The dangers of sentimental creativity

David Taylor excerpts Jeremy Begbie — from the upcoming For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts — over on the Diary of an Arts Pastor blog. I’m excerpting the excerpt here:

    This should stand as a subversive warning against all sentimentality: when we misrepresent reality by evading or trivializing evil, usually for the sake of indulging pleasing emotions. Our refusal to face evil for what it is takes many forms, but is perhaps most pointed in Western society’s common denial of death. We grab at the things of this world because we cannot bear the thought that they will dissolve into dust like everything else.

    We dupe ourselves into thinking there will always be enough to meet our wants—enough fuel, enough energy, enough land—because we cannot imagine an end to all our acquiring, the possibility that there are limits, that things and people are not everlasting. Provocatively, theologian Stanley Hauerwas contends, “There’s a connection between the amount of money [we] spend on medicine and our reaction to 9/11. Both are attempts to deny that we’re not going to get out of life alive.”

    Many believe we have reached an “aesthetic moment” in our culture, when artistic media are quickly assuming massive importance in shaping the Western imagination. If there is truth in this, it is vital that Christian artists do not succumb to the sentimentality that so often accompanies surges of aesthetic enthusiasm. William James once wrote about a visit to a Christian resort in New York State. He tells us of “the atrocious harmlessness of all things” and how he longed for the outside world, with its “heights and depths, the precipices and steep ideals, the gleams of the awful and the infinite.”

    It is probably in our worship that this sentimental “flattening out” is most evident. We see it in our tendency to avoid any art in worship that will not instantly push the “feel-good” button, lest we lose members or repel newcomers. We see it when we insist God should grant everything in an instant, matched by music where every tension is immediately resolved, no dissonance “lived through.” We see it when we crave for direct, unmediated access to God, forgetting that God is always to some extent mediated through the finite materials of the created world. We see it in what Rowan Williams calls the “sentimental solipsism” of some recent songwriting, where the erotic metaphors of medieval and Counter-Reformation piety reappear but without the theological checks and balances of those older traditions. As a result, “Jesus as object of loving devotion can slip into Jesus as fantasy partner in a dream of emotional fulfillment.”

Begbie is a prominent advocate for the arts in the context of Christianity. You can pre-order For the Beauty of the Church on


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

4 Responses to The dangers of sentimental creativity

  1. Pingback: The importance, and trap, of artistic freedom « The Aesthetic Elevator

  2. Tim J. says:

    Aggh! I really want to take more time to read this and comment, but it will have to wait. Darn!

  3. Sarah Jane says:

    Begbie is kind-of wonderful. I would add to his argument by suggesting that sentimentality is, in fact, a kind of anti-creativity.

    I imagine genuine creativity as an act of formation and renewal — bringing form from void; order from chaos; beauty from ugliness; meaning from emptiness.

    Sentimentality does none of this. It offers only pre-digested meaning and beauty — or as I describe it to my students, kitsch can only reveal what you already know, while true art is a challenge; it can teach you something new.

  4. David Taylor says:

    Thanks for posting this, man. I appreciate your help getting the word out. I’m excited to be a part of this swelling movement of people who love God, the church, their neighbors, artists, art, and take it all seriously enough to sweat the sweat and to think deeply about it, but they don’t take themselves too seriously to squash the joy that comes from the knowledge that we *get* to be doing these things.

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