Sentimentality and Christianity

I recently found this post by Aimee Byrd asking “Are Evangelicals Too Sentimental?” It concerns a book called “Homespun Gospel,” which she said argues “that sentimentality has triumphed as the primary language in contemporary American evangelicalism over doctrine and scholars need to recognize this change.”

Even without reading the book, I think the author (as well as Aimee Byrd) has a valid point. Sentimentality certainly wields a powerful influence in the visible church (those that profess to know Jesus Christ) these days. The books flying out of Christians bookstores by the dozen are fluffy, happy and often unbiblical books and DVDs that give people warm, fuzzy feelings.

In my view, this feelings-driven “faith” (if you can even call it that) coupled with the hunt for God experiences present a huge problem within Christianity today. Seeking a Christian life based on how it makes you feel or seeking an experience/feeling of God’s nearness are like building out of sand, rather than granite. And when the storm comes, feelings and experiences give way. Those sandcastles collapse under pressure.

In contrast, understanding the Scriptures and learning sound doctrine generate in the believer a foundation like granite. It’s true truth and can be clung to no matter what comes our way. In my own life, knowing what the Bible teaches about who God is and who I am, and why I’m here gives me security. That’s rock solid stuff. For example, Being able to trust in God’s faithfulness because God himself proclaims in Scripture that he is faithful, and proves it over and over again, provides hope no matter what comes.

Unfortunately, these days it seems many people are more interested in building a “christianity” sandcastle rather than a fortress of stone.

4 thoughts on “Sentimentality and Christianity

  1. I think sentiment – emotion – is crucial to Christianity. Saul had complete book-knowledge of Judaism according to the Pharisee’s tradition. He was angered by believers of ‘The Way’ for their complete disregard for the teachings as he knew them. But on the way, he had an encounter that changed him. It wasn’t pure cold logic that made him become Paul – it was that time of darkness, of doubt, of questioning that made him receptive to the message. Think about how your sense of touch tells you how things are – soft, rough, smooth, hard, hot, cold – that’s what our emotions are for our faith. Are we so desensitized that we don’t cry when we should? How would you know you’re on the right path if you can’t feel what is going on around you?

    Look at it another way, Starbucks is a pretty popular coffee chain because there was a need for it in the marketplace. Without Starbucks, everybody would be drinking plain, cheap, coffee. Thanks to Starbucks, people can choose exactly what coffee flavors they want and they get to pay a little extra for the privilege. Likewise, there is a need for emotional health within Christianity that cannot be satisfied by despising sentimentality altogether. An unemotional Christianity is powerless – when the storm comes it feels no fear, when there is cause for celebration it feels no happiness, and when bad things happen it feels no sadness. Being emotionally healthy as a church means helping people to become emotionally healthy as individuals – no more ‘boys don’t cry’ or ‘girls are too emotional’ stereotypes. Let’s face it, Jesus was an emotional guy – angry at the money changers at the temple, always the life of the party, always patiently explaining the same things over and over again to the disciples and all the big crowds that followed him everywhere. If Jesus wasn’t unemotional, then Christianity shouldn’t be unemotional.

    Most people don’t authoritatively believe in these books as guidance for their lives anyway. I’ve never met anybody that carried around a book by Max Lucado and preached out of it to everybody he or she meets. I think what they do get from these books are simple, modern thoughts that they can work with. Putting the Bible to the same purpose isn’t always easy because we’re not the sort of people that would get the farming metaphors (if we live in the city) or fishing metaphors (if we live on the farm). Much of the teachings in these books are the same or similar to Scripture written in a way that people can learn from it and apply it without waiting one day in seven to learn these lessons from their pastors, assuming the pastors ever preach it at all. Sadly, some teachings do limit women and prevent them from applying themselves as Christians. Some churches only permit that which is Biblical (depending on their denomination): no speaking, no wearing jeans, no wearing make-up, no teaching men, no having authority over men (no women as pastors), but they can wear head coverings, teach daughters, teach younger sons, teach other women, cook, clean, and be in charge of the nursery. If any of these women aspire for more, they won’t find it in their church. So they only place that can turn to are these books which are open to everybody to learn from equally. Does it satisfy? Not completely, but it’s better than nothing at all.

    • Jamie, thank you for taking the time to comment. I’d like to also take the time to respond.

      I didn’t say, nor did I have any intention of implying that emotion has no place within Christianity. We are human beings and as such created with feelings and emotions. There are days the reality of who God is and what Jesus Christ has done produces within me very strong emotions. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, my great concern is for those who seek to fill an emotional craving rather than seek the truth and let the truth shape their emotions. Jeremiah 17:9 warns us that our hearts are deceitful. We must seek truth from the author of it (God himself) where he has told us to find it (the Bible). If we live merely for the next emotional high or pursue the teachings that gives us good feelings about God, regardless of whether those teachers are teaching Biblical truth we are in error.

      Re: Saul/Paul. Yes, Saul was a Pharisee and a good one. But it wasn’t his book knowledge that was the problem, it was his lack of understanding the gospel. He was blind to who Jesus Christ was until Jesus blinded him on the way to Damascus. Many people mistakenly argue that Pharisaism is caring too much about doctrine. The problem of the Pharisees wasn’t that they knew too much doctrine, but that they were looking to their obedience to save them/to justify them in God’s sight. The law was never meant to save (Galatians 2, Galatians 3, Romans 3). Rather it was meant to show us our sins and need for the savior to come (Jesus). They also became puffed up with pride, lived like hypocrites and added to God’s laws with ones of their own. But the root problem was they were looking to save themselves.

      I haven’t met any unemotional Christians. As I already said, emotions have a place but they are not proof of faith or truth or anything else. My complaint is with those who overemphasize emotion or seek to feed emotion, rather than letting their feelings be the natural outflow of a proper understanding of who God is, what Jesus has done and is doing in their life.

      I disagree with you about the amount of influence Christian books have in people’s lives because I’ve seen firsthand what books people try to pass out to their friends and I see retweets of empty platitudes from Rick Warren all the time. Not everyone who reads such books may intend to view them as an authority for their life, but many people spend more time in feel-good, “christianized” self-help nonsense books than they actually spend reading the Bible for themselves. What they’re reading is what is going to impact them.

      You say that the Bible isn’t “always easy.” I agree. It is hard. It requires work, which is precisely why many people (men and women) don’t study it (I recommend Women of the Word for some excellent instruction on how to study the Bible). But laziness is not a valid excuse. We should love the Bible if we love Jesus. God took the time to use men to write it down for us, we ought to be able to take the time to read it and understand it. People can choose to learn about the audience a certain book of the Bible was written to that they can grasp farming metaphors or fishing metaphors and taking that care is a blessing. Being a berean (Acts 17:11) is essential because the Bible warns us that there will be false teachers within the church itself. If people do not take the time and effort to search the Scriptures them self how will they know which authors to trust and which to avoid? There have always been some who twisted the Scriptures for their own purposes and always will be. As for churches permitting only which is Biblical — I’m all in favor of that — but as I said, you can only know is biblical if you know the entire work and use it to interpret itself. The biblical requirement for pastors to be male is crystal clear and I will not argue with it, nor am I saddened by it. I am saddened when any church makes outward appearance a big issue though. There is no biblical mandate against women wearing pants in church or jeans or whatever. The Bible makes it clear over and over again that the Lord looks at the heart.

      Every single individual, male or female, should take ownership in their faith in Jesus Christ. We are slaves to Christ after all. We should love the Bible and seek to understand it more and to allow the Holy Spirit to transform us by it. I don’t believe that being a woman should be an excuse not to understand my faith or the theology my very life rests on. Our aspirations should all be the same, be to more like Christ to exude the fruit of the Spirit and to take the gospel into the world and share it with those who are lost.

  2. I’ll have to read that article. Years ago, I began…well, railing against what I termed the “HappyFluffy Gospel”. Got a lot of flack and even lost friends over it, but has the situation improved? People don’t even want to hear from or read the Bible anymore, and now rebuke those who hold to it. Very saddening and upsetting situation.

  3. Good reply Julia. That is certainly the problem today that people want to redefine truth and the bible, so that it’s more palatable to their flesh (2 timothy4:3-4), however, my own desires can never be truly satisfied by serving a God that allows me to do whatever I want and who promotes the lustfulness that is in every man and woman’s heart. And Jen you are correct about the “Happy fluffy gospel”, the so called feel good gospel that never challenges our sin nature. Fortunately the gospels and the epistles constantly challenge those uncomfortable areas. How can a christian ever grow in the faith if he’s only getting a portion of the gospel. God wants us to be transformed by the whole word of God in every area of our lives and in every facet of our being and to be holy as he is holy. Today people would rather be entertained than to be changed into His likeness and holiness! 1 Peter 1:14-16.

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