Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: Strange Gods

“It would be an interesting exercise, perhaps, to try to keep count of how
many times a day we say (or think) the word I or me – especially if we
put our numbers up against how many times we’d thought of God
or anyone else throughout the same day.”
Those early words of Elizabeth Scalia, in her book Strange Gods, sound like something I might have written here.  They gave me a clue that I might like this book which, quite honestly, I purchased only because of its unique cover.
Besides the early chapter on “The Idol of I,” Elizabeth has separate chapters on the idols of Ideas, Prosperity, Technology, Coolness and Sex, Plans, and what she calls super-idols --- our ideological passions.
In the chapter on The Idol of Prosperity, Ms Scalia brings in some thoughts from the Rule of Saint Benedict for the living of the monastic life.  In it Saint Benedict stresses the ideal of minimal ownership of things, but he points out that some monks have a greater need (not want) of material things than others.  “But, Benedict said, instead of this being a source of pride, it should be a source of humility, because it is better to need less.  Every worldly thing you need is something else that can come between you and God.”  Ms Scalia then goes on to put this in relational terms, noting that those who need more should be given more, and those who need less be given less, BUT: no one should judge either as better or worse for this.  “This can be a difficult way to view the world,” she notes, in our culture where “the have-nots are encouraged to resent all that excess and privilege, and yet they still desire it for themselves.  Saint Benedict tells us that people who have so much are to be pitied because excess is evidence of their need.”  I liked the way Ms Scalia used this monastic view of “stuff” to put the Idol of Prosperity in perspective.        
I thought her take on the idol of the internet also was spot on the money, and I enjoyed her word imagery in that chapter.  “The internet might well be the greatest tempter to ego gratification since the hissing serpent of Eden: --- you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (Gn 3:5).  Ms Scalia puts the question to us bluntly: “How can we be alive to God and to the workings of the Holy Spirit, if we are spending hour after hour alive to only ourselves, reveling in our ideas, opinions, and (our) words are reflected back at us, forever and ever, Amen!”  She likens the Internet to a house of mirrors, “a maze of me.”  I know of people who look at the internet in the ways she describes, focused on seeking self-affirmation there.  It is a great temptation.  Her words describing the temptations of the Internet flow smoothly into her next chapter on The Idols of Coolness and Sex.  
Our hungers to “be cool” are fed by the Internet.  Elizabeth explains how the feeling of coolness has to do with fitting in and being accepted.  This used to be a primary role of the family, but, she explains: “Modern parents have done something rather unprecedented: they’ve learned from their enlightened children and become like them.  Parents abdicating their roles in order to follow their children’s sensibilities had a predictably unsettling effect on society.  Suddenly everyone was cool, and no one wanted to be the old-fashioned, uptight grownup, except it seems, the Catholic Church.”  The Internet opened a door to unlimited coolness: “It’s like living in a perpetual state of Christmas anticipation.  We look forward to the day and as soon as it arrives, we rip open the gifts, break them quickly, declare ourselves bored, and look for the next cool thing to come” --- and you’ll find it somewhere on the Internet.
Elizabeth Scalia describes in each chapter how idols distract us from our proper focus on God.  They are users of our time.  In the chapter on The Super Idols, however, she describes idols which support the notion that we DO have a proper focus --- a focus on us --- and how we can act with the moral certainty of God.  “Dress up tribal identifications that accompany one’s participation in a party or a movement, determine that the opposition is not merely wrong but evil, and suddenly mere ideas become glittering certainties.”  “Our ideological passions keep us so enthralled that we begin to measure every headline, every news story, every sermon, every comment and tweet that comes our way by how it conforms to our worldview.”  We lose thoughts of our neighbors or our brothers, and instead “We can begin to think of the person as other.  We lose the willingness to bear with the imperfect, flawed, and sinful humanity of another.  We lose the willingness to ‘bear with one another,’ as St. Paul writes.”
I thought the quote from Annie Lamott printed here was most appropriate:  “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.”  How aptly this describes our political arena today, whose members have placed themselves as the moral authority for the country.
Ms Scalia subtitled her book “Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life.”  I found her turn of the word makes for an interesting read, and if you have not previously pondered the idols she unmasks, I’m sure it will give you much to think about, and perhaps lead you to make changes in your life.  But she leaves that up to you.  She clearly identifies the idols for you, but she offers few suggestions for how to turn from them.  Perhaps that will be her next book, but the omission in this one leaves askance those who read her words and suddenly see themselves naked in the mirror.  For adults, turning from satisfying idols may be a difficult task; for parents seeking to turn their children from those same idols, without further suggestions, well, it may seem a wall too high.
But I guess, as with any journey to a new place, you have to take the first step.  If you want help to honestly look at yourself and how the world may have seduced you (or your kids) from the right path, this book is a good first step.


  1. My friend,
    Have you ever read DIVINE INTIMACY by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.? I would enjoy reading your review.

  2. Well, Mary Ann, where have I been? No, I have not read Divine Intimacy by Fr. Gabriel, but after looking at the reviews on Amazon I ordered a copy. Relative to my thoughts on it ---- stay tuned.

    I do appreciate suggestion such as yours on good reading. I read much, but aside from suggested reading lists from people like Fr. John Riccardo, I basically just wander in making my selections, and in particular this causes me to miss out on some older authors, unless they are stocked at my local Catholic book store, and even there, if they are not prolific authors, like Sheed, Pieper, or (more recently) Guissani, I'll probably miss them.

    1. My friend,
      Divine Intimacy, as you will soon discover, is not a "pick up and can't put it down" book. It is, however, a "re-read everyday of the week and twice on Sunday" book. I cherish my copy which was purchased over 20 years ago when I became a Discalced Secular Carmelite.
      DO NOT BE ANXIOUS... what a wonderful blog title... keep writing!
      Mary Ann