Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The price of the gods

One of the lesser noticed aspects of ancient myths and legends is the price that gods, demigods, and spirits sometimes demanded for providing goods or services to humans: their children. This can still be seen in folk tales such as Rumpelstiltskin, and such a legend is alluded to in Kristin Lavaransdatter, where Odin assists a woman in brewing then demands for payment “what was between her and the vat” - i.e. the child she carried in her womb1.

This harsh levy is downplayed in most modern renditions of the legends, but students who study the original tales know that a consistent theme throughout them is the hunger lesser gods and spirits have for human children. This is harsh to modern ears, for we value our children so highly that we shudder at the very thought of turning them over to some god in return for a service provided.

Or do we?

The “gods” of our culture provide many things for us, one of the more prominent being copious entertainment. Thanks to radio, television, movies, and now the nearly-ubiquitous Internet, very few in Western culture lack for something to amuse or distract them. America is renowned world-wide for our movies and programs, and the happenings on popular shows can actually be reported on news programs. Televisions are so common that a home without one is so unusual as to be freakish.

But what price do these cultural gods demand for this service of nonstop entertainment of nearly infinite variety? I thought of that this past week, as the furor over the new MTV series Skins erupted across the news media. Especially telling was this commentary by a secular commentator on a secular station. He argued compellingly that once this kind of content is broadcast and known about, it doesn't matter what controls parents might attempt to impose on their children: they will be able to access the program some way or another.

Suddenly, ubiquitous access to all forms of entertainment doesn't look so inviting. The problem is, the horse has left the barn. Parents who have opened their homes to the cultural gods in order to be entertained have usually accomplished a few things. One is setting an example that if something is appealing, it should be watched. The other is letting time they could have spent parenting be displaced by something else. Every hour they spent being passively entertained was one less hour spent interacting with their children and forming their characters. Another common occurrence in modern homes, where televisions are found scattered around the house including in bedrooms, is that of total individual choice. If someone doesn't like what's playing in the family room, they can go in the den or their room and watch something else. These factors converge when children get to an age when shows like Skins attract them – and suddenly parents find they have no way of controlling what their children watch.

The gods of the culture have provided their service of nonstop, enthralling entertainment. Their price: the children.

Our entertainment culture doesn't walk in the door announcing its intent. Like the gods in the old stories, it offer the allure first – the help with the difficult task, or acquiring the desired item, or providing the enticing entertainment. Only afterwards is the terrible price revealed, but at that point it's too late to deny the god his price. The deed is done, and the price must be paid. I wonder how many parents lapped up the entertainment services of the gods of our culture, only to realize to their dismay that one consequence of this was the loss of their children to values they never taught – but the children learned regardless?

I wish I could say that Ellen and I were prescient enough to see this coming when we decided not to have a television in our home while raising our children. We weren't. All we knew was that we wanted to have tight control over what formed their thoughts and imaginations. We wanted it to be good books, Christian teaching, and our family values. It's only looking back over the results of our decision, and watching the anguish of parents who find their children slipping away, that it's become clear what has happened.

The ancient legends contain a subtle lesson: beware who you speak to casually, and which dells or glens you wander into. Above all, watch out who you let into your house, no matter what kind of aid or service they offer. You may get something you really desire, but at a price too terrible to consider.

The lessons are just as valid these days, they just need to be applied a little differently.

1The Bridal Wreath, Part 3, Chapter 7

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Geographic gods

Long ago, people entertained the oddest notions about gods. They thought of gods in terms of geographic regions, as if they were tied to or centered around a physical location. The god's power was greatest in his “home” territory, and diminished beyond his boundaries. Physical place, even actual earth, was deemed important to the worship of a god. This explains Naaman's desire to take home with him a couple mule-loads of Israelite dirt (2 Kings 5:17): he wanted to worship Israel's God on Israel's soil, even if that soil had to be taken to the “land” of another god.

It is true that the Israelites also thought this way – after all, God promised them a land of their own, and even set aside a special place within that land, Mount Zion, as the center for His worship. He probably had many reasons for this, one of them being accommodating the preconceived notions of His people, but another thing became more clear as time went by: the God of Israel was truly god of the whole earth, not just the land occupied by Israel. Furthermore, He was no respecter of places when it came to being obeyed. When the Israelites didn't obey His laws, He did not hesitate to deport them from the land, starting with the nation of Israel in the north and ending with Judah in the south. He even gave hints through His prophets that He could be worshiped anywhere on earth, because all lands (and, ultimately, all people) were His.

These days we consider such notions as geographic gods to be quaint and simplistic. As if God had a jurisdiction, like a secular authority, that you could get on a plane and escape! As if the authority and power of God Almighty could be delimited by something as arbitrary as geographic boundaries! We might smile knowingly when we read accounts like Naaman's, thankful that we're sophisticated enough to have moved beyond such elementary views of God's nature.

Or have we?

The older I get, the more I wonder if maybe we post-moderns don't have our own twist on the regional god mentality. Though we may not think in terms of “the god of Oakland County” (or whatever), we nonetheless tend to partition our outlook on the world into “regions”, and behave as if different “gods” reigned over these conceptual regions. For instance, I know businessmen who are Catholic, but whose business practices are indistinguishable from those of their totally worldly colleagues. If you were to ask one of them whether his workplace attitudes conformed to the teachings of his faith, you'd draw a blank look. Teachings of the faith? Those were for Sunday at Mass times – what did they have to do with closing out this month's sales?

See what I mean? Virtual regions – mental areas where people assume other gods have sway. Oh, someone with such an attitude might acknowledge in the abstract that the One True God has authority over everything, but at the day-to-day level, he would behave as if the workplace was controlled by different gods than the one he thought about at Mass on Sunday. He wouldn't call them gods – he'd call them marketing principles, or business precepts, or whatever – but he would certainly consider them to be more influential in his work environment than God Himself. It isn't that he'd think God impotent, it's that he'd consider Him irrelevant.

Here's another one: entertainment. If you were to ask the average person what God thought of what they did to entertain themselves, you'd probably get another blank stare. Why would God care what television shows I watch? Outside of glaring extremes such as pornography (which is increasingly being seen as a matter of taste, not morals,) most people would wonder why you'd mention God and entertainment in the same context. God has no relevance to their entertainment choices – another “region” where other gods hold sway.

You could find plenty more examples: investment, childrearing, education, health and fitness, and so forth. We Westerners tend to have very compartmentalized lives, whether we profess a religious affiliation or not, and over time we tend to see these compartments as being influenced by different forces. This is simply the idea of regional gods in different guise.

This is one thing I think most Evangelicals do better than most Catholics, at least in this day and age: make a conscious, deliberate effort to make Jesus the Lord of every aspect of their lives. This is often presented as a caricature – e.g. the coworker who punctuates every conversation with “Hallelujah!” and “Praise the Lord!” – but the reality is an important one. Certainly we behave differently in the workplace than we do in worship, and differently again at the ball game, but God Almighty is our Lord wherever we are and whatever we're doing. Sure, He's interested in how we comport ourselves at worship, but He's also interested in what influences us as we draw up that contract or make that repair, albeit in different ways. God doesn't recognize any regions over which He has no control, no matter what we think. He will be Lord over every aspect of our lives. We can cooperate with that or not, but there's one thing we can't do: run anywhere, geographically or in our minds, where He is not Lord.

There is no such place.