When Dennis published “The God Who Loves You” in 2001, religion was a hot topic in the media and had been for several years. Depending on who one talked to, either the year 2000 or the year 2001 was the start of the new millennium—since zero is technically not a number, most numerology purists argued that the millennium did not start until 2001. As the millennium approached, some believed that it would signal the end of time. Some Christians, for instance, thought that the new millennium would witness the return of Jesus Christ on Earth. Christian fiction, most notably the bestselling Left Behind series by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins—which depicts life on Earth after the Rapture—became popular in the late 1990s.
As an added wrinkle, scientists and computer programmers were predicting a technological armageddon, in the form of the so-called Y2K bug. The Y2K bug was a worldwide programming error, which began in the early days of computers, when data storage space was precious and programmers truncated the four-digit year to two digits. Many predicted that when the clock struck midnight and clicked over into 2000, any computer using this old two-digit programming style would have a technological cardiac arrest, and some found religious connections to this expected disaster. Since so much of the world was run by computer chips at that point, the years leading up to 2000 were marked by a flurry of computer renovation, as companies, governments, and individual consumers spent billions of dollars to try to fix the problem. As it turned out, New Year’s Day 2000 passed without incident, and many, in hindsight, cited the Y2K bug as a hoax.
The focus on religion and morality remained strong, however, in the year 2000. In the United States, the issue of religion came to the fore in the 2000 presidential election. The outgoing incumbent, Democratic President William Jefferson Clinton, had been one of the most scandalous presidents in the history of the United States and was even impeached. Many Republicans used these scandals to cite the need to return morality to America’s highest office. In the 2000 election, Clinton’s vice president, Albert Gore, ran against the conservative Republican candidate, George W. Bush—who spoke of returning honor and decency to the Oval Office. Unfortunately, this election will forever remain one of the most controversial presidential elections on record. The race, one of the closest ever, produced mixed results. At first, it appeared that Bush was the clear winner. But, as the election results in Florida were scrutinized by Gore’s camp and the press, the confusing ballots used in certain Florida counties were blamed for potentially causing people to mistakenly vote for the wrong candidate. As Gore demanded recounts, and Bush moved to block the recounts, the battle quickly split along partisan lines. Various pundits from both camps highlighted the issues that best supported their candidate, and some Democratic supporters even went so far as to suggest that the Florida election—which was overseen by Bush’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush—was fraudulent. This partisan bickering even made its way into the courts, where the issue was debated for more than a month. Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court determined the outcome, although the court acknowledged that it may never know for certain the real winner of the election.
Despite this shaky start, Bush’s presidency gained strength and credibility when he acted quickly following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in New York City and Washington, D.C. As would eventually become clear, these attacks were motivated largely by religious intolerance and were carried out by religious fanatics who are believed to have acted under the direction of Osama Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi exile and leader of an international terrorist network. Following the attacks, in a move that was initially supported by much of the country, Bush mobilized the United States for war, vowing to make the terrorists pay for the attacks.
The most noticeable aspect of Dennis’s poem, and the one that affects all other aspects, is the huge shift in mood that the work undergoes from beginning to end. The mood of the poem is its emotional quality. In the very first line of the poem, Dennis cues his readers that the poem is going to have a negative mood: “It must be troubling for the god who loves you.” This line sets up two concepts: that there is a god who loves the reader, and that this unnamed god is distressed. Dennis reinforces this mood throughout the poem. For example, in the beginning of the fourth line, he says “It must be painful for him to watch you.” Dennis continues using words that convey a negative mood, such as when he notes that the reader could have lived a life that was “thirty points above the life you’re living” and notes that every point is “A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.” The use of the word “thorn” reinforces the negative mood. In addition, the reader is made to feel guilty for causing the divine figure pain.
As the poem progresses, it is the reader himself who Dennis notes will be hurt if he thinks about the better life he could have had, such as when Dennis talks about the conversations the reader could have had at an alternate college: “It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation / You’d have enjoyed over there higher in insight / Than the conversation you’re used to.” In the final section before the mode shifts, Dennis says that the god is even hurt by the fact that the reader will make a mistake and have an early death, “Losing eleven years that the god who loves you / Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene.” Then, at the end of the poem, Dennis offers a relief from the negative mood, by telling readers not to imagine this omnipotent, troubled god as a god at all but “only a friend.” And the poem ultimately ends with a positive, optimistic mood because Dennis says that readers should find enjoyment in what they have, not what they might have lost.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Christophersen, Bill, “The ‘I’ and the Beholder: Negotiating the Shoals of Personal Narrative,” in Poetry, Vol. 182, No. 1, April 2003, p. 35.
Dennis, Carl, “The God Who Loves You,” in Practical Gods, Penguin Books, 2001, pp. 72–73.
Farnsworth, Elizabeth, “Pulitzer Prize for Poetry,” Online Newsletter, available online at http://www.pbs.org/news hour/conversation/jan-june02/dennis_4-10.html, accessed December 19, 2003.
Lund, Elizabeth, “Gods That Witness, But Don’t Intervene,” in Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 2002, p. 15.
Review of Practical Gods, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 248, No. 36, September 3, 2001, p. 83.
Seaman, Donna, Review of Practical Gods, in Booklist, Vol. 98, No. 3, October 1, 2001, p. 278.
Taylor, John, Review of Practical Gods, in the Antioch Review, Vol. 60, No. 3, Summer 2002, p. 535.
Basinger, David and Randall G. Basinger, Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom, Intervarsity Press, 1986. In their book, the Basingers include four different views of the paradox of predestination and free will. The book is written in a style that highlights the weaknesses of each position and discusses how proponents of these views defend these ideas.
Kunin, Seth D., Religion: The Modern Theories, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. In his book, Kunin, the head of the School of Divinity, Religious Studies, and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, provides an overview of the religious theories that developed during the twentieth century, including an overview of the major religious theorists, a discussion of the various disciplines that have affected the study of religion, and an examination of the rituals, symbolism, and myths found in modern religion.
Pollocks, Robert, The Everything World’s Religions Book: Discover the Beliefs, Traditions, and Cultures of Ancient and Modern Religions, Adams Media Corporation, 2002. This book gives a solid overview of the major world religions throughout human history and in modern times, including the various sects of each religion. It also includes discussion of smaller and lesser-known religions.
Smith, Christian, The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life, University of California Press, 2003. Smith’s book rejects the popular notion that secularization is a natural outcome of modernization and studies the causes of the secularization of American public life between the years 1870 and 1930. Smith and his contributors argue that this shift was caused deliberately by academics and other intellectuals, who wished to remove the religious influence from social institutions.