Emotion and Sentimentality

Talking to our new choir director today about sacred music. We both objected to some of the contemporary ‘praise and worship’ music. Here’s why:

Has anyone noticed the peculiar fact that in many of the songs we sing the words of God or Jesus which are comforting to us as hymns? I the Lord of Sea and Sky…I Have Heard my People’s Cry… or I am the Bread of Life… He who comes to me shall not hunger… So we sing the words that Jesus or God the Father say back to them as hymns of worship? No. In fact what we are doing is singing to ourselves. We’re singing comfort songs to ourselves. There’s no worship involved in this music at all as far as I can see. This reflects a real profound problem with AmChurch: there’s a lack of real worship. We’re uncomfortable with all that “God is up there and we need to humble ourselves before him” type stuff.

So instead we sing ourselves sweet and comforting songs that make us feel good about God. Yucch.

What we are witnessing is the widescale substitution of sentimentality for emotion. Now I admit that this distinction is one that I have seen and articulated, but it is a real distinction. What I mean by emotion is profound religious feeling. I choose the word ‘emotion’ because it is semantically linked with the word ‘motion’ and ‘motivate’. Emotion motivates us to take action in the world and do something. Emotion also has depth and real intellectual content. There is something objective and real about emotion, and we should therefore not be ashamed of emotion in religion. Religion without emotion is a barren thing–all doctrines to be believed and rules to be obeyed and nothing else. Real emotion in religion, however is profound. It penetrates and comes from the depths of the human soul. Real emotion not only motivates, but it is disturbing and awesome for it takes into the presence of the Divine. Religious worship, when it is done right, should prompt religious emotion. It should take us to the threshold of the mystery and allow us to glimpse the glory. This experience should be disturbing and moving and humbling.

This sort of emotion in religion, however, is too often replaced by a counterfeit. Instead of emotion we are given sentimentality. Sentimentality, in contrast to emotion, does not motivate us to do anything at all. It simply gives us a religious thrill for a moment. Sentimentality is focused on us. Emotion is focused on the Almighty. Sentimentality is shallow and does not lead us to think. Emotion is deep and leads us to ponder and reflect and meditate. Sentimentality lacks real solid content. Emotion is drawn from material which is deeper than we are and more ancient and mysterious. Sentimentality only offers us religion in the language and idiom of the popular culture around us.

Sentimentality is Coke. Emotion is Claret. Sentimentality is bubblegum. Emotion is meat and potatoes.

If my theory is correct, then individualistic sentimentality in religion is probably the most insidious and worst impostor ever foisted upon the Catholic faithful. We asked for bread and they gave us a stone, or if not a stone, then pop rocks, and once the faithful are hooked on this sentimental, sugary stuff, how do you ever wean them off it? How do you introduce the depth of emotion and fine liturgy when they are used to, (and have come to prefer) the fluffy stuff?

I suppose we simply have to be faithful.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01718011747484428178 Whimsy

    I teach a 3rd grade Catechism class. Every class at the halfway point we sing "Godhead Here in Hiding" (They don't even understand the English; so I don't make them sing Adoro Te Devote).They LOVE it. Now these kids seem to know next to nothing about their Faith, nor do I stand up there and tell them, "Now children, this is a SACRED SONG." (I do want to explain more the lyrics, but we cover the Eucharist after the Trinity.)Yet, I can tell they know it is a sacred song. They can feel it.The kids are up to their eyeballs in "hip" — they don't need that.They're starving for SACRED.If by chance it happens we don't get that song in, every class I've had has cried in protest:"We want to sing our song!"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04675760152300748908 Francis X.

    Father, I so much want to thank you for succinctly stating why most of the songs my lovely wife loves are not appropriate for the holy sacrifice of the mass. In my clumsy way I told her they are not catholic. I think your post will eloquently make clear my dislike for these songs. Thanks Again, FXR2

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09627986880884206811 flyingvic

    If indeed it is God the Holy Spirit praying within us, as St Paul tells us, should we be surprised if the words of God the Father and God the Son come naturally to us when we pray and worship?If indeed there is comfort to be found in learning and taking to heart in worship the words of Scripture, should we tell people that they are wrong to do so?There was a time when the Chinese people famously learned and then repeated in public the Thoughts of Chairman Mao; was that a case of the people honouring their leader or were they just being sentimental?"I, the Lord…", for example, is written in the form of a conversation, the chorus being the response of the worshipper to the words of the Lord. This conversational model is deeply scriptural – Job and Isaiah 63 spring to mind – is it such a bad thing to imitate that model in worship? Is it not another opportunity for the preacher to explain how God is not just 'out there' but also 'in here'?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    vic, I agree with you, and "I the Lord of Sea and Sky" is actually one of the better 'comfort hymns'. Sung while communion is being administered as a dialogue between solo voice and choir can be effective. I should have chosen one of the many, many hymns in our US Catholic hymnals which would have been a better example of sentimentality–"Jesus you are walking on the beach with me at sunset" type stuff.Furthermore, I admit that there are plenty of hymns and psalms that are 'comforting'. Psalm 23 is a perfect example. So are many of the traditional devotional hymns.I do not object to hymns comforting us. My post was distinguishing between sentimentality and emotion. Hymns that are sentimental comfort blankets which focus on us can be distinguished from devotional hymns with deep emotion that comfort us and then turn our hearts back to God in thanksgiving and love.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17915066381658225713 Rachel B

    As a convert, who honestly misses praise and worship services, this is the first good explanation I have had as to why the music in Catholic churches. Thank you very much. I get tired of hearing the music that I loved and grew up with made fun of by well-intentioned cradle-Catholics. It makes me feel resentful and stubborn. But this actually makes sense to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11153355585571358736 truthfinder

    Rachel B. — I agree. I sing the same music you grew up with, or at least some of it — when I'm at home, or maybe in the car. But in the Mass, I want to worship our Lord in the Eucharist, bowing down and acknowledging His Holiness and Glory and Power. Thank you Father Dwight for explaining the difference.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10806252830698843168 Fr. Josh Miller

    Approaching the concept of "emotion" is a difficult thing to do, given our current societal conception of it. Just an example: in ancient cultures emotion was not divorced from the intellect: emotions were, as you imply, triggers to rational inquiry.Nowadays, however, we get sloppy sentiment such as "follow your heart," which is the same thing as telling you to follow your emotional pull. We've done a great deal to separate the "heart" from the "head," when the tradition of Western society would refute such a ludicrous concept.While I don't disagree with your distinction between sentimentality and emotion, it strikes me that one of the dangers of praise and worship in general is that it's all saccharine no matter how it's directed: if it's directed towards the listener himself, it tends toward sentimentality. But even when it is directed towards God, the aim is to build an emotional fervor which does little to promote internal growth precisely because it generally lacks any solid content through which we might build a sustainable relationship with God.Contrast one of these cheese-ball songs with "Rock of Ages." The first time I heard it, I was certainly moved emotionally. But I was moved to inquire about the nature of life, death, heaven, and the Paschal Mystery. Big picture stuff. The song thus became a vehicle for transformation, rather than just something to pump me up in the moment as so many P&W; songs end up doing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06405021835510775527 Mike Cliffson

    Problem just with amchurch?How about Anglosphere and western Christendom?Ushaw in Uk is already half abandoned and folding (see uk blogs) sad & anguishmaking however inglorious its recent past…Whereas in the wartorn Congo they can't feed and house the vocations they've got on gruel and missing tinroofed buildings serving as seminaries and there's awaiting list a mile long…I don't want to swap, I don't want 8yr old boys on the street with machineguns, I don't want to live with ,any second, wife and family being blown outof this existance here by a stray shell …But We got it too easy. What else should we want except the bourgousie throughout history: superficial thrills now and a touch of reassurance as a smelly disease finally overcomes us as strulbugs aged 100and 2 and dyed in the wool selfsatisfaction?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17284905121465747077 Steve

    Father, when we sing hymns that use Christ's words or the Lord's words from the Old Testament, we are testifying to the special relationship that exists between God and God's people–a sacred covenant. You may view those songs as sentimental, and I will concede that some of them are better written than others; some are poor in quality. However, I'm at a loss as to why you assume that when we celebrate (sing about) God's love and faithfulness to this covenant relationship there is no worship involved. Of course we are singing those songs to show the great esteem we hold God in, and the love we are attempting to give God in response to the always greater, more generous, more faithful love God bequeaths upon us mere mortals. That's worship. That's praise. It's a celebration of God's greatness and generosity. I have to believe that God does hear that praise, as God hears any prayer that is heartfelt. As for your own take on things, yes, of course you can believe all you like that we are merely "singing to ourselves." But I hope that view does not spill over to other forms of prayer that you witness. God is in our midst, as well as transcendent and operating in a higher realm. Let's celebrate (in spoken form and in song) both those realities.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08803069677860028673 Alisha

    I can't seem to find anywhere on the net the history of music in the Roman Catholic African church…what music was used there in the early years of the Church?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08383178253798427977 Anthony Brett Dawe

    man you just cribbed that 'individualism ' bit right outta C.S Lewis on 'The Poisin of Subjectivity'good theft tho…thanks be to the good Lord the Magdalen Choir is cassocked and spurred now once more for the beginning of term…our consolation for battling studentine unwashed masses on the sidewalks…look a bit more wholesome generally, Padre will be happy to hear… but they always do at the commencement of Michaelmass Term… give em a week to ten days…at our St. Nicholas Consecration feast Bobo and I were outside the New Marston Scout Hall (just past the Magdalen and New playing fields after the 50 million (!) quid wahabite mosque along the Marston Ferry Rd…real Sebastian Flyte came maundering down the street in his short dressing gown and slippers with a half full wine glass… entered the corner shop to emerge with a case of lagar…yes, good Padre some things never change for second years… ahem… obviously a 'devout' Anglican…yup

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09423813789521648305 christine

    Father,The Church is Dead during Mass. I see through the years it getting worse. It's ok to raise your hands up high and shout to the Lord and Praise him. All I see is the choir singing and no one participating for the songs are either too high pitch or long and drawn out. I think a combination of the two during Mass is a way to bring everyone to worship our God. We are loosing our teenagers to this boring music who at any era during any period of time can not relate! Jesus please help the clergy see this and open up their eyes that it's ok to feel the emotion and beat of songs being sung in church. Amen

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16418313032611579940 Niall

    I have heard sentimentality defined as "emotion without judgement". That sounds about right to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04843514873861242426 Howard

    I largely agree, but I'm not sure it has so much to do with repeating the words of Jesus as it has to do with the truncated scope of "praise and worship" songs. For instance, I'm quite fond of "Come Unto Me" (http://library.timelesstruths.org/music/Come_unto_Me/), which I know from before my conversion. I don't see anything contrary to Catholic teaching in the hymn. Its chorus is indeed comforting, and it is a quotation of Christ from Scripture. It might also be hopelessly sentimental if it weren't for verses like the following: "Stumbling on the mountains dark with sin and shame,Stumbling toward the pit of hell’s consuming flame;By the pow’rs of sin deluded and oppressed,Hear the tender Shepherd, 'Come to Me and rest.'"Such a verse is free of pride and presumption, and it directly mentions hell as a reality — not often done in "praise" songs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08383178253798427977 Anthony Brett Dawe

    yojust woke up really after high tea and pop rocks (come on dude they are good)Indeed good Padre… the shade of Dun Scotus shimmering right next to me here in the Duke Humphreys of the Bodleian Library cannot agree more.Reglious emotion as a good Oxonian 'first principle' of well, relgious emotion via e-motion, like e-mail (Duns don't get that bit, but anyhow)Indeed… quite right too.Emotion as Claret…Most Oxonian, indeed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01198856128213307540 Elizabeth

    I'm with flying vic on this. I like a wide variety of hymns, the old and the… well relatively… new. They're not really new any more, most of them are from the 1960s. There have been times during Mass when I've been having difficulties in my life and the words of the psalms and from Isaiah being sung at Mass have been very consoling. I think many Catholics of my generation (I'm in my sixties) grew up knowing their catechism and all about the Church, but didn't really believe that God cared about them personally in the details of their lives, and I think that's one of the reasons why so many left of that generation. God seemed so impersonal somehow. Maybe we swung too much the other way, but I believe there's room for both old and new.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15571554907399914529 Joseph D’Hippolito

    Fr. Longnecker, I really believe that the attitude many have toward "praise and worship" music is nothing but egotistical snobbery. Yes, I prefer compositions like Ralph Vaughn Williams' Mass in G Minor (which is truly beautiful) and I love classical music. But I've attended charismatic services with "contemporary" praise and worship music that contained such lyrics as "Holy, Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and Is and Is To Come," or that took Isaiah 6 as a fundamental theme, with the refrain being "How Great Is Our God." This is somehow narcissistic?Besides, what can be a greater statement of faith than looking to God for comfort? After all, God is the "God of all comfort." He is "a Father to the fatherless and a Husband to the widow." As someone who lose his dear mother to cancer a year ago at this time, I would have been consumed by anguish and pain if I did not turn to a merciful, tender, loving God Who knows my pain and Who loves me far more than I can possibly imagine.Frankly, a lot of this criticism is far more narcissistic than the music being criticized. More importantly, if the Church stands or falls based primarily on music or liturgy, then it has lost its First Love and is nothing but flavorless salt.

    • Deblette

      I am sorry, but How Great is Our God is the worse song ever to be allowed to be sung in a Catholic Church. How great Is Our God, sing with me
      How great is our God, and all will see,
      How Great, how great is our God.
      It doesn’t even make sense. Is it a question or a statement? Have you heard my singing? I don’t think it would bring anyone to seeing how great is my God. Praise and worship music is fine for worship services where music is the center and pretty much the entire substance of the gathering. It does not belong in the Catholic Mass. Period. Ever. Make it stop.

      • Ella

        LOL! Ditto!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11533722913325518614 Denise

    For the sake of a good example, one of my favourite hymns is "Jesus My Lord, My God, My All". The lyrics can be found here, for those who do not know this hymn: http://feastofsaints.com/jesusmylord.htmAt Mass, we usually only sing a few verses, so they're the ones most familiar to me.

  • Ella

    Totally agree, Father. I left the Baptist faith after over twenty years and a lot of the music bothered me greatly, especially towards the end. I was an Episcopalian until I was 20 and their music was so beautiful in comparison. The most popular Baptist tunes were unrelentably about “me”- He did it all for me, when the role is called up yonder I’ll be there, etc. etc. The worship attenders wanted upwards of two hours of “worship” (sappy “gospel” tunes) and yet got impatient with a sermon that went over twenty minutes. Thank God the parish I attend has almost zero fluff and wonderful classic or classically inspired hymns and/or psalms. Emotion is a gift. Sentimentality is saccharin, fraudulent, a sham. Let us worship the Lord in Spirit and and in Truth.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X