Thursday, December 22, 2011

Muppets, Muppeteers and Personal Gods

"I'm your friend to the end!"
For 25 years, "muppeteer" Kevin Clash has brought the popular Sesame Street character Elmo to life. Clash is the subject of Being Elmo, a documentary chronicling his personal and professional journey.

At one point in an interview with NPR's Terry Gross, Clash talks about how the illusion of Elmo stays intact, even when kids know the muppeteer is there:
We have a lot of children that will visit [the set of Sesame Street]. And what we've found is that they really don't care about us, about the puppeteers. They've watched these characters on the show, on TV for so long, that they're really like close friends. It's interesting. They really don't look at me when they see Elmo. They run to Elmo because it's a friend of theirs that they've been talking to and communicating with and singing with for so many years. We've found that the delusion is not broken by seeing us puppeteers. They see the characters in front of them. ... I get humbled by it all the time. The things that they tell Elmo, the expression on their face when they see their friend.
Are there not parallels here with God-belief? God/Jesus is familiar to people, especially Americans. Even non-believers and non-Christians can't get away from it. Witness the nonsensical levels of attention given in past weeks to the faith of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. On both my way to work and on the way home, someone has put a home-made sign on a tree by the side of the highway. Both read: "Jesus saves."

When people pray to God/Jesus, they don't see themselves as "pulling the strings." They don't see themselves animating the deity. What's more, perhaps like with Elmo, the illusion would not be broken if they saw.

If correct, this tells us something of the magnitude of fundamental psychological needs that are answered by god-belief. The belief is real and powerful, and it is personal. And maybe it doesn't have that much to do with God as a being or thing, but rather God as an ideal person giving ideal personal love.

5 comments:

  1. "And what we've found is that they really don't care about us, about the puppeteers. . . . They really don't look at me when they see Elmo."

    And yet this does NOT occur when Triumph, the Insult-Comic Dog interviews people: you can see them looking at the puppeteer rather than at the dog.

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  2. Oh, but isn't it too easy, and arrogant even, to say that you have the real vantage point, that your "belief" sees in total the puppeteer and puppet, and that you aren't the one doing the pulling?

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  3. "Oh, but isn't it too easy, and arrogant even, to say that you have the real vantage point, that your "belief" sees in total the puppeteer and puppet, and that you aren't the one doing the pulling?"

    If it's too easy and even arrogant--so what?

    Note my language: "Are there not parallels" (a question) and "If correct" (a conditional). How would you suggest I make things less dogmatic?

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  4. Do you think that this contributes to why Christianity is more popular than Judaism? A humanized God is more user-friendly, no?

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  5. @C. Laundry -

    It depends on when in history you are talking about, and it depends on what you mean by "Christianity" and "popular."

    But if I understand you to be talking about why the many Christian denominations today have more people than the various strains of Judaism, then sure: a humanized god is more user-friendly.

    However, I think it's the total package of Christianity that underwrites its modern appeal. People like the idea that they are sinners because it's about them as individuals and it makes their struggle to be good heroic. They like the idea of a personal Jesus who helps them live lives that are fuller than full. They like the idea that their daily lives are infused by Christianity (unlike Judaism, which externally imposes much activity for the day). They like the affiliation with the church, and the power of being a "somebody" in the community.

    Christianity is easier than many religions. All you have to do is believe. You don't need to study, although it is often encouraged. You don't need special training, although it's often provided. If you believe really really hard, then you're OK as a Christian.

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Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.