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Sentimentality And Christian Fiction

I believe that stories that suggest God never brings things to right here in this life are just as untrue as those that imply He always does so. Perhaps J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were such masters because they knew how to show both the truth of this world and the truth of Christian hope.
| Oct 17, 2011 | No comments |

The book had a simple, even predictable plot and the writing was serviceable at best. The characters were not complex, the theme undeniably obvious. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came to the climax of the story and cried.

Isn’t that the greatest achievement for fiction — to move readers emotionally?

Not according to freelance writer Tony Woodlief in his article “Bad Christian Art” which appeared last spring in the online journal Image. In this critique of Christian fiction, Woodlief lists three specific areas he refers to as “some common sins of the Christian writer.” Last on the list is sentimentality:

Like pornography, sentimentality corrupts the sight and the soul, because it is passion unearned. Whether it is Xerxes weeping at the morality of his unknown minions assembled at the Hellespont, or me being tempted to well up as the protagonist in Facing the Giants grips his Bible and whimpers in a glen, the rightful rejoinder is the same: you didn’t earn this emotion. (emphasis mine)

I’ll admit, this has me confused. When is passion in fiction “earned” by the reader? It isn’t. Whatever passion a reader experiences is in one sense “borrowed” because he’s reading someone else’s story. The fear or tension or joy a reader feels in reaction to what happens to a pretend person is never earned in the sense that the reader lived the events that generated the emotion. So what kind of story could ever create “earned” passion?

Since I’m admitting stuff today, I’ll add this: I’ve teared up at Hallmark greeting card commercials, too.

You might think that I’m merely a maudlin person, perhaps, but I don’t think so because I know others who have teared up at the end of those heartwarming, sentimental card ads.

Ah, sentimental – “of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia” according to the Oxford American Dictionary. But there seems to be an important difference in the use of sentimental when discussing literature, music, or art: “dealing with feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way” (emphasis mine).

So the emotion isn’t the problem, it would seem, but rather the issue is whether it is exaggerated or self-indulgent. Honestly, I don’t know that this use of sentimentality gives room for a “right” or earned passion. It seems to me if it is sentimental — exaggerated and self-indulgent — there is no change that will make the reader’s emotional experience “earned” and therefore acceptable and appropriate.

I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding this. For one thing, I don’t know if I understand what exaggerated emotion in fiction looks like.

I think I know it when it comes to suspense. It’s the old piece of writing advice — if all the character has to trust in is a horse, then shoot the horse. (That’s my interpretation of “make things go from bad to worse.”) Often times I read or watch a story unfold and roll my eyes because all those bad things happening to one person in a lifetime would be unbelievable, never mind that in this story it’s all taking place within forty-eight hours!

Perhaps the same could play out with grief — one person after another dying or leaving. But I don’t think that’s the accusation against Christian fiction.

Woodlief compared sentimentality in Christian fiction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of cheap grace. He then elaborates:

The writer who gives us sentimentality is akin to the painter Thomas Kinkade, who explicitly aims to paint the world without the Fall, which is not really the world at all, but a cheap, maudlin, knock-off of the world, a world without suffering and desperate faith and Christ Himself, which is not really a world worth painting, or writing about, or redeeming.

I can only imagine that someone who complains about Thomas Kinkade landscapes must live a deprived life, away from all natural beauty.

But that brings another question. Is it always sentimental to show God’s goodness and not also show man’s depravity? I mean, apparently Kinkade detractors want to see a rusted car or a discarded tire painted into the foreground of his scenic pictures.

These visual comparisons to writing make me think of where I live in Southern California. We are surrounded by beauty, but at the same time, man’s depravity is just as apparent. As an illustration, a view of the snow capped San Gabriel Mountains, which I can see out my window, often include the gray haze of smog. But not always. If I were to paint the picture the day after it rained, the sky would be a wonderful cerulean hue.

Which of these views is true? Both. If I were to intimate, however, that the latter is the only truth, then perhaps that would be “self-indulgent” or at least dishonest.

But I believe, to intimate that the sky is never smog-free is just as untruthful.

In other words, I believe that stories that suggest God never brings things to right here in this life are just as untrue as those that imply He always does so.

Perhaps J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were such masters because they knew how to show both the truth of this world and the truth of Christian hope.

In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo decides to claim the one ring for himself, but in spite of his change of heart, the ring is destroyed. Yet that’s not the end. There is more struggle before evil is vanquished, and even then not everyone “lives happily ever after.”

So too with Narnia. At one point each of the children learns he or she won’t be coming back to Narnia … but then all except Susan do, in a final way that is bitter-sweet.

I cried at the end of those stories. Was that sentimental because I hadn’t earned the right to feel the joy mixed with sadness — the commingling sense of triumph and loss?

I never considered anything about these stories to be sentimental. Instead, I think I cried because they felt real.

It is real stories (not “realistic”) that stay with readers. Not because I as a reader have suffered as the characters did or triumphed in the same way either, but because I recognize the truth of their condition. I may mourn because of it or I may long for it, but one way or another, it triggers an emotional response.

Is that good or bad?

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Krysti
Guest

Y’know, in a way he’s right–

I really resent it when an author or screen-writer goes out of their way to play on my emotions–I feel totally manipulated, and just to get back at–whoever–I refuse to be moved. Except maybe into a grumpy mood? LOL

But it’s a whole ‘nother thing when the story naturally flows into something moving and it’s right the way it ought to be. And it feels real, like you said, Becky.
Then I’m okay with it.

But I don’t like getting yanked around in real life–I do an imitation of one of those reflective rubber walls in the old Commander Keane video games–and if I could do that imitation on the writers who yank me around, it might just make my day… 😉

Kessie Carroll
Member
Kessie Carroll

I think Krysti pegged it–it’s when the story goes out of its way to hit you in the gut. They might as well hold up a sign that says, “Time to cry.” I despise those, personally.
 
I think an ‘honest’ emotional reaction is what’s elicted at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows, or in Little Women when [spoilers] dies. The book presents the death as part of the story and then moves on. Whether you cry or not is up to you.

C.L. Dyck
Guest

“For one thing, I don’t know if I understand what exaggerated emotion in fiction looks like.”
 
I’m not sure either, or how subjective a measure it is. Perhaps it’s like good decor and bad decor. We don’t notice it when it’s functional and pleasant nearly as much as we notice it when it’s poorly done. And, though there are some general principles, there are also personal tastes in play. I’m not sure I could quantify it, myself, I just know I’ve encountered reading experiences that I considered overwrought.
 
So, I’m now mulling this question of “earned.” I suppose this unearned effect can take a variety of forms. Lack of sufficient struggle/conflict, lack of sufficient plot tie-in, lack of sufficient character motivation. Perhaps it’s a causal flaw: maybe it’s what happens when a thing which we know is not self-existent takes on a self-existent role. Sufficiency may be a subjective measure; self-existence is somewhat less so.
 
To use the above example of pornography, it seems that gratuitousness and unearned-ness have some equivalency. In other words, not a great enough cause has been planted in the story to warrant the effect’s payoff. The unearned thing is there as an end in itself, rather than a means of exposing shared human truths through the story’s path of struggle.
 
While it’s a truth that all humans share the experience of various passions, gratuitousness fails to incorporate the reasons why. It’s a way of lying to ourselves about ourselves, ignoring who and what we are rather than growing deeper from the fictional experience.
 
It seems to me there are good ways to take a break and escape from ourselves, and not so good ones. To promote any type of passion to a self-existent status is to enthrone our own desires unfittingly. Human passions earn their place through their cause/effect relationship to self, world and others. The storyworld rules may change fantastically, but emotional causality can’t be divorced from its ground without a failure of realism.
 
Quick, somebody tell me if that makes any sense at all.

Galadriel
Guest

It’s interesting to see this, because it’s one of the areas I need to work on in my WiP–a lot of bad things happen to the MC in a very short time, and I need to strengthen the connections that make that happen.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Becky, thanks for touching on this and offering your thoughts in depth. As soon as I saw the quotes from the Woodlief article, I recalled reading it soon after it was posted, and telling myself at the time, I think I must think about this. So this is a long-overdue task.

Like pornography, sentimentality corrupts the sight and the soul, because it is passion unearned.

I suppose my question would be: must a reader/viewer “earn” the “happy ending” every time? Or might we say, Biblically: Christ has ultimately earned the happy ending, and we can sometimes, as Christians, enjoy foretastes of the ultimate victory guilt-free.

Not every manmade story includes every part of the entire Story, of the Gospel.

If God Himself bought into this, every single Psalm would include every single element of all the other Psalms: extolling God, bemoaning His seeming absence, praising His Law, pleading to know why others seem to get away with evil, worshiping God for His marvelous creation, and begging that God would slay His enemies in violent ways.

Instead, we find that each Psalm is individual: some of them “gritty,” with realistic portrayals of one’s struggles in a fallen world, and some of them just as “sentimental” as a Thomas Kincade painting. So: not either this or that. Both/and.

Whether it is Xerxes weeping at the morality of his unknown minions assembled at the Hellespont, or me being tempted to well up as the protagonist in Facing the Giants grips his Bible and whimpers in a glen, the rightful rejoinder is the same: you didn’t earn this emotion. […]

I’ll admit, this has me confused. When is passion in fiction “earned” by the reader? It isn’t. Whatever passion a reader experiences is in one sense “borrowed” because he’s reading someone else’s story.

And in all the great stories, the author “earned” the emotion for his/her readers.

Just as in the true-life Story, Christ Jesus earned the happy ending for His people.

What’s truly objectionable when the author hasn’t really earned the ending (also similar to theology that minimizes the cost of sin or the need for Christ’s sacrifice).

So what even this critic seems really to dislike, without saying it here, is not overt or imbalanced happy endings, but cheap and seemingly manufactured ones. He’d likely prefer a fine-steakhouse happy ending to a prepackaged lukewarm one from Wendy’s.

But in that case, I’d suggest clarifying that, and not putting all the impetus on a reader.

The writer who gives us sentimentality is akin to the painter Thomas Kinkade, who explicitly aims to paint the world without the Fall, which is not really the world at all, but a cheap, maudlin, knock-off of the world, a world without suffering and desperate faith and Christ Himself, which is not really a world worth painting, or writing about, or redeeming.

All of the world all at once, or none of it? Again, if this logic were applied to the Psalms, we’d need to give them all a Gritty Reboot™. Every single chapter would need to have “suffering and desperate faith and Christ Himself,” and not even have the freedom to break off into a subplot or subset of that Story to explore in-depth a specific part of it.

Oddly enough, this is another kind of objection to the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency. Apparently we feel constrained to blurt all the big Story all at once, so that we make sure there’s no chance for reader misunderstanding — ’cause Scripture didn’t do it right!

R. J. Anderson
Member

I can only imagine that someone who complains about Thomas Kinkade landscapes must live a deprived life, away from all natural beauty.
Oh, no no no no no. I love natural beauty. But I loathe Thomas Kinkade paintings, pretty and colourful though they are, because they are a completely ARTIFICIAL form of beauty. They’re contrived, prettified, superficial in artistic tone, without the depth or majesty that is always present in any truly God-created landscape. You don’t have to be living a depraved life, much less one devoid of beauty, to feel that way.

Maria Tatham
Guest

R.J., a question/observation about Kincaid’s paintings. Have you noticed–has anyone else?–that all of the windows in all of the houses or cabins are lit? No dark windows.

Maria

Kirsty
Guest

Yes – which means that the light has far less impact.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

From R.J. Anderson:

I love natural beauty. But I loathe Thomas Kinkade paintings, pretty and colourful though they are, because they are a completely ARTIFICIAL form of beauty.

That’s different from Woodlief’s criticism, though, which is not that Kinkade doesn’t capture natural-world beauty in the right way, but that he tries to do this at all. The latter criticism is more “spiritual” than the Bible, whose Psalms (and other portions) echo the majesty of creation, and absolutely “aims to [show] the world without the Fall.” Come to think of it, Isaiah 65 and Rev. 21 also show the world without the Fall.

I myself can find some room for the idealism of even Kinkade’s paintings. However, it’s when a Christian tries to say this is the best kind of art, and I will recognize no other truth in creativity, that we have problems. God gave us all the Psalms, and didn’t expect us only to keep going back to the purely-happy or purely-gritty ones.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Just checked, by the way, and it’s actually spelled Thomas Kinkade. Corrections appended. 😀

Maria Tatham
Guest

Becky, some thoughts:

By comparing sentimentality to pornography, was this writer trying to shock us into seeing from his viewpoint? The comparison is so unexpected and kind of awful. I dislike it because the one is just exaggeration, the other corruption.

For me, ‘earned’ means that a writer has done the work to be able to evoke the appropriate emotion. He’s not yanking us around, as Krysti put it.

You quoted this from the article: “…Xerxes weeping at the mor[t]ality of his unknown minions assembled at the Hellespont…” You know, I sort of like Xerxes’ reaction. It may show, not that the author was sentimental, but that this character was. However, I don’t know the work from which this is taken, to be able to say.
Exaggeration isn’t always bad. Sometimes an author uses it, as Radcliffe did in The Mysteries of Udolpho, as part of a genre. There, it’s fitting. I expect it from such works, and would be disappointed without it.

Your observations about a clear sky and smog both being true are so right!

Maria
 
 

Fred Warren
Member

Oh, please. Not the (whatever I dislike)=porn essay again. Sentimentality is equivalent to cheap grace? Hmm. I suppose cynicism is equivalent to works righteousness, then.

I must remember to ensure my Christmas cards include a shivering match girl or a flotilla of starving Dickensian orphans among the holiday scenery to remind everyone that God does not in fact bless us, every one, lest they get the wrong idea. Joy to the World, indeed. Harrumph.

“Ugh, take it away,” wailed Eustace. “I hate mice. And I never could bear performing animals. They’re silly and vulgar and–and sentimental.”

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Sentimentality is equivalent to cheap grace?

I’m reminded, Fred, that Paul was accused of teaching “cheap grace.” Some have observed that if someone isn’t accusing a Christian of teaching that, you might need to correct your teaching! Sure, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but I do notice that no one ever accused Christ and the Apostles of teaching works-righteousness …

If I absolutely had to pick between an overly sentimental Christian novel and a Gritty Reboot™ Christian novel, one extreme or the other, I’d choose the former.

“Ugh, take it away,” wailed Eustace. “I hate mice. And I never could bear performing animals. They’re silly and vulgar and–and sentimental.”

Ha ha!

Lewis worked hard at being “sentimental” and thus “earned” it. And even now secular critics accuse him of being too much that-a-way — meaning, it seems, that a consistent Christian critic who is falling all over himself to appeal to Secular Critics (such “haters [are] gonna hate” anyway), would need to disregard Lewis as well.

Jeremy McNabb
Guest
Jeremy McNabb

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s Fred Warren for the win!

I could see this argument being made in certain genres or media where the audience is looking to be thrown into a sentimental fit, but the same can be said of a worship service. If an author or director evokes an emotional reaction, generally speaking, they’ve earned it. 

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[…] BTW, if you’d like to read a post with a little more substance (not promising a lot, but at least a little more), stop by Spec Faith and read my article there — “Sentimentality And Christian Fiction.” […]

Bethany J.
Guest
Bethany J.

I am utterly confused by Woodleif’s take on things.  I agree with Rebecca – when DO we “earn” the emotion of a story?  He compares sentimentality to pornography as if we should have no part in emotions that don’t belong to us, just as we should have no part of sexuality that does not belong to us.  That’s just plain silly.  The two things are completely different.

The way I see it…  Simply touching my emotions doesn’t make a story “sentimental”.  There IS such a thing as a story that exists purely to manipulate emotion, but I don’t see much point to that and those kinds of books/movies don’t interest me.  I guess I consider that to be “exaggerated emotion”?  But there’s nothing wrong with that, per se.  It’s just not my cup of tea because I want stories to awaken my wonder and get my mind working, not just make me cry.  (And if a book/movie succeeds in getting me to cry, kudos to its maker!…I don’t cry easily for books and movies.)  🙂

As a side note – 

This whole “earning emotions” idea makes me think of Romans 12:15.  “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”  As Christians we *should* identify with others, sympathize with their pain, delight in their joys.  Why shouldn’t that also be true of reading fiction, in a smaller way?

Julius
Guest
Julius

Well, if you ask Herodotus, Xerxes honestly would’ve found something else to cry about if he could’ve. What a wuss.

Sentimentality is such an overused word. It seems like every time a story elicits some kind of emotion, I hear the inevitable “It’s so sentimental and overdone.”

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

Becky,
     A good example of the success of sentimentality would be Dickens, though I think Dickens generally “earns” his sentimental moments. I cried over the death of little Nell as a child, I know that. Then again, there are some topics I think that should not be approached sentimentally – the Holocaust, for instance – because the subject matter is too grave.  I don’t know that sentimentality is so much the problem in Christian fiction as is the lack of complex characterization that causes the sentimentality in the first place. Nor do I think sentimental and sad are necessarily opposed terms. Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2. is despairingly sad and sentimental at the same time – but it is never cheap. And I guess that would be my final word – just cause one is writing sentimentally does not give one the excuse to write poorly.
 
Best wishes to you all,
John
 
 

Fred Warren
Member

No one likes being manipulated, emotionally or otherwise, but I think there’s a difference between evoking an emotional response in a reader/viewer in the course of communicating what a character is feeling, and plucking at the heartstrings in an attempt to sell a product, argument, or political position (otherwise known as an “emotional appeal”), such as the pictures of darling little tots carrying placards in the “Occupy Wall Street” protests.

Mr. Woodleif strikes me as a very rational person who doesn’t like it when his emotions interfere with his analysis, as with the Facing the Giants scene he describes–he admits it made an emotional connection, and it irritated him because the movie didn’t measure up to his standard of quality. A sub-par movie just shouldn’t have been able to get through his shields like that. It was undeserved, a manipulative trick.

Nikole Hahn
Guest

Sometimes, I think people are too elitist. I can just picture the elitist critique sitting in a leather chair with his diplomas behind him framed in, not $4 frames from Kmart, but $100 frames from his favorite boutique while he stuffs tobacco leaves into his pipe. In other words, we can be so caught up in ourselves we love the critique and don’t see the writer or the reader.
I’m not saying this to put down that particular critic, but that’s the way it sounds when I hear them put down things like Thomas Kincaid paintings. Who in the world puts down those??? In an ugly, fallen world, what’s wrong with sentimentality or beauty? We see enough ugliness around us. I don’t read books to read more reality. I read to escape to see in C.S. Lewis evil get vanquished, to learn new ideas on how better to deal with my world, or to see friendships as in Lord of the Rings and those friendships grow in difficult circumstances.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Ultimately the debate can be condensed to this:

Are paintings, or Thomas Kinkade paintings, forbidden in the Bible? No.

So it’s an adiaphora issue. Things do not sin. People do, (ab)using Things.

Can one enjoy Kinkade paintings from faith, for God’s glory? If so, enjoy them! If not, avoid them personally. But don’t act as if the Object is the source of sin either.

“… For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” — Romans 14:29

Apart from recognizing this, even fighting legalism can only lead to more legalism. And it’s likely an even more dangerous kind of legalism, because it sounds so spiritual and libertine.

Sarah
Guest

Don’t you think this argument has a silencing effect on Christian authors? When I first started writing I was shocked by this argument, and the one that says there should never be a conversion scene. The trend seems to be characters who aren’t really changed by God, they’re just persuaded to try something new with very little emotion involved. I don’t get that. That’s definitely not what happened in my life. There are so many people in our nation now who have zero knowledge of Christianity. If I feel led to write a book about redemption, I sure am not going to make it a powerless experience.
Having said that, I agree with others – if the reader feels manipulated it’s due to poor writing, not inappropriate sentiments. It encourages me to see so many posting who “feel” the same way. 😀

 

Nikole Hahn
Guest

If it’s an obvious conversion scene, then I skim those, but if it’s well written and feels natural enough, not like the author felt like he or she had to have one in it, then I read it and am touched by it. I’ve read both kinds.

Maria Tatham
Guest

What does the old Shaker hymn affirm? “It is good to be simple, it is good to be free, it is good to come down where we ought to be!” I may not have remembered this correctly, but the point is humility. We all need it.

Thanks for your semi-tirade about Kinkade, Van Gogh, and Norman Rockwell, Becky!

Great conversation, all! Iron sharpens iron. 

Now perhaps, I should actually read Woodlief!

Timothy Stone
Member

Can I ask about sentimentality in music specifically? Because if anyone hates having their emotions played on, they must REALLY hate the most epic and well-known soundtracks. Howard Shore’s masterful (and, in my opinion, simply BRILLIANT) soundtrack to *The Lord of the Rings* seems carefully designed to evoke an emotional response.
I would say that too sentimental gives too much of a sugar-coated view of life, where the hurts and pains are not shown, and people can get a foolish notion of how life really is. I say this because I DO think that art can influence strongly how we live and act. I also think that work that is too “gritty” can, as the author points out, perpetuate too much of a cynical attitude that does not glory and bask in the glories of God’s Creation and constant provisions for us. 
It may be simple to ask where the happy medium would be, and just aim there, but it really is not. People are different in terms of upbringing, temperament, and life experience. What is too sentimental, or too gritty, might be quite different depending on the individual. 
Those are my thoughts. *Shrugs*

Timothy Stone
Member

I had one more thought from the comments I’ve read so far. There are a lot to read. :O Very thought-provoking piece, Ma’am.
When my dad died, and later my brother died, lots of folks tried to comfort me. they tried to console me. I appreciated it, but eventually, I grew tired of it. Those folks I appreciated the most are those who quietly stood by and empathized, but weren’t pushing their ideas on me, or were not pushing me what to think. They allowed me to feel what I felt. They had advice, but didn’t criticize me.
How does this relate to the topic? Well, I just think that too many people are ready to translate their life experiences, or their personalities and preferences, into the be-all and end-all, of life and service to Christ. Not everything is prescribed and proscribed about in the Scriptures. Some things really are left up to individual choice and personality. Those things should be accepted and praised for the incredible diversity (not in the annoying Politically Correct nonsense way, but in true diversity of our personalities and very souls before God) that God created us to have.
If someone likes a genre or writing style that I don’t like, then that doesn’t make them right or me wrong, or me right and them wrong. This is assuming there is no sin in the genre discussed. Let people be.

Maria Tatham
Guest

Timothy: Amen!

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[…] now of Tony Woodlief and his article Bad Christian Art. I ran across this article while reading Sentimentality And Christian Fiction (an essay you should check out) on Speculative Faith (a website you should check out). Woodlief […]

Bob
Guest
Bob

Don’t you hate it when a pastor gives a mediocre, kinkade-light sermon and ends it with a tear-jerker story out of the blue. You have to dry your eyes during the prayer so no one will see that you’ve swallowed the hook.

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[…] I noted last Monday, those who claim to expect all Christian art to include the full Gospel, with “total depravity” […]