The sin of sentimentality

Public expressions of emotion aren’t wrong, but they should have a health warning attached, says Dr Daniel Strange

In the days following the horrific Grenfell Tower fire there ensued a media storm concerning the then Prime Minister Theresa May. Considerable opprobrium was directed towards the already beleaguered leader. Her choice to speak to emergency services first and not the victims was interpreted as uncaring, unsympathetic and robotic. May’s response was contrasted with that of Jeremy Corbyn, who was pictured hugging distraught residents.

Friends and colleagues rushed to May’s aid, citing security considerations and her desire not to intrude on anxiety and grief. We were told that privately she was distraught. Other commentators noted that May was trying to be practical in making sure the services had all the resources they needed. Despite attempts to defend her actions, the reputational damage had been done. Former deputy Conservative leader Michael Portillo commented that May wanted an entirely controlled situation “in which she didn’t use her humanity”.

The rise of sentimentality

Sentimentality itself is difficult to define, but the novelist Milan Kundera caught its essence when he wrote: “Two tears flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass.”

Whatever you make of the party politics, there can be little doubt that sentimentality in our culture is on the rise, thus confirming, 25 years on, professor of philosophy Anthony O’Hear’s warning that “Post-Diana, Britain will indeed be another country.” Following Diana’s funeral, the professor claimed “mob grief” had been “personified and canonised”, resulting in “the elevation of feelings above reason, reality and restraint”.

Theologian Dick Keyes notes that “our real and authentic emotions are there, but are buried under feelings that we feel we are meant to feel in whatever situation we are in”. As a result, our emotions have become dead and abstracted with no commitment to action. In other words: sentimentality stifles us. Sentimentality also simplifies things. There is little room for nuance, complexity and fortitude. Our world consists of clear-cuts: of goodies and baddies, victims and perpetrators, oppressed citizens and oppressive authorities. Every situation demands an immediate answer. Intractability is never entertained. In this sense sentimentality is infantile. Sentimentality is selfish. As the English philosopher Roger Scruton once put it: “Sentimentality is that peculiarly human vice which consists in directing your emotions toward your own emotions, so as to be the subject of a story told by yourself.”

The English cultural critic Theodore Dalrymple notes: “Emotions are now like justice: they must not only be felt, but seen to be felt.” Here was May’s failing. If sentimentality means the need to show that you really care, then, to be noticed in public, one has to embark on a ‘really show you care’ exercise which becomes more and more excessive in its expression and therefore less and less appropriate for the social situation itself. Add to this media and social media getting in on the ‘caring act’ and things are quickly whipped up into a care-fest frenzy. Consider the media response to May compared with the headlines about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s tearful reaction to the horrific shooting in a mosque in Christchurch. One BBC headline read: “A leader with love on full display”.

What's the harm?

I believe public expressions of emotion should have a health warning attached. They should be engaged with responsibly, reflectively and possibly with restraint. But why? What’s the harm in all of this? Well, firstly authorities can be bullied into knee-jerk reactive responses that, as Dalrymple notes, “throw sops to the public instead of tackling problems in a determined, rational but also inconveniently controversial way”. Secondly, very quickly it is perceived that not to play the care game is to be cold or callous. In this way, public expressions of sentimentality are coercive and monolithic, demanding an emotional conformity or an emotional correctness which denies that emotional expressivity might differ among people, among cultures and appropriate to certain situations.

In the last few years there have been occasions when I have had to lead grieving Christian communities in corporate worship where I have struggled to contain my emotion. This struggle was conscious because a certain amount of restraint and responsibility was needed to be able to lead from the front. What was interesting was the number of people who came up to me over the next few weeks and commented on how they thought it significant and somehow countercultural to see a conservative evangelical leader shed a few tears “from the front”. I found these comments interesting when compared with a very different cultural expression of emotion I had experienced a number of years ago. On the death of my Guyanese father, his Malaysian wife (not my mother) prostrated herself over his body and with ear-piercing weeping and wailing stayed in that position for what seemed like an eternity. While my British identity found this a little uncomfortable, I never thought it inauthentic but rather appropriate for the occasion and her own cultural background. If your typical Brit had reacted in a similar way, I might have thought it a little histrionic and would certainly think it overdone if the emotion had come from someone who never knew my father. That a few tears in leading a service for a dearly loved friend should be commented upon shows a certain cultural relativity when it comes to emotional expressiveness.

Returning to our former Prime Minister, it could be argued that in reality May did demonstrate her care and concern but in a very practical, unobtrusive and undemonstrative way. On Facebook two days after the tragedy, columnist Brendan O’Neill shared a copy of May’s detailed letter describing the government’s response to the tragedy, with the comment: “Shame on Theresa May doing this kind of thing instead of mopping up her tears with a teddy bear on the Ten O’Clock News.” Biting, but I think fair.

Interestingly, the appropriateness or otherwise of public emotion has been directed towards the media itself. In an article entitled, ‘Grenfell Tower tragedy: a hug too far?’ former editor-in-chief of ITN and Ofcom regulator Stewart Purvis questioned the loss of journalistic detachment typified in the on-air hug journalist Victoria Derbyshire gave to eyewitness Mahad Egal as he broke down describing the events: “Has this phenomenon inspired a new populism in broadcast reporting? Is TV now in an arms race with social media to be seen to care? And, if it is, what are the implications for calm, considered reporting?”

A Christian response

In a cultural context where sentimentality is rife, where reason and emotion are pitted against each other and where all authorities are viewed with suspicion, what should the response of Christians and churches be? First, we need to confess that we have been affected. We live in a culture that shapes our own way of being. Our personal lives, corporate worship and theology have been impacted by sentimentality. We need to be honest about that, come before God in repentance and follow Christin the better way he shows to us. In 2 Corinthians, we witness the apostle Paul’s own outburst of emotion: “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange– I speak as to my children– open wide your hearts also” (6:11-13). Here we have the antithesis of sentimentality. Sin is taken seriously, there is no emotional self-indulgence and we see a demonstration of costly action. This is a cry from the heart that is real. Paul’s emotional plea is perfectly appropriate to the situation he is facing. He is not expressing emotion with strangers but with his spiritual children. He is passionate not about trivialities but about his children rejecting him and taking God’s grace in vain. He does not avoid confrontation but tackles it head-on. Most of all, he demonstrates that an authentic minister and an authentic ministry is not about oneself and one’s fame. It really does care for the other, not in a quick-fix, but a hard slog: “Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in everyway: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).

Our churches and Christian communities can and must be refuges from the sentimental and oases of the real. We learn from Paul as Paul learns from Christ, our gloriously unsentimental saviour and Lord who, as John Calvin noted in his commentary on Hebrews, “has put on our flesh, and also its feelings” and did so perfectly. We must not compartmentalise or put in competition with each other the human faculties of reason and emotion. We aren’t simply left as passive respondents to emotions we can’t control. By the Spirit Christians are being formed into the likeness of Christ, whose emotional life is the example we follow as the one who demonstrated total integration of reason and emotion, the one who had the most ‘developed heart’. As BB Warfield says: “We are not to be content to gaze upon him or to admire him: we must become imitators of him, until we are metamorphosed into the same image.”

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