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.

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