Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of Christian History Professor
In the last installment, I promised to tell you about a tradition in Western philosophy and literature that highly valued our shared nature as emotional beings and affirmed that reading about other people's experiences and emotions can be a powerful transformational tool.
My "Exhibit A" is the 1764 book An Authentic Narrative of some Interesting and Remarkable Particulars in the Life of John Newton. As I prepared a discussion for our Patron Saints class at Bethel on this spiritual autobiography of the author of "Amazing Grace," recently reissued by Regent College Publishing, I realized something: Newton's book is a clear example of a popular 18th- and 19th-century literary genre: the sentimental narrative.
What was a "sentimental narrative?" For a later example, think of the novels of Charles Dickens. When we read Dickens (remember high school English class?), we get two very strong impressions: (1) we become emotionally engaged in the characters and their story, and (2) we sense that Dickens is trying to communicate to his readers, through those characters and their story, moral and even spiritual truths.
In fact, these two impressions derive from a single "sentimentalist" agenda at work in the novels of Dickens, and in hundreds of other 18th- and 19th-century novels, as well as period biographies and histories. This agenda was the brainchild of the group of 18th-century philosophers and writers who in fact invented the novel as a genre.
These sentimentalists included philosophers such as Adam Smith, novelists such as Samuel Richardson, and, at one point in his career, the philosopher/historian David Hume. To these thinkers, the term "sentimentalism" did not carry the meaning that it does now—of over-wrought, ...