Sunday, October 10, 2010

Carl Sandburg and Manufactured Gods


All gods envisioned by human beings are manufactured gods, manufactured by the humans who envision them. They may not end up being shaped into a material object we can see and touch, but most of us have mental images of the God we’ve created, nonetheless. The fact that God is incorporeal--that is, spirit and, thus, non-material--has always frustrated a fair number of humans who have decided through the ages that God is more comprehensible if we create something visible that can represent God to us. Whatever the motivation, all three monotheistic religions have officially forbidden the creation of objects intended to look like God or to be used in worship, presumably, to remind worshipers of the invisible God they are worshiping. Creating an image of the invisible God was considered idolatry because eventually many people lost the ability to distinguish between the invisible spirit God and the god who’d been presented as an image by a potter or a carver or a painter or a metallurgist. Thus, the second of the ten commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments

We used part of this same passage last week to help us ponder what Emily Dickinson meant by her sarcastic little poem, “God Indeed Is Jealous God.” By coincidence, we’re back here today to study in greater detail the idol-making concerns themselves.

Chances are, the God of the book of Exodus, from which these words are taken, didn’t just dream up these warning words to present to innocent people who’d never given a thought to shaping an idol, even if it was supposed to be an idol to represent Israel’s own God, Yahweh. In all likelihood, God as the writer of Exodus told God’s story, had already run upon several situations in which God’s people were creating idols to Yahweh and, as they did before moving toward monotheism, to other deities of which they’d not been able to let go. They didn’t just awaken one day and universally declare themselves monotheists. By the time the ten commandments were completed not everyone in Israel was ready to give up multiple deities for one God, which is why the language remained as it did: “You shall have no others gods [plural] before me.” If everyone was already sold out to monotheism, there’d have been no need for this language.

Unlike my mother who believed in anticipatory moral instructions and warnings, the God of the book of Exodus likely knew of a few guilty idolators whose wrongs were being addressed in the commandment with ripple application to those who hadn’t tried it yet, but may have thought about it. Many of you know that my sister and I took piano lessons on Tuesday afternoons, and mother had to drive us the five miles from Halls Crossroads to Fountain City where Mrs. Mildred Newman gave piano lessons in her home. For some reason, Mom decided that she had a captive audience and would use it to wash anything out of our brains that might lead in time to moral misjudgments and wrong actions. If you know that much about my background, then you also know Mom wasn’t particularly original in her choice of lecture topics for the week. Halls Crossroads was such a small town that no more than one sin was committed there in any one week period, so that usually was the sin on which she based her traveling sermon that week.

If not original in choice of topics, she was certainly original in her way of explaining things to us and giving us appropriate warnings of what would happen to us if we failed to heed her motherly directives. My little brother hadn’t yet been born, and I was away from home by the time he got to the age to receive his teachings so I don’t know how it worked for him. He has certainly turned out to be a exemplary husband, father, and church member; and an honest businessman to boot so it worked. I suspect he picked it up by osmosis, though. As the baby in the family, I don’t believe either Mom or Dad ever believed that he was capable of any wrong anyway.

For Kim and me, however, it was a different story. We took piano lessons for several years so until I was 16 and could drive us to our lessons, we had Mom’s automobile sermons. She meant them for our good, of course; and we knew that. We still didn’t want to hear them every week, though, although sometimes it was comical. Now and then, she’d pound on the steering wheel, in a way a preacher might pound on a pulpit to punctuate her or his points. When she did that, we’d pound our seats to match her rhythmic pounding, and when that made her angry, Kim and I would laugh for the rest of the trip.

There were repeats from time to time, especially warnings about the necessity of teetotalerism; the dangers of dancing--especially dancing that made you jiggle your privates or that had you holding your partner too close to your own body, which would bring on an odd kind of tingling that would lead to no good; and, speaking of that, her third favorite repeating topic was creating babies out of wedlock. There were times, many times, when we got sermons on things we’d never even thought about doing until we heard Mom’s sermon or sermonette, depending on how fast traffic was moving that day.

It didn’t bother Mom in the least that we sometimes gave her a hard time. She took it as her parental duty to try to give us some values to live by, and any mature person at some point has to look back with gratitude to anyone who cared enough to try to help you shape ethical principles by which you will live. Thanks, Mom!

The ancient Hebrews weren’t any more adept at envisioning an invisible spirit God than we are so some of them made idols, and that only led to more problems from God’s point of view. See, no matter how lovely an idol is, it’s not living, and, thus, does a most inadequate job representing a living God. It works just fine for a dead god or a god who never lived, but it doesn’t work for a living, dynamic God who simply can’t be reduced to any human-made object.

There must be some reason the God of the Hebrews, the Christians, and the Muslims decided to remain invisible or hidden.

We humans aren’t happy about that, though, and as a result we have continued trying to manufacture our God or gods--both in terms of the look we want for our gods and in terms of personality traits and powers.

As Islam developed, one corrective it wished to make was undoing trinitarianism since that promoted, in the minds of many, polytheism. Furthermore, to avoid even the slightest hint at idolatry, Islam forbade the creation of any living being in art. There was to be no creation of any physical likeness of Muhammad--not paintings, no statues, no mosaics. But this principle went further as there was to be no using of any living thing reproduced artistically in any form. If you were to visit the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, as some of you probably have done, you would see the beauty of colored tiles and mosaic patterns, but they are abstract; no live being--human or animal--has her or his or its image recreated on the interior or exterior of that shrine.

Since no one had ever or has ever seen God except in a vision, no one can say much of anything about God’s appearance. No one has seen God and lived, according to the teachings of the ancient Hebrew scripture. Nor could anyone have ever seen God since God is spirit, entirely spirit. Therefore, if anyone tried or tries anyway, we know that she or he is imagining or hallucinating.

The descriptions of what people see when God comes to them in scripture are, for the most part, colors, shapes, and sounds, but these are all symbols and metaphors. They are not God and are not to be used to create an image of God.

From the fourth chapter of Revelation:

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.


Carl Sandburg won three Pulitzer Prizes, two for his poetry and one for a biography he wrote about President Lincoln. He failed at a number of job efforts and never finished his undergraduate education. He was admitted to West Point, but flunked out within two weeks because of his math and English test scores. Yet, he died at the ripe old age of 89, a gifted and widely recognized writer.

He once defined poetry as an echo asking a shadow to dance. That definition alone is highly poetic to my ear.

This sampling of Sandburg is suitable to the season. He called this poem, “Autumn Movement.”

I CRIED over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.

The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.

The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts.

Sandburg didn’t have a Sunday School understanding of God, to say the least. Here’s one of his poems titled “Prayers of Steel”:

Lay me on an anvil, O God.

Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.

Let me pry loose old walls.

Let me lift and loosen old foundations.

Lay me on an anvil, O God.

Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.

Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.

Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.

Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue nights into white stars.

I don’t follow everything he might have been trying to say or imply in this poem, but I take heart in my uncertainty because Sandburg said that he had written several poems he himself didn’t understand.

God, prayer, and a few lesser religious themes show up in several of his poems. There’s not a whole lot to go on in trying to assess his theology, but I think he was ambivalent about God’s role in the scheme of things. He once said he thought a baby was God’s opinion that the world should go on. That’s a tender thought, but not all his images of God were tender as you’ve heard.

Sandberg kept himself open to religion, I gather, but he was particular. He said, “I won't take my religion from any man who never works except with his mouth.” I am guessing he is slamming preachers here whom he sees never doing anything but running their mouths.

Our poem for today is critical of religion or of some approaches to religion, but in its way quite sophisticated theologically:

THEY put up big wooden gods.

Then they burned the big wooden gods

And put up brass gods and

Changing their minds suddenly

Knocked down the brass gods and put up

A doughface god with gold earrings.

The poor mutts, the pathetic slant heads,

They didn’t know a little tin god

Is as good as anything in the line of gods

Nor how a little tin god answers prayer

And makes rain and brings luck

The same as a big wooden god or a brass

God or a doughface god with golden


I don’t know how familiar Sandburg was with the Bible, but there are some possible biblical allusions that might have informed a part of his imagery here. For example, the book of Daniel makes reference to idolators who “drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (Dan 5:4 NAS).

We know that the writer of the book of Revelation relied heavily on Hebrew scripture including the book of Daniel so it’s interesting to find this comment in the book of Revelation:

...the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood...can neither see nor hear nor walk... (Rev 9:20 NAS).

This is from one of those scary passages in the book of Revelation, which ultimately are overridden by hope. We have a reference here, very much like the reference in the book of Daniel, to people creating and worshipping gods made with all kinds of non-living materials. Naturally, such gods are powerless, and yet people through the ages have built them to have something to look at that reminds them of their deity.

They keep changing the materials out of which they construct their deities, hoping that a new kind of material will make a better god; of course it’s fruitless. Sandburg’s poem follows a progression of creating false gods. The first ones are big wooden idols. The next ones are brass; they don’t work so well either. Next, humanity constructs a humanoid god, a doughface god with gold earrings. It could be the very height of idolatry when humans decided that God looked like them, but a doughface option is hardly complimentary. A doughface refers to a lazy entity that drags down society. Sandburg says, idolators become so haphazard or desperate that they stop even thinking about what they’re doing.

The brass god was better than the doughface god with earrings. The doughface god represents a god created by idolators who not only is unable to help humanity, but in fact is a drain on humanity; it’s a false god who pulls all of us down, but she or he has nice earrings nonetheless. Sandburg concludes by mourning how little humans know about the gods they create.

Manufactured gods are essentially all the same, the doughface god being a noted exception. If you’re going to make use of a manufactured god instead of finding your way to the invisible but real and living God, Sandburg’s poem says that we might as well keep it as cheap and simple as possible. The little tin god can do all that a big wooden or gleaming brass god can do for us; it can answer some of our prayers and bring rain, and it can bring us luck. Sandburg is poking fun of people who create idols and then rely on them. In the end, the magnificent idol as well as the two-inch tin image can do absolutely nothing. Like the writer of the book of Revelation says of such manufactured gods, and Sandburg surely agrees, “...the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood...can neither see nor hear nor walk.”

So why do we refuse to give up the business of manufacturing gods, the art of creating idols? Why isn’t the God who is spirit good enough for some of us, if not all of us?

John Bach said, “Idolatry isn’t good for anyone; not even the idols.” And Ralph Waldo Emerson painfully pointed out that we “boast our emancipation from many superstitions; but if we have broken any idols, it is through a transfer of idolatry.”


The stories in the book of Exodus that juxtapose Moses’ receiving of the ten commandments from God Godself with the impatient Israelites awaiting his return, but unable to wait as long as it takes they, with the help of Moses’ brother and right hand man, Aaron, create an idol that will blatantly defy God’s command not to worship other gods and not to create idols representing such gods; that’s a common sense thing because if you create it, eventually you’ll become enamored of it. It will become your god to a much greater degree than a hidden god, an invisible god, a spirit god will ever be.

When God didn’t deliver on the timetable they had set for God, they simply went back to the ways of worship to which they’d grown accustomed before they ever knew there was any one God to know or even to think about. This is one of several reasons giving God our to-do lists doesn’t work. Beyond that, God doesn’t do windows.

While Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai communing with God, Aaron was supposed to be acting as God’s leader for the people of Israel. They really shouldn’t have needed a babysitter, but many groups of people do. Individually, they do fine and keep themselves out of trouble, but when you put them in groups their behavioral patterns tend to change--and not always for the better. This is why the discipline called Sociology was born. Psychology isn’t enough; it focuses on the individual, but in most cultures people function in groups so an analysis of individual behavior only answers some of the questions about why people do what they do.

We’d like to think that people affiliated with those groups committed to the God about whom Jesus taught us would do better in groups than praying alone in the desert as the Desert Fathers did in the early centuries of institutional Christianity. And, sometimes Christians in groups--same with Jews and Muslims--have done great deeds for the common good. Sometimes, though, and we know sadly is so from a mere cursory reading of Church History, groups claiming to behave according to the standards Jesus said God had established have criminalized God by claiming that God led them to do the evil deeds for which they themselves are not willing to take responsibility.

To prove this point, we could begin with the Crusades of the Middle Ages. The crusades were military expeditions launched against the Muslims by the Roman Catholic Christians in an attempt to regain the Holy Land. The Crusades are typically dated

between 1095 and 1270. They helped make the era one of the most violent periods in human history--until modern technology became a part of war.

The starting point of the Crusades was on November 18, 1095, when Pope Urban II opened the Council of Clermont with a stirring speech calling on Christians and anyone else willing to help the Christians to restore peace in the east. “Restoring peace in the east” was a euphemism for killing off the Muslims who at that moment were in control of the Holy land.

The Pope made it a truly religious war, and we have seen plenty of those since. His speech propelled the faithful to action; of course, there were perks. People who had committed sins for which they thought they’d never be forgiven, for example, were promised forgiveness if they fought.

Those who went forth to fight often sewed replicas of crosses to the garments because the Pope had told them they were fighting to save all that Jesus had sacrificed for. The mission was to kill off enough Muslims to be able to retake the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem. While they were at it, they decided, for no extra charge, to kill off a few Jews along the way. And, of course, everything they did, they did in God’s name.

Christian complicity with Hitler to eradicate Jews and others whom he deemed unsuitable to his super race is near impossible to imagine, but Protestant pastors and Roman Catholic priests--not all of them, but plenty of them--hailed Hitler and agreed that the descendants of those who pushed Rome to kill Jesus deserved to be wiped off the face of the earth once and for all. There were so many problems with that scenario that it would take us hours to unravel, but I’d just point out a major fallacy in Hitler’s reasoning and in the reasoning of many of the professionally trained clergy who encouraged his cause. The Jews didn’t kill their fellow countryman, Jesus. The Romans did. In groups, people aren’t always interested in the facts; being in a powerful mob is rush enough, even if the cause is wrong.

The Supreme Court is now getting to decide whether or not the small membership of the Westboro Baptist Church, following the teachings of its leader/pastor Fred Phelps, has a right to protest at the funerals of our military heros who have lost their lives in the war in Afghanistan--formerly in the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Their warped theology is that God hates homosexuals and that our country has become lax in hating as God hates. They believe that God is punishing our nation by allowing our military personnel to die at the hands of foreign enemies so even though many of the military heros who have given their lives for the cause, which is questionable at best, were not in agreement with the war in which they died a death is one more warning from God that “God hates fags,” which is the website of the Westboro Baptist Church. In other words, soldiers trying to protect American citizens and American interests, at least that is what they’ve been told, should die because they are interfering with God’s punishment of the United States of America. I’m sure you see their clearcut logic here.

To protect America and its interests is to say that homosexuality is OK; a godly American would refuse to fight in these wars and would let the punishment God is trying to inflict come without interruption on us because we’re only getting what we deserve for not joining God in hating fags. Therefore, it’s perfectly in order, they say, to protest at the funerals of our military heros who in defending American interests are defending homosexuals who need to be either saved or slain to protect the common good.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this past Wednesday from both Westboro Baptist Church and from the father of a marine killed in Iraq who suffered the Westboro protests at his son’s funeral. He had already won damages by a lower court, but that decision was overturned by an appellate court.

This Westboro activity is group mentality. This is what groups do that individuals can’t do alone.

Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai communing with God, and the meeting took longer than planned. The people at the base of the mountain awaiting Moses’ return got their heads together and pooled their gold. Aaron helped them shape the gold into a calf, which they immediately made their god--manufactured gods, and an altar was built so that the golden calf could be properly worshiped.

We are still manufacturing gods. We have a war god who leads us into war and who joins us in hating our enemies. We have a national god whose name we call every time we say the pledge of allegiance to our country’s flag. We have a school god who is prayed to in many public schools, law or no law, every morning in the presence of children whose parents are against having their children exposed to the theology of the principal or of whoever writes and prays the prayer for the day. We have a money god who is honored with the slogan, “In God We Trust,” on our currency; this is the closest we come to an actually manufactured god.

Sandburg was too clear when he wrote of “a little tin god [who] answers and makes rain and brings luck.” Amen.

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