I love these Realistic Moments by Rachel Held Evans.
These cartoons function a lot like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor—they too are a little disturbing, and funny. And. like many of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, these cartoons expose a tendency for Christians to fall into sentimentality. We like to prune Bible stories back a little so that they can provoke the right emotion.
The drowning of the entire human population of the world, save six, is often reduced to pairs of cute animals walking side-by-side into the arc. The excruciating story of Joseph becomes a story of victorious faith. Ehud’s assassination of Eglon is rarely told because there is not an acceptable emotion to which reduce it.
In the book Mystery and Manners, O’Connor suggests the reason for this sort of sentimentality is that Christians conceptually separate nature and grace—or to use different terms, we separate the physical from the spiritual. This is the central tenet of Modern secularism, by which Western Christianity has been so influenced. When we separate the two, O’Connor says that Grace is degraded to pious cliche and Nature becomes either sentimental or obscene.Sentimentalism is the result of separating Nature and Grace. When we separate the two, Grace is degraded to pious cliche and Nature becomes either sentimental or obscene. Christians prefer sentimentality over obscenity.Click To Tweet
Not So Precious Moments
Precious Moments paraphernalia as an example of sentimentality. These figurines occupy the shelves and mantels in many Christian homes. As such, they are examples of degraded Grace. And even if we don’t display it in our homes, the sentimentality that they signify is part of our mental adornment.
Precious Moments figurines are nothing if not a sentimental celebration of innocence. I saw an ad for the Precious Moments Nativity Scene in a magazine. It comes with the figures of all the traditional observers of the Incarnation—including a shepherd and two sheep.
I have raised sheep and the cute little ceramic balls of white, ceramic fluff bear as little resemblance to my lambs as I do to the figurine shepherd. Don’t get me wrong, a natural lamb is quite adorable, but you don’t just get the adorable. If you touch a sheep, you will smell like lanolin, a smelly oil that permeates the wool. The stink sticks to you and it won’t come off with soap and water. Although I am sure lanolin is very handy for the sheep, it’s not a scent that works very well in civil society. Further, life on the farm is not conducive to a white animal, nor is the natural consequences of all the grass and feed they consume–they are dirty. Now don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed being a shepherd, even with the selenium shots, hoof-trimming, shearing, prolapses, and bottle feeding. The point is, there was more to a lamb than cuteness and cuddliness.
The Precious Moment sheep are a sentimental distortion of actual sheep where everything is stripped away except innocence. In all sorts of human representations, Precious Moments give us pictures of ourselves as innocent as well.
In my own Precious Moments collection, I have David and Jonathan figurines. They present innocent friendship, and nothing else. A far cry from the real characters of David and Jonathan. These two are as innocent as we are.
O’Connor correctly points out, we lost our innocence in the Fall, and “our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it.” The Precious Moment figurines offer simple innocence, or simply offers innocence–but this denies it’s cost, and innocence comes at a great cost–the death of the Son of God.
Precious Moments and Pornography
According to O’Connor, pornography, too, is essentially sentimental–it reduces sexuality to the erotic. Just as the Precious Moments isolates innocence, pornography separates the erotic from sex “and its hard purpose,” by which I think she means, conception and birth and childrearing, likely followed by a life full of the joys and hardships of parenting.
Oscar Wilde said that a sentimentalist “is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Precious Moments are like pornography in that they have the same source–the radical separation between the natural and the supernatural. They are both sentimental expressions–they attempt to achieve the emotion without the cost.
Just to be clear, O’Connor would not have claimed the two or morally equivalent.Precious Moments are like pornography in that they have the same source--they are both sentimental. They attempt to achieve the emotion without the cost.Click To Tweet
How do we avoid the loss of meaning that results from this sentimentalizing? We need to live out of the understanding that all objects and actions are spiritual. O’Connor was insistent that our sense of the supernatural ought to be grounded in concrete observable reality. Those of us who believe that there is a spiritual reality need to take the next step and see the physical world as infused with the transcendent. Without the separation, the erotic is not obscene but a gift from our creator. Without this separation, the lamb is both one of the cutest things that have walked on the planet, and also one of the smelliest. And as they get a little older, one of the stupidest.
There’s a reason why the Bible refers to God’s people as sheep–somehow we are both adorable and smelly and stupid.
My next post is about the reverse problem. Read Is that cross around your neck just pious cliche?