Sentimental Christians, a brood of wingless chickens…

Flannery O'Connor

What is the chief end of God?  The “chief end of God is to glorify us and to be useful to us indefinitely.”  This inversion of the opening line of the Westminster Confession is theologian Leander Keck’s way of illustrating a dramatic inversion of worship in much of the contemporary church.


If praise is the heart of worship, then making worship useful destroys it, because this introduces an ulterior motive for praise.  And ulterior motives mean manipulation, taking charge of the relationship, thereby turning the relation between Creator and creature upside down.  In this inversion, the living God, whose biblical qualities like jealousy and wrath have been tamed, has been deprived of freedom and, having been reduced to the Great Enabler, now has little to do except warrant our causes and help us fulfill our aspirations.  This now completely benign deity may still evoke a sense of wonder, but little awe and less mystery, and no fear of the Lord at all.  The opening line of the Westminster Confession is now reversed, for now the chief end of God is to glorify us and to be useful to us indefinitely.


Dr. Keck’s is only one of many voices raised against contemporary Christian sentimentality. 


Ralph Wood, professor of theology and literature at Baylor University, agrees that the inversion Keck describes “serves to tame and domesticate the living Lord of Scripture by ridding him of his jealousy and wrath.”


Such a saccharine god is no longer the true God: the One who will not relinquish his freedom to redeem us in—and only in—his judgment. Instead, God is “reduced to the Great Enabler [who] has little to do except [to] warrant our causes and [to] help us fulfill our aspirations.”


In “Defending Christian Disbelief in an Age of Sentimental Spirituality,” Dr. Wood discusses the work of several writers who provide a “much-needed antidote to the soft-core spirituality that saps much of contemporary Christianity, especially in its evangelical expression.”


Together, they offer stout resistance to the anti-doctrinal sentimentality that often rules the worship and the art of our churches, where self-serving emotions are exalted over true mystery. The church of our time needs a theology, I believe, which repudiates the worship of a sweet deity whose mistakenly construed sovereignty makes him into a monster directly responsible for the world’s evils. …


As in so many other matters, Flannery O’Connor foresaw our terrible reduction of transcendent faith to sentimental subjectivity. She likened it to the scientific process whereby the wings can be bred off chickens to produce more succulent white meat. O’Connor said that it is possible to breed the moral and theological sense out of people in a similar way. She described our current generation as a brood of wingless chickens. This is what Nietzsche meant, she explained, when he declared God dead. It also means that nihilism is the atmosphere of our age, the gas that we all breathe, whether inside or outside the church. The church has made Christianity nearly indistinguishable from the coziness of a warm blanket and the kindliness of golden heart. …


What sustains both faith and fiction against such incipient nihilism is Christian disbelief. O’Connor explained the need for religious skepticism in a letter to an Emory University freshman named Alfred Corn, later to become a distinguished poet and anthologist. This shy student had written in 1955 to say that he was vexed by the intellectual doubts his professors had created. Their questions had put his faith in terrible jeopardy, and he asked O’Connor what he should do. To believe in God, she replied, is not to avoid such doubts and difficulties but to undergo a lifelong combat with them. Faith is indeed a gift, she added, but it is a gift that must be constantly cultivated and enlarged. Faith grows and deepens through concrete acts of charity, she explained. These deeds are prompted, in turn, by a discernment of the divine image in other persons. Only sacred sight can perceive their truth worth. Such holy seeing must itself be invigorated by imaginative more than by abstract and disembodied thinking. …


O’Connor believed that Christian dogma is what forms the Christian imagination into something larger than our own intelligence or the intelligence of those around us. Knowing that the word “dogma” is a pejorative term for most Americans, O’Connor boldly capitalized it, confessing in the upper case that “My stories have been watered and fed by Dogma.” She rejected the popular view that dogma divides while ethics unite and that, since the practical and the useful are what truly matter, we can dispense with dogma. So long as everyone loves Jesus, according to the sentimentalism that now prevails, doctrinal claims can be shelved. O’Connor believed, on the contrary, that dogma must be central rather than peripheral. It is the distilled essence of God’s self-identification in Israel and Christ, and thus the true means for understanding both ourselves and the world. “Dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality,” she declared. It “is about the only thing left in the world,” she added, “that surely guards and respects mystery.” …


[The] loss of awe and mystery, [the] commodification of God into the service of our own needs, flattens the imagination of wonder and otherness. If God is only a kinder and gentler version of ourselves, there is nothing ultimate to inspire our worship nor to command our service. No wonder that Flannery O’Connor likened sentimentality in religion to pornography in art: they both cultivate immediate sensate experience for its own sake. …



Dr. Leander Keck isWinkley Professor Emeritus of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School.  The quote above is from his The Church Confident: Christianity Can Repent but It Must Not Whimper (pp. 35-36).


Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University and the author of numerous books, including Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, Contending for the Faith: Essays in the Church’s Engagement with Culture, and The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth. “Defending Christian Disbelief in an Age of Sentimental Spirituality” is available here.



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One Response to “Sentimental Christians, a brood of wingless chickens…”

  1. I love the title! I was studying Romans 8:18-22 today and noticed v21 in a new light:

    “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

    1. We are children of God, now.
    2. We are set free, now.
    3. We have/reflect some glory, now. (1 Cor 11:7, 2 Cor 3:17-18)

    Does this mean we ought to be doing at least some of the “set free from its bondage to corruption”, now? I’m also reminded of the 7+1 instances of “[to the] one who conquers” in Revelation. Wingless chickens do not conquer. Sentimentality is different from tuned sentiment, as CS Lewis made clear in The Abolition of Man.