Gods of Clay, creating idols in our own image

In this, the most debilitating economic crisis since the Great Depression, there is one occupation that remains as robust and profitable as ever – the Hero.  At no time since Pagan Rome and Julius Caesar has there been a more profound worship of the fallible human. There is no place we can turn, no sport, industry, or amusement where one or several within the ranks has not been escalated to the status of the holy divine.  They have been turned into modern day prophets and we are their congregation listening as they minister from the sacred scripture of their accomplishments. Yet the price paid to receive such reverence and adulation is cheap by historical standards, it costs no tears or blood and can be bargained for with little more than beating analyst’s estimates, winning a Super Bowl, or starring in a video.

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It’s been said, and I have to believe, that you can tell everything you need to know about someone in how the answer this question,

“What sort of people do you admire most?”  

If you worship the game, then the athlete will be your idol and king. If you are awe struck by riches then the titans of business and affluence will be to whom you pray. If you glorify the physical then those behemoths of the fashion, fitness, and beauty world will be the altar where you kneel.

This isn’t an attack on success or achievement nor to undermine the appreciation and recognition that comes from another’s triumphs, but it’s the extremes of the thing that proves our diseased minds. It’s the hanging of our hopes, our identity, and even our self worth that speaks to the twisted nature  – when we stop admiring and start exalting.

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This past week in a CNN.com article, the writer speaks to the fallout of the Penn State scandal and how it has toppled one of those modern day heroes and once again raises questions of our cult hero worship.

The author alludes to such fallen idols as Joe Paterno, Tiger Woods, Bernie Madoff, and John Edwards and then asks the question, “So who’s to blame, us or the guy on the pedestal? Are they bad people, or are we a bunch of suckers?”

It would seem we are the problem.  As a culture we have this expectation that the character of the man is in direct proportion to the heights of his achievement. Or, “we generally assume these heroes are “good,” at the very least, we dismiss their flaws, and assume their character is unchangeable.” But that’s a mistake we own when we make gods of clay in our own image then bruise our knees worshiping someone who, in the end, is as undivine and small as we are. And as a parent I can think of few concerns more troubling than who my children will admire and ultimately emulate.

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Scotch taped on a wall in my daughter’s bedroom at her mother’s house is a full page magazine article of a teen movie star, shirt off, pecks bulging, abs ripped. When asked why she has such a picture all she can respond to is his name, the movie she saw him in, and how she thinks he’s cute. Chills run down my spine as I imagine where that line of thinking could ultimately lead.

But isn’t that symbolic of us all? How, like my princess, we knowingly choose to place others on pedestals without the slightest comprehension about them other than their win/loss record, latest hit, or most recent triumph. Then we go even further by forcing our  expectations on them, ones we could never meet ourselves, and feel betrayed when our savior isn’t able to deliver on the promise.

Most interesting in the Penn State outrage, I think, was the response against the school. The NCAA ripped away fourteen years of wins, bowls, and titles from the football program and its players and fined the university $60 million. Paterno’s likeness, much like those overthrown pharaohs of ancient Egypt, were chiseled away from every monument on campus along with tearing down his seven-foot statue at the entrance to Beaver Stadium.

Was this reaction a justified answer to the evils of the case or merely an attempt to put balm on the wounds of betrayal and hurt caused when their god toppled and they were left standing amid the rubble of their own foolishness? The mistake of the Penn State faithful was believing that Paterno was the same person off the football field as he was on and assuming his character was as great as his number of wins. It’s a common mistake. “The boxes we put around people are false labels. It’s an easy way to assume what they’re like in our realm.” But when our assumptions prove to be wrong, as they usually do, retribution is the penance due when we discover our gods are nothing but wooden idols carved in our own image.

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This is a fundamental lesson I hope to teach my children, that while it’s normal to admire the athlete, actress, or singer for their God given talents and use that success as motivation in their own endeavors, it is also necessary to separate those achievements from the individual behind them. To never view the movie star, singer, or athlete as anything other than the undivine mortal creatures they are who are as weak and fragile as the rest of us.

That to appreciate the celebrity does not mean to exalt them, and the lines they speak, lyrics they sing, or scores they make should never be used to exemplify the one who’s performing them. So when that idol does come crashing down they’ll never feel forsaken as the stand among the broken shards of their god of clay.

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8 responses to Gods of Clay, creating idols in our own image

  1. Rick G

    This is a concept I have always felt was an easy one. If you like baseball, look at how a great player plays the game. Aspire to play like him. Never say he is a hero in my life though. You know nothing about him or how he lives. You only know he is a great ballplayer.

    I tell my daughter all the time. Entertainers are for entertaining, they are not roll models for our lives. Like their music and dance to it, like their movie and laugh or cry with it, like the touchdown and celebrate the victory, but never ask more of your entertainer.

    Roll models aren’t even firmen, policemen, or even clergy, because truth be told you don’t really know them either. You can once again like their acts that you see, but unless you know them personally you don’t really know what type of person they are. So the only real roll models you can have are family and friends you are close to and know their character well. This makes it so critical for us to remember we owe our children our best everyday. I fall short of this with my daughter from time to time like anyone. I do however try to always keep it in my decision making process.

  2. I have to remind myself now and again that we are the models for our children as stated in the comment above. I am not perfect and hope that in acknowledging my humanness, my daughter learns to be okay with being human herself. I can only work to be the best person I can be with the awareness that from my efforts, my daughter will learn. As she ages, I find myself gaining for the model she provides too. Heros don’t ahve to be our peers or our elders, they can be children.

  3. I can definitely relate to this. I work in the TV industry and each week rub shoulders with ‘big celebrities’. I was never star struck (I guess that’s why I can do this job). The more I see of celebrities the more reason I have not to admire them.
    I’ve met some wonderful human beings who just happen to be ‘celebrities’ people adore and faint over. However, Iv’e met the opposite too.

    As a human, I admire people like nurses and charity workers who really toil for the sake of others. These people have always been my ‘heroes’. I try to teach my kids the same.

  4. Vu Huynh

    Alan Dershowitz stated in one of this books in advising young, freshly-out-of-school lawyer to carefully select their “heroes” and how to objectively define “heroes”. In this article, you, similarly, elaborate how one should view “heros” in a very well articulate fashion.

    My children are way to young to me to be taught on this topic. I, however, needed clarity on this definition of hero for my own. My heros are no other than my parents. They have been fallible and will be at times, yet the one factor that is constant about them that is their love and sacrifice to each other and their children. Even now, when my siblings and I are parents. I accept them for their fallibility, but I worhip their constant devotion. This constant is one thing that I can always emulate to raise my children and well as better myself.

    I love sports, all sports. Thus, I admire Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and their likes. But like you’ve stated above, their individuality and the fallible nature of human being reside within each of these champions. They excel in their trades, yet outside of them, they are subjected to fallibility as any average human being.

    This argument holds true for champions of all trades and industries. No human being is perfect and is exempt from our shared fallible nature. The degree of fallibily, however, varies from person to person.

  5. Kyle Bradford – Author

    “This constant is one thing that I can always emulate to raise my children and well as better myself.” — If that concept alone, was the marching orders for ever parent today, this world would be a much better place.

    Thanks for your contribution Vu!

  6. Kyle Bradford – Author

    Anne, I’ve never fawned over them either. I just can’t seem to find it within me to give any more credence to a guy who can hit a golfball 300 yards than I can a person who can wield a ball peen hammer.

  7. Kyle Bradford – Author

    Ricky, I hope to be able to teach my children the same. It will be a process, culture is a strong enticement and never sleeps.

    Thanks for your contribution.

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