conditioned to love the Monster God

Here is a half-baked thought that has been marinating in the back of my head for a while:

Sermons and lessons in the LDS church (and other churches too) utilize stories that condition us to accept a Monster God.

What I am thinking of here is the numerous talks, lessons, etc that use as their object lessons examples of extreme human suffering to teach about God.

A few examples:

1) From Elder Monson’s conference talk from last year (ironically entitled “Be Of Good Cheer”) in which he talked about the German Mother in war-torn Prussia and how she had to bury her children one by one, having only a spoon to dig their graves with, until the very last child died, and at that point, she had even lost her spoon and so used her bare fingers against frozen ground to bury her baby.

2) From a local Stake Conference a few years back; the Stake President, as part of his talk described in great detail, how at a family cookout, the young toddler pulled the charcoal grill full of red-hot briquettes over on top of himself. The Stake President went on in great detail about the extent of the irreparable damage done to the toddler’s body. I don’t remember exactly what the SP’s point was (probably prayer, or faith, or something) because I had to leave the meeting (leave my toddler sitting in the pew with his father) so I could go throw up.

3) The Mormon Message film  My New Life about Stephanie Nielson who was horribly burned in an accident.  Her story is a powerful tribute to the human will to survive (and thrive), to the healing power of a supportive community, and to the amazing technological advances that saved her life.  However Elder Holland’s voice over at the end gave me a sick feeling: “When suffering we may in fact be closer to God than we have ever been in our entire lives….”

I believe these stories and elements are included in our gospel teaching elements as coping mechanisms; a way to preemptively curtail questions about the atrocities that occur and how an All powerful All loving God fits into this world of carnage. Perhaps, they are included to be intentionally numbing? (Activism is frequently downplayed to make place for faith/acceptance.)

We are taught to Pray to the Monster God for protection (for he is mighty to save) while simultaneously being taught to accept that He may chose not to save you.  Instructed that we cannot understand the mind of God, we are taught to accept that in spite of unwavering devotion, and his unconditional love and omnipotent power, you and your loved ones may die in a multitude of agonizing ways. Or live in a multitude of agonizing ways. And lesson after lesson in church is constructed to condition you to that fact.

So pray for patience.
For faith.
For understanding.
Or at least for acceptance.

But it seems a bit like rolling dice to pray for protection.

It is storytelling.
Turning tragedy into faith promoting stories.

My own thought is that reality isn’t very faith-promoting.

Two related segues:

~After the Earthquakes in Haiti earlier this year, JohnR wrote this post about suffering, and storytelling, and how we can cope with tragedy without trying to piece an all Powerful all Loving God into the story.

~From the movie Constantine, Gabriel’s monologue on  why a reign of terror was in God’s best interest: “If sweet, sweet God loves you so, then I will make you worthy of His love. I’ve been watching for a long time. It’s only in the face of horror that you truly find your nobler selves. And you can be so noble. So, I’ll bring you pain, I’ll bring you horror, so that you may rise above it. So that those of you who survive this reign of hell on earth will be worthy of God’s love.” (It turned out, btw, that this idea hadn’t been vetted by God)

To end with, a little sacrilege.
Have you seen the painting “One Nation Under God” by Jon McNaughton?
In thinking about The Monster God, it occurred to me that the anonymous artist who did this parody (WARNING, it’s a bit disturbing)  might have been on to something.

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16 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    I think these stories of suffering are people’s ways of trying to deal with the problem of evil. It’s hard to reconcile an all loving God with one that allows horrible things to occur, so a lot of religious leaders, of various persuasions, promote the “test” idea – that God allows awful things to happen in order to refine us and make us grow.

    The problem with that idea, IMO, is that it often makes the lives/suffering of others into tools God is supposedly using to refine us. For example, people might say that a parent who gives birth to a disabled child is being tested by God in this particular way because God wants the to learn something. I find that problematic, because it reduces that child to a tool. I can’t imagine a God deliberately disabling a child just to teach a parent a lesson.

    For the particular examples you sited, G, I’m not sure how to read those. It’s unclear to me, from what you wrote, that the speakers were presenting these stories of suffering as direct trials or punishments that God was deliberately sending to these individuals. If that’s the case, then I find these particularly disturbing. If however, the speakers meant to present them as “terrible things happen – we don’t know why, they just do, and let’s admire these people in their brave and generous responses” I don’t find them as problematic.

    It’s seems to me that you might also be objecting to the rather salacious and gory details some speakers impart. Certainly, dwelling on others’ pain to color up your talk is bad judgement, imo.

    I actually think that Mormons have a leg up on this problem of evil thing. We don’t believe in an omnipotent God, like a lot of other Christian religions, so we can claim that God is constrained, God doesn’t want bad things to happen to us, but God does because to interfere would be to violate the principle of agency, etc.

  2. Deborah says:

    Per Caroline’s final paragraph, have you read Eugene England’s “The Weeping God of Mormonism”?

    https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/…/Dialogue_V35N01_75.pdf

    It’s a thought-provoking essay — worth reading the whole thing. In Mormon scripture, we have Enoch’s vision of God weeping for his people, followed by Enoch’s astonishment “How is it thou canst weep?”

    Here’s one intriguing passage:

    “But when our weeping God, in what seems a similar imperious gesture, tells us, “In nothing doth man offend God. . .save those who confess not his hand in all things” (D&C 59:21), we are not, like Price, left to struggle to “confess his hand,” or express gratitude and acceptance to a God who “is surely the full proprietor or the impassive witness of AIDS and Bosnia, Oklahoma City and Rwanda,”4 to say nothing of the Holocaust. I believe God means we, like Job, must recognize that the uni- verse itself, not a finite God, is the “proprietor” of those things; we could not have all the good of it, including the means to grow and know beauty and have joy and become more God-like, without the evil, not because God is that way, but because the universe, which he did not make, is that way. Furthermore, because of Enoch, we especially know . . . that God is not an “impassive witness” of all this: He weeps.”

    I believe in a loving, weeping God. I’m *all* for less pain, but do we want to live in padded walls? Could a world where death is inevitable be good if it were a pain-less place? I don’t know how to separate love and pain in the mortal condition. And If God loves, God mourns. I’m tired tonight and so doubt I’m articulate, but the smell of roses on my most painful day felt like God. And when Someone sits with me in my pain, or I sit with someone else through theirs, that feels like God, too. Mourning with those who mourn . . .

  3. As the victim of a violent crime, I have often wondered, ‘What is the point of believing in a God who can’t or won’t protect me?’

    When people tell faith promoting stories about moving at just the right time (so their life is spared, or etc.), I think, ‘that’s nice.’ However, tragic accidents (and non-accidents) happen all the time to angelic and naughty people alike.

    So why are some people “saved” from these experiences? I don’t think they are. Sure maybe they get off the hook from one particularly nasty episode, but no one gets through this life without suffering.

    God’s love has not protected me from experiencing evil. However, I’ve reconcile myself with God. I don’t love God because he/she protects me. I love God because loving God makes me happy. It gives me a better quality of life. And life for all it’s ups and downs is still pretty great.

    Oh, and I also find it extremely disturbing when people tell graphic stories of violence in places that should be my sanctuary.

  4. Corktree says:

    I think this is the reason I’ve tried to simplify my children’s prayers lately. I don’t want them to grow up believing that God causes everything – good and bad – that happens. And I’ve begun to feel that it makes no sense to ask for protection. Unless I am personally essential to God’s current plan and purpose on earth, I think I am dispensable. Not because God doesn’t care what happens to me, but I do think there are certain people that he “warns” to keep them from danger, and maybe there is a reason for it – but it has nothing to do with righteousness or church membership. I have a contorted perception of God as both influencing the fate of the world as a whole (and interfering to accomplish those goals), but also being completely hands off and allowing the laws of nature to run their course in most individual lives.

    I guess in this case, all we can do is pray to accept whatever happens to us and survive emotionally. I feel like that’s all I can really expect of God at this point. I try to exemplify nothing but gratitude in my prayers around my children (by not *asking* for anything), but even then I limit my expression to that which I think is actually given expressly – most of all “life” and the opportunity to experience different things in this life just by being here. I try not to show that I think we are “blessed” by things that I don’t think God really chooses to have any direct control over.

    (This has been a strange adjustment in our family prayers as it makes them MUCH shorter and to the point, but I’m really glad we’re learning to abandon the trite and superfluous phrases)

  5. Is it that God IS a monster who we must believe in while denying his nature? Do we, in order to make such a belief believable call him good? Are we called to remember that He called us good at one critical moment, despite quickly learning of our recalcitrant nature? He seemed to have been faithful to Israel despite Israel’s barbarism and the weakness of their fidelity.

    There is no God who is actively intervening in the minutia of the daily lives of middle class American Mormons, telling them where to park at the store, where to live, what school to go to, what TV to buy, and who to do good deeds for. Who at the same time can’t be bothered with the suffering of Africans being hacked to pieces by their neighbors.

    If such a God existed he would not be worthy of our worship or affections, he would be a God of the trivial, who seeks to feed the selfish and self involved condition of the privileged while having no opinion, no concern for the condition of those without privilege, who don’t always assume that they are special. On the other hand such a God might be worth worship if it were done out of fear, under the guise of our worship as a form of protection money.

  6. Craig says:

    I feel more or less the same way Douglas does. How can someone be spiritually tested in this life when they’re being hacked to death by a neighbouring tribe, dying of AIDS, starving to death, or being exterminated by their own government because of some superficial difference. I find it impossible to believe that those are necessary evils that god allows, but that he would care about who some rich, white guy in Utah is going to marry.

    As David Hume said,
    “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

    I am an atheist, but even if I were convinced of the existence of a god, I don’t think it possible to be convinced that any god would be worthy of my worship.

  7. ECS says:

    Great post, G. It reminds me of this poem:

    Theodicy

    BY CZESLAW MILOSZ

    No, it won’t do, my sweet theologians.
    Desire will not save the morality of God.
    If he created beings able to choose between good and evil,
    And they chose, and the world lies in iniquity,
    Nevertheless, there is pain, and the undeserved torture of creatures,
    Which would find its explanation only by assuming
    The existence of an archetypal Paradise
    And a pre-human downfall so grave
    That the world of matter received its shape from diabolic power.

  8. Janna says:

    I think that God is just as aware and cares about just as equally the white guy in Utah praying about who to marry and the person being hacked to death in Darfur.

    I pray about lots of mundane things (e.g., what to eat, running my business, what movies to see). Perhaps I’m self-centered and egotistical to think that God would care, but I often receive answers – and these answers help me out – a lot. My life may be small, but it’s not insignificant.

    Am I wrong to pray about these things?

  9. Janna,

    I’m a little disturbed by the idea that God is equally concerned with one person’s marriage, and genocide. Its difficult to imagine these two things requiring or meriting equal concern.

    But your question is a good one, in that it is worth asking ourselves what the nature of our prayer is and what it seeks to achieve, and how we position ourselves in our own religious lives. The answers rely on our understanding of Christianity and of our Mormonism. Clearly, the church poses the gospel as being a gospel of individual salvation, in addition we have many opportunities to make ourselves the center of our own prayer lives.

    I guess I find more questions in your question:

    -Why do we pray about the mundane? What do we seek to get out of it, and why don’t we expect God to tell us that we need to be able to make some decisions on our own.

    – Are we self centered? Are we egotistical? Prayer can be a very self indulgent act, believing in a gospel of individual salvation, and the exclusivity of a specific church’s truth claims also have components of self centering that we ignore at our peril.

    -“My life may be small, but it’s not insignificant.” O.K. but why does this significance matter? Or how do we know that our lives aren’t insignificant? I would suggest that one of the primary goals of the capitalist / materialist / democratic / militarist system that we have and tend to celebrate here in the U.S. is precisely to make each life as insignificant as possible. Or perhaps better put, to make lives significant only in their relation to the expending or production of capital. I know that in my own life all my best aspirations are strictly governed by their relation to capital rather than by their spiritual or artistic merit.

    Another view of the monster god would be to look at the synthesis of materialism and militarism in the gospel as popularly conceived in Mormon thought.

  10. Janna says:

    I’m saying that I believe God cares about each of us equally. Certainly, circumstances may require a calibration of “attention.”

  11. nature girl says:

    I clicked from the McNaughton monster god parody to a parody modifying the descriptive text – http://www.shortpacked.com/McNaughton%20Fine%20Art.htm – and laughed harder than I have in a long while. I particularly enjoyed the new text for the Christian Minister – “Holding the Holy Bible. His sermons tend to skip over the rapey/incesty parts.” But perhaps the modified description of the Mother is more pertinent at this point in the discussion. “She is asking Jesus why He let her local football team lose, despite her prayers.”

    The idea of a monster god is complicated, I agree with that much. At one point in my life I believed in a God whose power to help with big problems in the world was not diminished by taking the time to help me choose the right route to work. I didn’t think God was equally concerned about my problem as he was with genocide, just that it wasn’t a zero sum game.

  12. Jack says:

    I think you’re really talking about the reality of the “Monster Fall.”

  13. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you G again for this post.

    I do not like the Monster God. And I’m not quite sure what to do about it yet.

  14. Mark D. says:

    Given the choice between a “monster God” and a God who can save us in the process of time, but who cannot save us _right now_ for whatever reason, I think the answer is clear.

    As for the idea that only a God with absolute power is worthy of worship, I think that is just Stockholm syndrome theology. Who is more deserving of merit – a being who saves us against apparently impossible odds, or a being who can snap his fingers and end this charade over night?

  15. “As for the idea that only a God with absolute power is worthy of worship, I think that is just Stockholm syndrome theology”

    Who do you think is expressing such an idea that puts the nature of God’s power as the reason for his deserving worship or not? As far as I can see no one has written anything that comes close to that here.

  16. Bradley says:

    God: “I’m not really a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve”.

    No, we are the monsters, and we project that onto God to make ourselves feel good about it. Rather than trust that projection, you have to look inside to find God.

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