Reprinted from Christianity Today magazine, 8/10/98
October 1998 – In June, the American Film Institute (AFI) released a list of the 100 best American movies. Quite apart from arguments over the comparative merits of this or that film, the list is valuable for what it reveals about the mind set of the entertainment industry and the public it serves. Beneath the surface variety, a clear pattern emerges. Two kinds of films dominate the list: the sentimental – for example, Gone with the Wind (4); and the nihilistic –Pulp Fiction (95). The nihilism provides a flattering thrill –“We’re giving it to you straight!” – and a warrant to ignore the inconvenient moral absolutes, which, the movies are telling us, are just a polite fiction anyway. The sentimentalism offers emotional, even kitschy, comforts at the expense of ethical and intellectual concerns.
As Christians, we are used to hearing jeremiads about the increasing depravity of the entertainment industry, and of movies in particular. We hear thundering denunciations of the “cultural elites” who are out of touch with the values of the American mainstream. And what happens? The next weekend, half the congregation heads to theaters to watch Titanic for the third time, while the other half goes to Blockbuster to pick out a video or three.
What is noteworthy about the AFI list is not only the heavy doses of violence and sex. No,it’s also that overpowering sentimentality: sweet, sometimes bittersweet, and oh so seductive – designed to paralyze the critical faculties. Certainly Christian leaders are right to point to the corrupting influence of violent and perverse entertainment. But equally pervasive, and just as destructive – if more subtle in its effects –is the influence of sentimentality.
Sentimentality is the unremarked common denominator between American popular culture and the evangelical subculture. Sentimentality offers powerful emotional satisfactions abstracted from genuine human context: abstracted from the relational and ethical complexities of real life. So movies from Doctor Zhivago to Titanic offer illicit sex packaged like one of those flavored “European” coffees (“it tastes so good, it must be right”).
Sentimentality is destructive because it is unreal. It severs emotions from their holistic context.And the more it is indulged, the more it has the power to exploit and twist genuine feeling. Hymns and praise songs that speak of an intimacy with Jesus can be vehicles of worship, but when the congregation merely mouths the words dreamily, never testing the depth of their commitment to Jesus’ commands,worship becomes merely sentimental, with emotions savored for their own sake.
When you walk into a typical Christian bookstore, you won’t see a calendar featuring naked models. That’s good; there is a lot of slime that Christians are warned to avoid. But you will find products that exude a yucky, artificial “niceness” radically at odds with the life of Jesus. Sentimentalism is our blind spot, the largely unnoticed entry point where the world infiltrates the church.
Too often Christian books, music,radio, and TV serve to invite us to dwell in an artificial gated community. In this sentimental kingdom,where we regale each other about our battles with the world and savor stories about victories over our enemies “out there,” something else is missing too: the texture of everyday life in which Christians are to be salt and light to the world, as Jesus was, dining with tax collectors.
Christian media critics should begin rating movies (and books) with an S, connecting the sentimentally that scores big at the box office with a prevailing tone of the evangelical subculture. Maybe in the process they will provoke us to ask whether the comforts of fuzzy emotionalism should be what guides Christians rather than the hard edge of Scripture,the jarring example of Christ, and the deep wisdom of the Holy Spirit.