Encounter: Jeremy Begbie

I’ve never been a fan of “Christian” writing and have been known to openly mock Christian romance, particularly the apparently recognizable sub-genre “Amish romance.” “Scoff” may, in fact, be an understatement.  Though, these assessments have not always been fair. I have read some, and thereby avoided the danger of judging a book by its (chaste) cover. However, I’ve sometimes had difficulty articulating what I find disingenuous about a fair amount of this Christian writing.

By many counts, Christian romance is more faithful than much of my own writing– the morals are more anchored, the worldview more orthodox, the plots more harmonious, the answers more available. But something about it strikes me as false. In fact, much “Christian” writing prompts not just scorn but anger–  I react to it as viscerally as a lie. Why?

This week I encountered Jeremy Begbie for the first time. His perspective (given here in summary from an article from the London Institute on Contemporary Christianity) helped me clarify my protest to most forms of Christian romance (and an unfortunate amount of Christian music and media as well):

Begbie identifies “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.

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.”

I’ll be adding Begbie’s essay “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts” to my summer reading list.

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