Theologian Stanley Hauerwas was once asked what he thought was the greatest threat to American Christianity. His answer was surprising. It wasn’t atheism. It wasn’t radical Islam. It wasn’t civil religion or consumerism. No, Hauerwas stated that what threatens to undo American Christianity is sentimentality.
Sentimentality is a kind of self-indulgent emotionalism. Oscar Wilde wrote that “a sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Rather than actively engaging with the grit and grime of the world, sentimentality chooses to treat life as a Lifetime movie where events happen in a world illuminated by a soft, flattering light, where no one cusses, and where every conflict is neatly resolved. It views the world as a Thomas Kinkade painting. It’s safe for the whole family. It never disrupts, never demands, never makes us question. In a word, sentimentality thrives on comfort and making us feel good.
More than any other story, the Christmas story gets co-opted by sentimentality. Family, friends, food, smells, and carols overwhelm our senses and create deep memories. Nostalgia conjures spell-binding emotions. In and of themselves, these feelings and memories are not bad. In fact, it’s their inherent goodness that makes us susceptible to the trap of sentimentality. The complexity of our favorite memories is often flattened so we only remember the good. These uncomplicated emotions cause us to brush aside the difficult that exist along the good.
Every mother knows, pain accompanies childbirth. There is nothing sentimental about a child being born into the world. New life is born through stretching, tearing, cries, and tears. Joy makes it worthwhile, but that joy comes with a cost. The temptation is always to downplay the cost. We talk only of how “worthwhile” it was, essentially pretending the joy was free because to talk of the pain and sweat and blood makes us uncomfortable.
Treating the incarnation of God as fodder for a Hallmark card deflects from the outright disruption brought about when the Word made flesh invaded our world. Every mountain, the prophets said, will be brought low at the coming of the Messiah. Ask those on top of the mountain – those with power, money, fame, wealth, and every good thing this world has to offer – if they would welcome being brought low and watch the sentimentality fade way. Every valley will be lifted up. Those who only recognize the world through depression, grief, and loss will have their world upended by singing and dancing – which can be equally unsettling. The equality wrought by the justice of God will disorient all, leaving few of us feeling safe.
The church has its role in ignoring the rough edges of the nativity. It’s easy to blame culture for the commercialization of Jesus’ birthday, but we paved the way when we reduced the incarnation of God to a “birthday.” I say that as a member of a family who makes a birthday cake for Jesus. Why do we do this? In large part because it’s easy for our kids to wrap their minds around. But it isn’t the only thing we do during the advent season. Nor is it the most important thing. This is the tension we must allow ourselves to enter. Emotions aren’t bad. Being sentimental isn’t the end of the world. But sentimentality of the Christmas story tempts us to water down the Gospel. If the Christmas story loses its grit, so does the call of Jesus. Indulgent emotionalism sees the cross as only for us, never for us to bear. Suffering is what Jesus went through so we never have to. Death is avoided. The good news of this feel-good gospel is only for the life to come, not for this present life; not for those in war-torn Aleppo, the starving in the countryside of Cambodia, or those in a fatherless home in the inner city.
Instead, Christmas gives us courage to be honest about this world. The birth of the King of kings reminds us that the political powers of our world will be upended by the incarnated Kingdom of God. The visitation of angels to the shepherds gives the humble and overlooked confidence that God has not forgotten them. The escape to Egypt strengthens our resolve to care for the oppressed.
The Christmas story doesn’t need to be infused with cheap emotionalism. By entering the story in its fullness we will find our longings for a savior met, our broken hearts comforted, and our wonder at the beauty of this world enhanced. But it’s dangerous. Provoked by the unfiltered story we will find ourselves present to uncomfortable emotions, awakened to difficult situations, and gifted with eyes to see God invading our lives.
Rather than leaving us feeling sentimental, Christmas rightly understood will disturb us towards faith.