God and Sentimentalism

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I am really turned off by sentimentalism. You know, those remarks like, “Bless his little heart, isn’t he just an ANGEL?!? Look at him. Isn’t that the most PRECIOUS thing you have EVER seen in your LIFE?!?” Even as a mother of three tender boys under 4yrs old, I still can’t always relate to the remarks, trinkets, and momentos that mothers store away painstakingly in fragile boxes or baby books to immortalize their infant’s lives. It’s not that I don’t like memorabilia — I even scrapbook occasionally — but I just don’t always feel all the tender emotions that cause me to gush over baby booties, first haircuts, smeared mealtime faces. Or prom dresses, wedding invitations, or whatever. I treasure the people these artifacts represent, but the mushy-gushy feelings don’t always come.

I feel a similar thing when I go to card stores, and especially Christian bookstores. Why am I not moved by the latest devotional book or testimonial calendar? Why do I pass over pictures of serene lighthouses and pendants with hearts and special prayers attached to them? I don’t even respond to ladies’ group Bible studies that well. I somehow feel alienated by the raisin cakes and chit-chat that I often have to make up so I don’t say anything too serious. I get wary of popular literature or songs — the more popular it is, the more I’m wary of it. I’m sure some of this experience is due to my sober personality or maybe oversensitivity. Some of it is also due to my fear of “Christianity lite” things. I fear stuff that is just pop, trendy, or cheese. I fear saccharine for the real sweetness of life in Him. I fear sentimentality because I’m afraid if I take part in it, I might not connect to the real, deep emotion of God.

Yet as I was pondering this (and repenting for being too critical of a beloved Christian author’s latest popular work), I realized that sentimentalism is a phenomenon unique to the Christian worldview. Christianity is the only religion that permits it. Can you picture a Muslim card store with all kinds of cute Muslim memorabilia? Or a Hindu one? Little Buddhist robes and incense burners that come in sixty different colors and smells for the temple that wants them to match their decor? Confuciun aointing oil jars that match the offering plates laid at the feet of the ancestors? Truly, the thought of any other religion promoting the kind of gushy, sometimes sappy stuff that Christians can is difficult. Their God (or non-God as the case may be) simply doesn’t allow it.

That made me think, What would the Christian religion look like without sentiment? What if we just got rid of it all and narrowed the inventory to the purely functional stuff?

I think we would cut out part of the identity of Christ. After all, Jesus says some pretty amazing things like, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How I longed to gather you to me as a hen does her chicks under her wings. But you would not come.” (Matthew 23:37). This can only be the statement of a loving man, intimately acquainted with the Father’s parental sentiment toward mankind. The God of the Bible also talks about his hesed or mother-type compassion on his children. David compares his soul to a weaned child within him (Psalm 131:2) and pours out all kinds of wild laments. The Song of Solomon gushes. John laid on Jesus’ breast. Paul compares his gentleness to that of a nursing mother (1 Thessalonians 2:7). Mary and Martha conveyed deep emotion the Lord Jesus resonated. I can even imagine Jesus sitting on the shore, watching His Father’s sunrises and thinking of psalms which praised them. Painting pictures of lighthouses? Well, maybe if He had the time and talent… or maybe not. But you get the point.

Now I am not trying to make God out to be feminine or trite. I’m not sure He would approve of all the sappy, Christian “lite” stuff we have in our bookstores. And His depth of emotion cannot be compared to our shallow or fleeting sentiments that we immortalize on greeting cards. However, I realize His manliness makes room for a unique sentimentality that other religions do not. He is not threatened by acts or words of compassion — even very dramatic ones. Neither is He threatened by our lighthouse portraits with random Scriptures under them, or our latest collection of handheld devotional books with a one-liner prayer each day. He has found space for them–perhaps not the most ideal expression of the emotion and substance of His creation, but also not the lowest. So maybe we can find space too. After all, in any other religious system, such displays would not be imagined. The religion simply wouldn’t have engendered the hearts of its people for that type of thing.

This made me more appreciative of the sentimental stuff. And sentimental people. I am not as quick to criticize or overserious-ize things as I once was. I admire my friend who can cry at the drop of a hat, see a point in my relative’s endless memory boxes, and understand my other friend’s grandmother who is a pro at those angelic proclamations about every baby gesture ever made. I see how they would not be able to be that way if it were not for a basically Christian background–one that values life, which treasures tiny moments, and is looking for God and His joy in the smallest things. So while you still won’t find me buying up Christian card store items, you also won’t find me not appreciating the implications of their existence anymore.

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