My aim here is to follow up a previous question addressing whether or not popular music creates overly-sentimental versions of biography for our imaginations or enlivens our imaginations to reconsider some conceptions about last things, especially issues concerning the construction process of life narratives. I argued that moments of key memory associated with a loved one’s death moves one beyond taste in music, to a place of possible true sentiment.
In response, artist/scholar Bruce Herman raised the suggestion to take into account Jeremy Begbie’s significant contribution, which arrives at a very different conclusion. In his article “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts”, Begbie seeks to emancipate beauty from the tethered grip of sentimentality. Begbie argues that:
sentimentality is neither a superficial nor an inconsequential matter but a deep, pernicious strand in contemporary culture and in the church, and that the arts have often played a leading part in encouraging it.
To Begbie’s credit, he does not ignore the fact that “almost any piece of art” (not just popular forms of art) has the potential to be used for ill purposes. I concede that sentiment can at times serve as a liability, but in taking a brief account of Begbie’s three “traits” in light of what I wrote in a previous blog, the gap between truth, beauty and sentiment may not be as wide as first suspected.
First, an “evasion or trivialization of evil” is far from the pastoral response given by Jeff Keuss in the case of the memorial service described in my last post, as well as of the sentiment of loved ones present at the memorial. Yes, of course, people can make a life (or death for that matter) seem more ideal than the case may stand. In a memorial context, rather than an evasion, the probability lands more clearly on the side of what Begbie is in support of, that is experiencing “another’s pain as pain”, but in further adding the Christian dimension of a hope that transcends even the present pain – the hope of what is to come. To consider this act evasion or simply escapism would be to miss a prominent role Begbie gives to “countering” sentimentality by paying attention to the “three days of Easter.”
Secondly, I would not characterize memorial services as “emotionally self-indulgent”. This characterization would not fit well with Begbie’s negative trait, not to mention quite a negative view towards memory more generally. If one were to apply his observation of a sentimentalist, as one who “appears to be moved by something or someone beyond themselves but is to a large extent, perhaps primarily, concerned with the satisfaction gained in exercising their emotion”, to someone remembering a loved one in a memorial context, insensitivity would seem more dangerous than sentimentality.
Thirdly, sentiment as “avoidance for appropriate costly action” may or may not pertain to a memorial context. We are not determined to “restrict ourselves to the pleasing or undisturbing aspects of a situation, and disregard the rest”. To the contrary, memorial situations can stimulate reevaluations of what is true, beautiful, and good. Begbie uses the cross and resurrection as his main thrust, as Keuss points to the cross in my example. Remembering those who die or those who mourn is not avoiding costly action; it is rather, entering into the type of situation that Begbie is calling for.
Rather than “true” sentiment remaining the voice of an “exaggeration of what is good or pleasing”, it seems to me a better way forward is to explore how the arts encourage sentiment that is meaningful, true, and, indeed, good.
1. In Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands & Roger Lundin, eds. The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007).
2. Ibid., 45.
3. Ibid., 49.
4. Ibid., 47.
5. Ibid., 51.
6. Ibid., 61.
7. Ibid., 50
8. Ibid., 51.
9. Ibid., 52.
10. Ibid., 48.