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, but also humourous. And. like O’Connor’s stories, the cartoons expose a tendency for Christians to be sentimentalize aspects of their faith.
Some Bible stories are more easily sentimentalized, than others—the nativity for instance–but it is no more appropriate to over emphasize the sweetness of the nativity than it is to clean up the raw violence of David’s slaughter or Goliath, or one of my favourite Bible stories, Ehud’s assassination of Eglon.
In the book Mystery and Manners, O’Connor suggests the reason for this sort of sentimentality is that Christians often conceptually separation nature and grace—or to use different terms, the physical and the spiritual realities. When we separate the two we Grace is degraded to pious cliche and Nature becomes either sentimental or obscene.
Although sentimentality and obscenity are a product of the same error in perception, Christians are likely to condemn only the latter.
Precious Moments and Pornography
I offer the Precious Moments paraphernalia that occupies the shelves and mantels in many Christian homes as evidence that the nature/grace dichotomy is still with us. And even if we don’t display it in our homes, it still is part of our mental adornment.
The separation of Nature and Grace does a disservice to both. Emptied of nature, the spiritual becomes nothing more than pious cliché. Emptied of the spiritual, nature becomes either sentimental or obscene. Although preferring the former, many Christians fail to understand the similarity between the sentimental and the obscene—Precious Moments and pornography. The similarity is a result of the same foundational problem—both are nature emptied of the spiritual and as such are both are excesses of sentimentality, one in the direction of innocence and the other in the direction of the erotic.
Precious Moments figurines are nothing if not a sentimental celebration of innocence. I don’t own the Precious Moments Nativity Scene but I saw an ad for it in a magazine. It comes with all the requisite humans and animals—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 it, 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 civilization. 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. 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, the 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. 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 great cost.
According to O’Connor, pornography, too, is essentially sentimental. It is the erotic for the sake of the erotic. Just like the Precious Moments lambs 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.
How do we avoid the loss of meaning that results from this sentimentalizing? 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 one of the most annoying. Sorta like every human being I have ever met.
There’s a reason why the Bible refers to God’s people as sheep–somehow we are both adorable and disgusting.