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Beauty’s Menacing Half-Sister

December 30, 2015


The rather vulgar movie Talladega Nights, despite its raunchy humor, was not without a moment which shone a light on a trap in the popular theological mindset. As with many effective moments of truth, it was delivered with a wallop of humor. The protagonist, NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, portrayed by Will Farrell, begins grace at the dinner table by addressing the baby Jesus: 

Ricky: Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin’ at the air…

Chip: He was a man! He had a beard!

Ricky: I like the baby version the best, do you hear me? 

How many of us like the baby version best? The soft, squishy, marshmallow Jesus. Jesus safe and familiar and conformed to our desires. The Jesus of sentimentality run amok; a sweet, pliable Jesus who bears little resemblance to him by whose cross and Resurrection we have been set free, the Savior of the world. 

Theodore Dalrymple (a pen name used by Anthony Daniels), prolific British essayist, psychiatrist and retired prison doctor has written a concise skewering of the poisonous effects of sentimentality. Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality is aimed in particular at the state of modern Britain, but it contains many points that I find worthy of my consideration as an ‘average suburban American Catholic.’ Though explicitly not Christian, Dalrymple’s work has much to recommend to one who would try to examine the effects wrought on our culture and our religion by the cult of sentimentality. It is a sharp tool in stripping away the layers of sentiment that are an obstacle to the Christian life and block our vision of the good, the true and the beautiful. 

In an online essay, “Beauty and the Gospel”, author Terry Yount calls out sentimentality as “beauty’s menacing half-sister.” Quite a powerful statement! Yount reminds us that sentiment is a sincere emotional expression while sentimentality is a device. And Dalrymple lays out a clear examination of the sinister effects that rampant sentimentality has wrought.

Reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s statement that “…tenderness leads to the gas chamber,” Dalrymple points to sentimentality as “the progenitor, the godparent, the midwife of brutality.” Sentimentality leads to self-absorption, laxity in parenting, the break down of family life, the failure of education, death. Tattoos of children’s names take the place of genuine family ties. Schools abandon pedagogy in favor of self-esteem building. The felicific calculus becomes increasingly entrenched in culture and law. And a university professor who “became famous by advocating rights for animals ends up by arguing for policies that, in Nazi Germany, turned out to be a dry run for the Holocaust.”

He uses the second chapter as a refutation of philosopher Robert Solomon’s argument that sentimentality does not:

– involve or provoke excessive expression of emotion
– manipulate emotions
– cause false emotions to be shown
– involve the expression of cheap, easy and superficial emotions
– constitute self-indulgence
– distort perception and interfere with rational thought.

Solomon had been quite right in asserting the necessity of emotions, but fails in his tacit assertion that “those who object to sentimentality are in reality objecting to all emotions whatsoever.” This is where they Dalrymple parts company with Solomon, and he provides ample evidence to back up his assertions. 

And he brings examples of how sentimentality has distorted the societal, educational, political, artistic, charitable, literary and inter-familial spheres. (As much as I will rail against the sentimental, I write this while listening to such convicting works as Chicago’s Colour My World, The Troggs’ Love is All Around and – ouch – something by Dashboard Confessional on my iPod. So, no, I don’t present myself as untainted by pop sentimentality.)

And how does all this spill onto the life of faith? The author quotes Oscar Wilde, “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Or we could call it a desire for “cheap grace;” the desire to possess the safe marshmallow Jesus who is sweet and asks nothing of us; a wish for a dawning of an Easter not preceded by the walk up Golgotha. 

We are tempted to focus our charity into causes that make us feel good. Dickens’s telescopic philanthropy is today’s standard operating procedure, whether focusing on causes such as the Make Poverty History campaign or, closer to home, the soup kitchen a few miles away from our cozy homes; close enough to make us feel good while at a safe distance. (In the interest of full disclosure: I have had my own Mrs. Jellyby moments. For instance, finding great satisfaction in praying at a Chicago abortion clinic only to return home to find one of my daughters was being detained by the police for a variety of reasons, including concealing brass knuckles in her bodice. Long story; happy ending. But the beginning of my realization that “it is right to begin with the obligations of home, and, while these are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them.”)

The sentimental zeitgeist also demands extreme and public display of emotion. For example, there was the large-scale condemnation of those who didn’t express overwrought lamentations upon the death of Britain’s Princess Diana and the distress over Buckingham Palace’s lack of overtly sentimental displays of grief. The British stiff upper lip was devalued while the ‘people’s princess’ achieved a state of quasi-canonization by popular acclamation. 

The cardinal virtue of fortitude is disdained; it is “seen as psychologically damaging to oneself and as treachery to others.” The book discusses legal cases in which suspects received popular condemnation before trial simply because of their lack of overt affect. At this point I would have to contemplate the difficulty of teaching our young people about the exemplary lives of the martyrs in contrast to a culture in which “the appropriation of the suffering of others to boost the scale and significance of one’s own suffering is now a commonplace.” The way of the cross is still truly a sign of contradiction. 

While Theodore Dalrymple proclaims himself an atheist – though professing disdain for antitheism – there is much that a faithful Christian can cull from his work. British blogger Toby Young goes so far as to say, He [Dalrymple] is not a Christian, but it is only when Britain’s benefit dependents rediscover the doctrine of Original Sin that they will be able to help themselves. I think Spoilt Rotten translates quite well to the American experience. We are held hostage by that menacing half-sister and while mired in the sticky marshmallow trap of sentimentality can’t fully see the beauty…and the Truth.