Conor Sweetman

My Daughter, the Iconoclast

Conor Sweetman
My Daughter, the Iconoclast

It was after the birth of my daughter that I began to build the idol.

It was a beautiful thing, well-proportioned and pleasing to the eye, an image of kindness and gentleness and quiet strength. It looked like Jesus, and Jesus is what I called it. 

I never thought of myself as an idolater. I considered myself a mature Christian, not afraid to question and not afraid to doubt. I believed that God was big enough to contain and to answer my misgivings. So when my daughter was born, I didn’t think I’d make the usual Christian parenting mistakes. I couldn’t imagine that I’d be the overbearing, over-protective dad, shoving doctrine and worldview down the kid’s throat. I didn’t see myself hermetically sealing up my child’s world, lest that the slightest hint of a dissenting view would shipwreck an infant faith. That compulsion, I knew, came from fear, and fear comes from a lack of faith. God was bigger than that. I didn’t have to brainwash my child. I wasn’t afraid. 

But as my daughter passed from baby to toddler to almost unbelievably perceptive little girl, I discovered an apprehension within myself that I had not expected. And slowly but surely, in the shadows of my self-awareness, I began to make an entirely different error. My heresy was a far more ancient one, one I never expected myself to make, one I never realized I was making until it was already made. I built an idol, and taught my daughter to worship it.

I was not afraid of the secular world corrupting my daughter’s understanding. The faith I came to at the age of four had survived thirteen years in the public school system, an extended mental health crisis, and even six years at a Christian university. I did not share the common Evangelical terror of The World. I thought I was immune to the paranoia, but I was as apprehensive as the strictest homeschool advocate. 

What I feared more than the predations of secular culture were what I saw as the barriers to belief within the Bible itself. I wanted my daughter to fall in love with God, as I had done. But as I grew older, I found God as He is revealed in the Bible to be more and more problematic, in the current parlance. 

There was God the creator and sustainer of life, God the lover and redeemer of Israel, and God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. But there was also the God who tells a father to spill the blood of his son, the God of the commanded genocides, the God who sends the Angel of Death to slay the babies of Egypt. I wanted her to fall in love with a person who seemed to do so very many unlovely things. 

I had, more or less, reconciled myself to these things. I knew the arguments: the need for justice, the prefigurements of Christ, the slow and gradual way the kingdom comes. But the truth was that I had not been swayed by these arguments. I had fallen in love with the person of God, built my life upon His words, and found it a good and sure foundation. I believed that God was God, and it didn’t matter whether He was good or not. I could only hope that He was trustworthy, saying with Job, “Though He slay me, yet I will trust in Him”. But I was already convinced, and the evidence was a life of blessing. Surely a perceptive and empathetic four-year-old such as my daughter could not be drawn to such a relationship. And so I found myself sheltering my daughter less from secular culture, and more from God as He had revealed Himself in the Bible.

I began to construct the idol. I began to censor the Bible of the parts that I felt might scare or upset or repulse her, I focused instead on the very specific picture of God in Jesus that day by day I began to create for her. This Jesus was a kind and smiling man, unfailingly gentle and unfailingly kind. He was everywhere in our house, in pictures and poems and storybooks and songs. He seemed to me the best path into the faith. The rest of it, the curses and the bloodshed, the sacrifices and the snake, could come later.

The Jesus I had made was not inaccurate. No inquisitor could make a case for heresy from the image that I had produced. But it was just that: an image that I had produced. Not God revealing Himself to my daughter through His word, but a man creating something with his own hands, and then asking her to worship it.

But I make a poor antichrist, and God is faithful. The Word had already been unleashed, and my attempts to contain it were futile. The pages were open in all their awful glory. The stories had escaped my careful cages. I watched her day by day as she leafed through the brightly illustrated pages of her multiple children’s Bibles. Periodically, she would bring one to me, and ask me to read the words beneath the picture. She brought me Isaac bound, and Abraham with his knife. She brought me Pharaoh grieving for the death of his child. And again and again, she brought me Jesus, not smiling and surrounded by children, but Jesus broken and suffering. I read the stories dutifully, and waited for her to be repulsed, to return to Paw Patrol and The Little Mermaid. But she continued to bring me the stories that I had tried to protect her from. They spoke to her in a language I could not. What I had been trying to protect her from was God.

“Blessed are those who are not offended by me,” Jesus says. And I am trying not to be. My daughter is teaching me. I won’t pretend to know what it is about those ancient stories that speaks to her, except that they, as much as the kindly face of Jesus, are the very Word of God. I contain and suppress that Word at my own peril. It is, as Jeremiah says, a fire shut up in my bones, and that it will burn me to the ground for I am allowed to keep from a child who seeks it.

I still tell my daughter that we can see God in Jesus, and that Jesus is gentle and kind and loves her. But when she brings me those other stories from what is, in the first sense of that word, in awful book, I read them to her. They do violence to the careful image that I created for her, but it is holy violence. And so my daughter, like Gideon in his own dreadful story, has taken an axe to her father’s idols.

By Michael Bonikowsky

Photograph by Morgan Kelly