I begin each day at my desk with a cup of tea and the news online, The New York Times and Al-Jazeera. Occasionally I have wondered about changing my routine—skipping the news, not the tea—because the stories of brokenness are often overwhelming. This week I read of bloody slaughter in a continent far away and of financial plunder in my own. I am a Christian living in an increasingly pluralistic American culture. Which means living in community (of sorts) with other believers in a society where unbelief seems, to many, more compelling. Or if not unbelief, then disbelief since the faith I hold is merely one option among many.
All this produces a tension that is not always conscious but always present. I’ve been reflecting on how this tension works on me. It tends to pull me in two directions, to seduce me to give in to one of two alternatives to Christian faithfulness.
Naming such things is helpful, because identifying them allows us to see more clearly and live more wisely. The two directions I feel pulling at me are sentimentality and cynicism.
Sentimentality constructs a gated world, real or metaphorical, in which to live. In the busy-ness of our comfortable lives, we keep aloof from the hard things—be it doubt or the latest horror in Darfur. It’s a spirit of nostalgia, of withdrawal—a conviction that if people are told the answer the problem is solved. Sentimentality is spotted in the art it produces. Sentimental art depicts doubts as easily resolved. It suggests that correct beliefs always produces comfortable lives. It acts as if truth spoken is truth heard, and it actually believes that good rules produces good behavior. Christian sentimentalists take the richness of God’s revelation and reduce it to a series of Hallmark sound bites: just pray this prayer and you’ll be saved; just trust and your problem will be solved.
Cynicism uses cutting humour and a knowing smirk to remain above the tension. It looks engaged, but it is kept aloof by a spirit of suspicion, an easy dismissal of what life and reality actually consist of. It doubts that much can be done. “Besides, we can’t get involved because we have no expertise, or time, and this is just the way things are.” It is perhaps most easily identified by its art. Cynical art makes goodness look boring, belittles characters of virtue arguing they are good to compensate for a bad childhood, acts as if we have little say in our frantic busyness, and it actually believes that every problem can be solved by a specialist. Christian cynics are so disillusioned that their commitment is tenuous. Diverging from the course pursued by sentimentalists is essential since their posture in a fallen world is tainted with compromise.
Both refuse to face the world in its brokenness. Sentimentality is fearful of what it might see and hear, and defensive in the face of challenge. Cynicism is sure it knows and so remains detached, the better not to be disappointed.
“We need to be alert to our tendency for cynicism and numbness toward our own brokenness . . .”—Greg Veltman, “In search of good film”, Comment Sept. 14, 2007
I feel the seduction of both, but it’s not an equal pull. Cynicism has the edge. I’ve always loved sarcasm, so it’s an easy slide. It’s when I’m with my grandchildren that I feel the desire to withdraw, the pull of sentimentality. Although little sinners in their own crafty ways, they have an innocence I would like to guard from the horrors both of machetes slashing flesh and of disdainful unbelief corroding souls.
As I’ve reflected on this, the rest of what I see from my desk looms. In the pine tree outside my office window is a bird feeder, stocked with thistle seed where goldfinches flock to eat. In a nearby tree is a cardinal, one of three spots around our house where he comes daily to sing. Cardinals are territorial; the males mark the boundaries with song. An irony: the serenade I hear is a screaming death-threat to one of his own kind. In any case, in the flashes of yellow and red as they flash by my office window—I swear this is true—I catch glimpses of glory. It’s what I need for the spell to be broken, the seduction ended.
Sentimentalists have forgotten grace; cynics have lost hope. So, today, I will reject both afresh and seek instead to be faithful. To embody the Story of Scripture, to bear witness to the kingdom that both is, and is yet coming. Always praying that somehow by God’s grace the world might see God’s glory—in birds and in God’s people—and believe.