n Michael W. Smith’s contemporary Christian recording of “Never Been Unloved,” the one in which he cleverly lists all his negative personal characteristics that have plagued his spiritual life (“unrighteous,” “unfaithful,” “unworthy,” etc.), his inspiring refrain is a self-reminder that through God, he has “never been unloved.”
The song expresses the way in which God is ever reaching out to humankind, no matter how rebellious. “Never Been Unloved” resonates with Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, in which the faithful shepherd searches for the return of the wandering sheep. It’s a playful yet profound and moving representation of God’s grace.
One of the “un” words in Smith’s lyrics, however, suggests a pause for reflection: “unemotional.” Somehow, at first blush, this human quality doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the unworthy characteristics. Is being unemotional truly negative?
In many aspects of life we have been encouraged to be unemotional, to make clearly thought-out decisions, to avoid getting “carried away,” to “keep an even keel.” Many heroes, especially of Western culture, have been characterized by their clear, dispassionate thinking and for their rational way of pursuing their goals and ideals.
In fact, for three centuries in the Enlightenment has been proclaiming—with religious fervor—the gospel of progress solely through human reason. Emotion has been categorized with ignorance and superstition. Human reason has become the ultimate authority in all things. “Reason,” according to John Locke, “is natural revelation.”
Some even turn occasionally to God’s challenge in Scripture: “ ‘Come now, and let us reason together’ ” (Isa. 1:181 to support an emphasis on intellect. In this passage God appears to be inviting humanity into a kind of reasoned debate in which He hopes to persuade them through compelling evidence that they should trust and love Him.
In recent years, however, popular culture has been proclaiming a response—some negative and some positive—to the Enlightenment’s sole, unwavering focus on the intellect.
It must be recognized, first, that there are forces in popular culture that attempt to exploit emotion. Madison Avenue, ever the devoted guardian of humanity’s best interest, makes intentional effort to influence the appetite for things of sometimes questionable necessity. And advertising encourages many such decisions based in the heart rather than in the head. The objective is to prompt an emotional—not a reasoned—response.
“The day unfolds,” says a full-page magazine ad for Bridgestone tires, “like a challenging road that raises the essential question: Is high performance in your blood or is it really in your tires?”
A full-color ad for granola bars shows a helmeted guy on a dirt bike almost flying in silhouette across a sunset scene: “The laws of gravity don’t apply to euphoria.”
A pitch for a ladies’ razor depicts two pairs of bare legs of obviously differing genders: “Embrace® shaves you closer to get you closer. . . . Let the embracing begin. . . . Get closer, or your money back.”
And it isn’t only advertising that urges an orientation toward the emotional. In a love song, Stevie Wonder sings, “Don’t think so much. Let your heart decide.” In the film Top Gun (1986), Maverick, the hotshot jet pilot and central character, describes aerial combat in stirring terms: “ ‘You don’t have time to think up there. If you think, you’re dead.’ ”
Yet, despite the sometimes questionable exploitation of emotion in popular culture, Scripture provides ample evidence that feelings are a valid—essential—aspect of everyday life. Many of the heroes of both Old and New Testaments would have agreed with Michael Smith that being too unemotional can be carried to the extreme. Job was determined to “ ‘speak in the anguish of [his] spirit.’ ” (7:11). Jesus “groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (John 11:33).
In the film A Beautiful Mind (2001) the brilliant—yet deeply troubled—mathematician John Nash says in his address in a ceremony for the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics: “ ‘I’ve always believed in numbers, in the equations and logics that lead to reason, and after a lifetime of such pursuits, I ask, “What truly is logic? Who decides reason?” My quest has taken me to the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional, and back. And I’ve made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found.’ ”
This is an imaginary expression penned by some Hollywood script writer. Nobel laureates aren’t, in fact, invited to make speeches at the award ceremonies. But the sentiment in this short paragraph sums up the life of John Nash. And it recurs repeatedly in today’s movies and music, blogs and bestsellers.
It’s appropriate to recognize the fine equilibrium that should exist between reason and emotion—the head and the heart—that should guide the human life. The tension—and the balance—between the two are represented quite thoroughly in a dialogue between the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:
“ ‘I don’t know enough,’ replied the Scarecrow, cheerfully. ‘My head is stuffed with straw, you know, and that is why I am going to Oz to ask him for some brains.’
“ ‘Oh, I see;’ said the Tin Woodman. ‘But after all brains are not the best things in the world.’
“ ‘Have you any?’ enquired the Scarecrow.
“ ‘No my head is quite empty,’ answered the Woodman; ‘but once I had brains, and a heart also; so having tried them both, I should much rather have a heart. . . .’
“ ‘All the same,’ said the Scarecrow, ‘I shall ask for brains instead of a heart; for a fool would not know what to do with a heart if he had one.’
“ ‘I shall take the heart,’ returned the Tin Woodman; ‘for brains do not make one happy and happiness is the best thing in the world.’ ”2
Of these two imaginary characters, who was right? It’s plain to see that each has expressed part of an ultimate truth. Even if each fulfilled his wishes upon reaching Oz, neither would be a whole human being.
Is the decision to accept Christ in one’s life—or to continue to follow His leading—a decision of the head or of the heart?
It’s both a finely reasoned and a deeply emotional response to God’s amazing grace. “Examine me, O Lord, and prove me,” sang the psalmist, “try my mind and my heart” (Ps. 26:2, emphasis supplied).
1 Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references in this article are from The New King James Version of the Bible.
2 L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (New York: Dover, 1960), pp. 57, 58, 61.
Gary B. Swanson is associate director of the General Conference department of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries.