Review by Jonathan Kanary
The Mosaic law denounces worship of other gods. The prophets castigate idolatry, and psalmists worship the true God by exposing the empty promises of false ones. Yet violation of the Decalogue’s command has never lost its popularity — not least among God’s people. We may not think of ourselves as idolaters. But lack of awareness is no adequate assurance that other deities haven’t set up shop in our lives.
Elizabeth Scalia (known to the internet as “The Anchoress”) started looking for these everyday idols surrounding her, and she found plenty. In Strange Gods, she offers a sort of prolonged meditation from one idol addict (the author) to another (the reader). The goal is to provide real-life assistance in identifying, understanding, and resisting the innumerable “strange gods” all of us sacrifice to within the high places of our own hearts.
One of Scalia’s key premises is that “ideas lead to idols,” a concept she attributes to St. Gregory of Nyssa. Another is that idols are mostly, at some level, about self-worship. “We humans create gods so reflective and shiny that they keep us looking at ourselves,” or what we want to believe about ourselves and our reality. Although she elaborates on several particular idols, and mentions many more, almost all trace back to this same source. “I” is the first idol.
As someone who has made her name as a blogger, Scalia is particularly effective addressing the idolatry of technology, especially the internet. With wit and verve, she exposes and deflates the illusions we embrace through the web. Yes, technology has its uses; she notes the tremendous opportunity it has offered for the Church. But as St. Augustine said, we humans have profoundly restless hearts, and “the Internet exploits that restlessness like nothing else yet invented.” It easily aids self-obsession. And so many of its sweet serpentine whisperings about the person I can be (electronically) are lies. Perhaps Scalia sees this all the more clearly because, as she admits, she is powerfully drawn and often (self-)deceived by this “strange god.”
Another particular target is ideology. Just as ideas become idols, she says, “ideologies lead to super idols.” Not that commitments are bad! But where “engagement” gives grace, “enthrallment” makes blind. My own understanding, perspective, beliefs, and commitments take on divine authority, and my hatred or derision toward the obstinately unenlightened gains the comfortable assurance of divine approval. She quotes Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
It is no answer, Scalia says, to fall back on a smirking cynicism, further entrenching self-idolatry and buttressing it with deep spite for all those nasty ideologues. Nor is there a solution in relativism, which drains significant words like love of any real content, or in militant secularism, which redefines them. We are commanded not to allow any strange idol to stand between us and God; we also must not try to go beyond him. There is no escape from idolatry if we accept the terms of the super idols, whatever battle standard we want to raise. All sides in such battles far too easily make themselves devotees of “the cult of the social virtues,” and purchase belonging and a false sense of “love” at the expense of the love that is true.
What, then, is the answer? Although Scalia acknowledges many ways that our acts of worship can themselves become idols, she suggests that the liturgy, prayed faithfully, can take our attention away from our idolatrous self-love and back toward God. She quotes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “The blessing of the liturgy is that it wipes out self.” In her final chapter she describes the experience of a weekday Mass: her own wandering and wicked thoughts, but also the faithfulness and goodness of God that shines through, the love that keeps calling to her. The answer to idolatry is a God who speaks, who sheds his blood to win us, and who insists on our whole love — not because he needs it, but because we do.
Strange Gods is Scalia’s first book, and in some ways it shows. There is some slight disorganization, an occasional tendency to wander and lose the thread of thought. Perhaps this naturally results from the media shift from blog to book. But on the whole it is enjoyable and worthwhile: not so much an idol identification toolkit, or a resistance manual, as one woman’s reflections on how she sees idolatry at work in her own life and the lives of those around her.
Scalia admits that writing this book temporarily became an all-consuming idol for her; so easily do we place anything and everything between ourselves and God. It is a striking confession. And that is what this book chiefly offers the reader: an opportunity to be struck, as we journey alongside the author, by our own all-too-frequent slide into idolatry; to see our own idols in the stories she tells, and to be called back from these “strange gods” to the only true God of love and deliverance, the God of the Exodus and the Cross.
The Rev. Jonathan Kanary is curate at Saint Columba Church (www.saintc.net) in Fresno, California.
Photo: Detail of St. Gregorius Nyssenus, by Bartolozzi