Popular Music and the Sentimentality of Memory

Tim Allen post picDoes popular music create overly-sentimental versions of biography for our imaginations, or does popular music enliven our imaginations to reconsider some of our conceptions about last things, especially issues concerning the construction process of life narratives?

I am convinced that moments of key memory associated with a loved one’s death moves one beyond taste to a place of possible true sentiment.  Of course, sentimentality has always been a risky, even unsteady hermeneutic partner, but perhaps, sentimentality should not be cast aside for fear of reckless observance.  Robert Solomon argued:  “it is charged that sentimentality is distorting, self-indulgent, self-deceptive.  I argue that all of these charges are misplaced or themselves distorted and betray a suspicion of emotions and the tender sentiments that is unwarranted.”[1]

One reason in support of popular music as a means for offering a hermeneutic of memory is found in music’s tendency to stimulate the emotions, even to the point where words seem to be insufficient.  Don Saliers observes:

theology respects the going beyond words because the object of theology is not captured in the web of language.  It is no accident that when poets or great theologians wish to speak of the deepest realities, they move toward poetry and music – heightened speech – as an attempt to “sound” spiritual matters.[2]

Memorial services and funerals are moments of heightened sentimental vulnerability, where “the theologian of culture must understand exactly what is being enacted in a given art-form and bring that action under gospel light for better understanding.”[3]  For example, Jeff Keuss recounts in Your Neighbor’s Hymnal that in preparing to officiate a memorial service in his church for a young woman, he noticed the song selection included a music piece by Metallica, among others.[4]  He recalls James Hetfield’s (lead singer for Metallica) “Nothing Else Matters” fitting perfectly in the service as “the song is about longing for something more.”[5]  Keuss remembers:

As the song ran its course, arms covered with more ink than a stack of comic books were rubbing their eyes and waiting for something beyond James Hetfield’s simple tune as we looked toward the cross that hung over that casket.  “Nothing else matters” opened the way, for “something else” must matter amidst all this sorrow.  When people ask me what pop music has to do with theology, it is moments like these I wish I could bottle up and hand to cynics.[6]

Even where common forms of oral and literary theology, such as stories, prayers, scriptures and letters may contribute, popular music provided the key element for the memorial hermeneutic.[7]

A critique sometimes leveled against traditions emphasizing spiritual experience is the lack of attention to shared tradition, as well as an over-emphasis upon emotional criteria.  If emotional criteria, such as the “warming” of a heart, or the “tears” of joy, or the “peace” of mind, or the “laughter” of thankfulness are signals of divine encounter, then the possibility of these experiences becoming recontextualized in any setting where emotional criteria are met, even outside of the ecclesiastical structures, is for some an unsettling prospect and for others, a witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit with us.

Question for consideration:  Do popular songs become more trustworthy for theological consideration once connected to the memory of a loved one?

Timothy Allen and his family reside in St. Andrews, Scotland where he is writing his PhD dissertation under the supervision of Professor David Brown.  Currently, Tim’s research focuses on the dialogue between theology and popular culture – more precisely, on the role of the imagination in theological constructions of the doctrine of heaven.


[1] Robert C.Solomon, In Defense of Sentimentality (Austin: ‘Oxford University Press’), 1.
[2] Don E. Saliers, Music and Theology, Horizons in Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 72.
[3] James Wm. McClendon Jr., Systematic Theology:  Witness, 3 vols., vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 178.
[4] Jeffrey F. Keuss, Your Neighbor’s Hymnal:  What Popular Music Teaches Us About Faith, Hope, and Love (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011),  28.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, 29.
[7] Clive Marsh and Vaughan S. Roberts, Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012).  Marsh and Roberts argue that the seventh function of popular music is to “shape life”.  132.

Image credit: “Raindrop on Cats Claw bush” by Ralph Arvesen (original source), shared under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

4 Comments

  • Bruce Herman says:

    I suggest you read Jeremy Begbie ‘a article on the pathology of sentimentality in The Beauty of God (IV). It gives a very convincing argument for the opposite conclusion

  • Tim M. Allen says:

    Bruce – great to hear from you and thank you for your thoughtful response, as well as for mentioning Begbie’s important thoughts concerning the pathologies of sentimentality. Admittedly, sentiment can run in different directions, so let me just briefly respond by making the connection to the three points under consideration in Begbie’s attempt to separate beauty from sentiment (since that is the article you referenced for your response).

    First, an evasion or trivialization of evil is far from the pastoral response given in Keuss’ case, 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 to further add the Christian dimension of a hope that transcends even the present pain – the hope of what is to come. To consider this act evasion, is to take escapism much further than suggested in the context.

    Secondly, to label memorial services in general as emotionally self-indulgent is a strange connection in my mind (if this is what you are inferring), not to mention quite a negative view towards memory more generally.

    Thirdly, sentiment as avoidance for appropriate costly action is clearly not witnessed in Jesus’ weeping with compassion for people? No, and Begbie uses the cross and resurrection as his main thrust, as does Keuss point to the cross. Not sure of the connection you are making to the context? Remembering those who mourn is not avoiding costly action, it is rather, entering into the type of situation that Begbie is calling for.

    A few final comments – Begbie is correct to underline the manipulation of sentimentality in post-modern culture. Indeed, I understand why Begbie is trying to make this break, yet such a separation may be too drastic (if this is what you are suggesting?). Begbie is also correct in moving away from what he terms a simplistic “Jesuology”, which misses important Trinitarian implications. Here, I whole-heartedly agree with him and that is why I place quite a bit of focus in pneumatology.

    Thank you, again Bruce for engaging this important topic!

  • Amber Noel says:

    Thanks for your article.

    I wish, however, there was more distinction made between emotion and sentimentality. I was raised in a Pentecostal church, and have seen many of the ways the Holy Spirit elicits deeply emotional responses from human beings. However, I would not call those at all sentimental. They sometimes happen to sentimental people, but that is another matter.

    In fact, sentimentality has seemed to me to sometimes impede the deepening and maturing of emotional experiences and expressions. The Lord weeps with us, but His gaze is clear.

  • Tim M. Allen says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Amber!

    Yes, I can understand why you might want to make such a distinction, especially in light of the negative press sentimentality carries, at times deservedly. One of the great strengths of the Pentecostal traditions, in my mind, is the way in which the emotions are given rightful place among the full range of experience, not limited to interpreting the Spirit’s action at the moment, but also including the later reception history or memory of the Spirit’s continued involvement. In other words, no matter the range of emotion experienced (overly emotional to emotionally stunted), one does not just walk through life thinking, “that was just my emotions or lack thereof.” Knowing that the Spirit is involved in everything from sustaining life to relational encounter is a theological strength.

    I am certainly not an advocate of false sentimentality, but can we make a claim for true sentiment that allows the emotional response to interact without throwing reason to the wind or jeopardizing good judgment? Maybe the distinction should rather be between strong or weak sentiment? Here, I am thinking of possibilities where a piece of art (popular music in this case) takes on a stronger significance towards true sentiment as it was used to shape a life, as well as interpret significant aspects of a life without defaulting into deviant sentimentality or untethering from the truth.

    Thank you for taking time to interact with the article! Your comments are well received and have given me some aspects to further consider.

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