Sentimentality And Emotional Death

Populism, the ethos among evangelicals, works most powerfully with negative emotions like resentment and suspicion. The populist appeal is for The People to rally because The Elites are out to get them. It's an appeal to wounded pride. But, to evoke positive emotions, populism leaves evangelicals with only one tool. Feelings such as gratitude, joy, and love aren't compatible with wounded pride, but can only grow in the soil of humility. Which is why the populist tool for evoking positive emotions is sentimentality.

Novelist John Gardner defined sentimentality as "the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause." Arousing sentiment is essential, he said of fiction. But when an emotion is "achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration" -- sentimentality -- it "rings false." (The Art of Fiction, New York: Vintage Books, 1991, p 115.)

I'll put the point bluntly. Evangelicals can't seem to arouse good feelings among themselves without artistic cheating.

We have, for instance, this:

Your daughter has gone beddy-bye, and she's snuggled head-to-head with Raggedy Ann. Hovering over her, almost patting her silken hair, is Jesus, looking like a kindly woodsman who happens to blow-dry his hair. And what is Jesus saying to your daughter? "I know the plans I have for you, etc., etc."

You, the viewer, are Daddy or Mommy peeking in to check on your precious baby girl, only to realize that Jesus is already there.

This picture is all "message," like any other piece of commercialized art. The emotion it seeks to arouse is good -- relief and joy at God's providential care for your children. But the picture does not provide "due cause" to achieve this emotion. It cheats. It goes for "Oh, how cute!" bypassing the more volatile "Oh, how defenseless!" Because the girl is safely upper-middle-class, nothing truly horrible hangs over her. And Jesus is reassuringly within the Anglo-Saxon gene pool.

There's no desperation in that picture.

As opposed to this:

The Miraculous Draught of Fishesby Jacopo Bassano (1545) arouses many emotions, but they need sorting. (The National Gallery displays the work here.) One fisherman kneels in a posture that mixes helplessness, gratitude, and loyalty. Another, his features contorted in amazement, has just hopped onto Jesus' boat. He has abandoned the three remaining fishermen, who have to struggle with the catch and their boat by themselves.

My feelings about Bassano's Jesus are complicated. He does not appear to my eye first because his robe is a cool blue, and he is not at the center of the action. Even when I notice him, I don't feel that he is open to me. His back is turned, and I only see his face in a severe profile. Emotionally, he is remote from the frenzy of activity among the fishermen, with his posture erect, his face serene, and his hand raised in blessing.

This painting doesn't tell me what to feel. But it provokes many sentiments, and the more I reflect on them, the more force they have. I find myself responding to a King.

This is not a populist painting: Jesus is not "one of The People." But he is in the ordinary. The painting's complexities give it power.

The populist cannot trade in complexity. He controls his audience's emotions with a false simplicity -- us against them. He can arouse the uglier sentiments easily with slogans. But how can he arouse redeeming sentiments like gratitude when he has driven out the humility that gratitude requires?

It's no wonder evangelical church life is so emotionally unsatisfying. With harangues against the godless, we sing our own virtues, and then with sentimentality we invite each other to rest in coffins of self-regard.