Monday 17 November 2008

Jeremy Begbie on Sentimentality

This is a slightly longer version of an article first published in London Institute for Contemporary Christianity’s Highlights (March 2008).

Jeremy Begbie sometimes lectures from the piano stool, but he’s just as comfortable behind the lectern, using slide presentation and recorded music to engage expert and novice alike in exploring the connections between theology and the arts, particularly music. Jeremy is the founder and director of the international research project, Theology Through the Arts. A professionally-trained musician, he also teaches theology at the University of Cambridge, and is the author of several books, including most recently Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (SPCK, 2008). It’s mid-December, and he’s presenting to a full house at LICC on the topic of ‘Sentimentality in Christian Art & Worship: What’s Gone Wrong?’ Something tells me this is not the time to offer my solo rendition of ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’.

Three characteristics of sentimentality
He begins by identifying three characteristics of sentimentality. First, sentimentality misrepresents reality through evading or trivialising evil; it is selective in what it chooses to notice (the world is a great place, really), and projects innocence where there is no innocence (she’s not so bad, really). Second, sentimentality is emotionally self-indulgent; sentimental art encourages an emotional reaction to reality that is shallow or one-dimensional. Jeremy referred here to Milan Kundera’s characterisation of kitsch: ‘Kitsch causes two tears to 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! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.’ What really moves the sentimentalist is the fact that he’s being moved. Third, sentimentality fails to take appropriate costly action; the sentimentalist screens out darker dimensions, wants emotion without expense.

Insofar as Christian art and worship displaces honesty with niceness, wallows in self-indulgent emotions, refuses to face up to difficult issues, denies the reality of what is wrong with the world, deals only with what is comfortable, nice and builds self-esteem – to that extent, we have succumbed to sentimentality. Importantly, it’s not an issue of emotion per se, but whether emotion is theologically grounded, appropriately directed, expresses truth, and inspires us to engage with a damaged world.

Three days of Easter
In countering sentimentality, Jeremy encourages Christians to have ‘a three-days faith’. We need to experience the three days of Easter from an inside perspective: to feel the pain of Friday and the despair of Saturday before the joy of Sunday. Sentimentality skips over the tension of the story to the happiness of final resolution. But, by living inside the three days of Easter, pain is confirmed not erased, gratification is delayed, the tension is extended, and the true power of Easter morning is revealed.

Christian art and music must pause at Good Friday and not rush to Easter Sunday. In Rembrandt's ‘Crucifixion’, far from romanticising the scene, the light exposes the painful, ugly event. Jeremy related how works by the Scottish, Roman Catholic composer James MacMillan provide a Christian counter-sentimentality in combining two separate music ideas and layering them on top of each other to create a tension which is then resolved. Just as music moves from equilibrium to tension to rest, with the listener having to wait for resolution, so the biblical drama speaks of exile and return, of crucifixion and resurrection, of hope deferred and hope fulfilled.

The lecture was exemplary of the ‘Christian wisdom’ referred to in the subtitle of Jeremy’s latest book. Not only did it match LICC’s concerns that Christians be able to relate their faith to every aspect of their lives, it also provided a reminder of how theology nourishes the life of the church in its worship and mission to the world. A reminder that a Christian understanding of creation is significant if we are to celebrate as good all that comes from the hand of God, that a Christian understanding of sin is significant if we are to be realistic about the plight of the human condition, that a Christian understanding of church is significant if Jesus is not to become my personal possession, that a Christian understanding of hope is significant if we are to live with the tension between what is now and what will be. Theology which is embodied in life is inseparable from prayer and worship – thinking appropriately about God as well as engaging with God, as he has revealed himself in Scripture and through Jesus Christ.

An earlier version of Jeremy’s lecture was published as ‘Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts’, in Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin (eds.), The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007).

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