not enough, that there is more, that there must be more, that something is broken and it needs fixing. This song is just another instantiation, albeit in the form of popular song, of what is known as Sehnsucht, the untranslatable and often mystical sense of longing and yearning for happiness and fulfilment in the face of reality which does not fulfil or provide happiness. J. H. Bavinck calls this the magnetic point of ‘I and salvation’. It is the recognition of a need for redemption, that something somewhere has gone wrong and that deliverance is needed: ‘man has that remarkable tendency not to accept reality as it presents itself to him, but he always dreams of the better world in which life will be healthy and safe.’25 The opportunity for points of apologetic gospel connection are obvious.
How can the church follow a different path when it comes to sentimentality particularly its public expression? First, we need to confess that we have been affected. We live in cultures that shape our own ways of being. Our personal lives, corporate worship and theology have been impacted by sentimentality.26 We need to be honest about that, come before God in repentance, and follow Christ in the better way he shows to us. Providentially such a better way was demonstrated to me as I prepared to preach at a student’s induction around the same time as the Diana anniversary.
Os Guinness often states that contrast is the mother of clarity. In 2 Corinthians 6:3–13, we witness the apostle Paul’s own outburst of emotion:
We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange – I speak as to my children – open wide your hearts also.
Here we have the antithesis of sentimentality. Sin is taken seriously, there is no emotional self-indulgence and we see a demonstration of costly action. This is a cry from the heart which is really real and in no way fake. Paul’s emotional plea is perfectly appropriate to the situation he is facing. He is not expressing emotion with strangers but with his spiritual children. He is passionate not about trivialities but about his children rejecting him and taking God’s grace in vain. He does not avoid confrontation but tackles it head on. Most of all, he demonstrates that an authentic minister and an authentic ministry is not about himself and his fame but really does care for the other, not in a quick-fix, but in a hard slog:
Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
We thank God that he has preserved for us as public truth, a personal correspondence like this from which we can learn how to lead in a way that our churches and Christian communities can be and must be refuges from the sentimental and oases of the real. We learn from Paul as Paul learns from Christ, our gloriously unsentimental Saviour and Lord who ‘has put on our flesh, and also its feelings,’27 and did so perfectly.
Positively and practically we should be focusing on virtue formation as a way our emotions are controlled and properly directed towards the fulfilment of human life. We don’t need to reject the power of shared emotion in any of the examples of recent times. Neither should we compartmentalise or put in competition with each other human faculties: reason, emotion, imagination, etc. We aren’t simply left as passive respondents to emotions we can’t control. By the Spirit Christians are being formed into the likeness of Christ whose emotional life is the example we follow after. As Warfield says, ‘We are not to be content to gaze upon him or to admire him: we must become imitators of him, until we are metamorphosed into the same image.’28 Virtues are the way in which the emotions are directed eschatologically towards the fulfilment of our humanity in Christ. Our gathering together in our songs, prayers, liturgies and around the preached Word are patterns of worship that should lead us to increasingly sanctified shared emotional responses which we then take into all of life.