The dangers of sentimental creativity
14 December 2009 4 Comments
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 Amazon.com.