Sentimentality And Christian Fiction, A Reprise

The novel 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.
on Feb 27, 2017 · 6 comments

Christian fiction is getting a beat down these days. Perhaps we should take a second look at some of the past analysis of it. This article is an edited version of one that appeared here at Spec Faith five years ago. I think it’s an appropriate examination of Christian fiction, then and now.

In addition, I thought about Christian fiction in conjunction with yesterday’s sermon at my church by Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, guest speaker and professor at Biola University. In addressing how we as believers can be ministers of reconciliation to our neighbors and family and friends who are without Christ, he said that we can agree with them about the problem we all face.

He went on to illustrate how we all resist death, how we all desire peace, and how we all have a passion to find love, so much so that we fill our stories with happy endings that give us the perfect world we so desperately desire. Yes, fiction does that. Not just Christian fiction. The Princess Bride, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Superman, Pretty Woman, Sleepless In Seattle. Or even more recent films like La La Land, Love And Friendship, It Had To Be You, and others.

The point of the message is that we all, believers and non-believers alike, have a desire to know the perfection for which we were created. We want life without death, a world without war, and relationships that give us true love. So we pepper our stories with the desires of our heart.

Christian fiction does so as well. Is that a bad thing?

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The novel 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 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?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. notleia says:

    Well, I want Bob Ross sentimentality rather than Thomas Kinkade sentimentality. Does that make sense? I don’t know.

  2. HG Ferguson says:

    And I thought I was the overly critical one — yikes, Thomas Kinkade a world without the Fall? Really? Shades of Martin and his either butchers or meat. As usual, you nailed it. And, like you, I honestly do prefer the “real” — God’s real — to man’s “realistic,” even if it makes me cry. And, also like you, some things do bring a tear or two — or a bawl. Great post.

  3. Rebecca, your final comments remind me of John Gardner’s writings about the “Christian Pollyanna Mask,” and its inverse, “The Dis-Pollyanna Mask.” Both the ever-smiling, evil-denying conservatives, and the angst-ridden, nihilistic haters-of-good, are suffering from the same short-sightedness. In essence, whether you’re on the extreme of negativity or positivity, you’re fooling yourself.

    But I think the problem with sentimentality actually rides with us as readers. We want to be comfortable. We want to be made to feel good.

    Way too often, secular readers hyper-criticize stories that end well (because they’re donning the Dis-Pollyanna mask). Funny enough, this is because they want to be made to feel superior to others.

    Likewise, Christian readers have a terrible tendency to bash any books that turn out badly or contain uncomfortable truths because they want to be comfortable. They also tend to claim those uncomfortable elements are theologically “inaccurate” (too blinded by the ever-smiling Pollyanna Mask to notice it’s their theology that’s the issue, not the book’s).

    I think the reason why seeing so many book covers showing women in bonnets bothers me is that it reminds me of how many people in the Christian community want a sterilized view of reality.

    A marketplace is shaped by demand, not by supply. So, it’s the demands of the readers that have so distorted the market to favor sterilized fiction. But sterilized fiction is just a small symptom of a much deeper problem. Our search for comfort has caused us to sterilize ourselves. Just look at the impact the American church is having on our country. The proof is written all over our prayer lives.

    There’s no such thing as a comfortable Christian. If we are comfortable, we’re not really following after Christ like we should be.

    Instead of buying “Live, Laugh, Love” plaques, we should be buying, “Serve, Pray, Sacrifice” plaques. God didn’t bleed to death on a hunk of wood so that we could live a comfortable existence. He did it to give us the strength to do the same for others, so that we could all be reunited with him.

  4. ionaofavalon says:

    I have never been happy with sentimentality, especially in romance. Sure, I love all that poetry-spouting, knight-in-shining-armor stuff, but real couples fight. Real couples have silly quarrels. Real couples make hard choices. Real couples have to make the small, unromantic sacrifices. What comes after happily ever after? You can have both swoony romance and real relationships, but I have seen very few shows that can do both effectively.

  5. Autumn Grayson says:

    I think the point about us not earning the sentimentality we feel while reading a story is interesting. In some cases that might be true, but in others it isn’t. Many times the feelings the characters feel in a story don’t resonate with us as well unless we have experienced something that makes us identify with what the character goes through. People are more likely to be sad when reading about death, for instance, if they have lost someone they care about, or love someone so much that it would be very difficult for them to lose that person.

    I personally don’t find Thomas Kinkade paintings to be all that sentimental. They’re beautiful, but don’t seem to be there to say the world is perfect. A lot of them, for instance, seem to be just a beautiful scene of the world simply going about its business, but it doesn’t really say much about the lives of the people in the paintings. If an artist paints a picture of someone walking down the street smiling, then it’s a picture of a person walking down the street smiling. That one little snapshot can’t prove that that person’s life is perfect, or even whether they had a good day. People fake smiles all the time. And showing the world as beautiful is different than saying it’s sentimental and perfect.

  6. Audie says:

    I think I understand what is meant by writer’s “earning” an emotional response from readers. I’ll try to explain.

    There are stories I’ve seen that try to bash the reader over the head with attempts at emotional responses right off the bat, and that to my mind these attempts fell flat. “Little Lizzie sat in the corner, crying her deep blue eyes out”, or something like that, is how the story begins, and in those first few pages the reader is pummeled again and again with sad state of Little Lizzie’s life. In fact, all we really learn about Little Lizzie is that she has a really hard knock life.

    And when I see stories like that, my reaction is that I’m being manipulated, that the story hasn’t yet helped me as a reader to care about this character.

    One thing I’ve picked up from the anime and manga I’ve watched and read is that very often the stories begin by trying to help the reader care about the characters before trying to ramp up the emotions.

    For example, Your Lie in April. The first several episodes introduce the main characters, sets up the different kinds of conflicts. It even drops a hint or two about the ending, but doesn’t bash the viewer over the head with it right off, but builds up that part of the story slowing, so that when the last few episodes do finally come, most viewers will be easily drawn onto the emotional roller coaster ride of the ending.

    One Piece draws in the viewer’s emotions for the demise of a surprising character, a boat. It does it by giving that boat a character of its own, showing how it’s simply unable to continue the voyage, giving it one final hurrah before a surprisingly emotional death scene for that boat.

    So, I can agree with the idea that writers have to earn certain reactions from readers. It’s just not enough to have a character go through bad things, the reader or viewer has to care that the character is going through those bad things, and it’s the writer’s or creator’s job to help the reader care.

What do you think?