Review: Strange Gods
By Gail Deibler Finke
Idolatry isn’t a thing of the past, Elizabeth Scalia says in her new book, Strange Gods. It’s part of everyday life. We make idols when we love our idea of a thing more than truth. Because our ideas are inevitably bound up with ourselves, our idols become gods — ourselves reflected back to us in with enthralling glamour, brooking no criticism or questions.
“We dismiss the golden calf story at our peril,” Scalia says, because worshiping an idol means more than bowing down before a statue. It means preferring our ideas about things to reality. And because God is Truth, it means preferring them to God.
This is especially difficult when our idols have to do with religion: a particular devotion, style of worship, or other piece of religious life that we seize on and mistake for faith. Whether our religious idols are putting Latin Mass before worship or putting social justice before love of God and neighbor, it’s a particular temptation to Catholics, who have a rich liturgical and teaching heritage to draw on, to substitute a sign of God for God Himself.
It’s also a source of infighting. As Scalia says, the irony here is clear:
In our day-to-day lives we e habitually keen to subjugate Almighty God and the significance of his commandments to suit our own excuses, rationalizations, times, and purposes; but we do not like our self-created gods to change.
Scalia lists seven common idols in her book, bowed down to mostly by individuals, followed by what she calls “super idols” — ideologies that demand a group obeisance she calls “tribalism.” That tribalism can be political, social, and religious.
Scalia, as regular readers of her blog The Anchoress know, describes herself as “not a joiner.” Her personal disinclination to join groups, which I share, is based partly on the fear of being wrong and thus acting wrongly toward others, and partly on the fear of being wrong and looking foolish. Sometimes, such a temperament can get in the way of supporting and/or joining something important. But when well regulated, such a temperament has an advantage when looking at groups from the outside, because it lets the author point out dangers people who are natural “joiners” can be blind to.
When a group is driven by ideology it exerts powerful forces on its members that keep them from questioning or leaving the group, and projects animosity toward outsiders who dare to question it. This is the opposite of what a healthy group should be and the opposite of what the Church must be.
In the Church, Scalia says, the self is subsumed — not in a distorted, bewitching illusion of a greater and more powerful self, but in union with Christ and all believers.
The ideas in Strange Gods are simple, but the way they play out in life is subtle. Scalia’s thoughtful, leisurely (but not labored) style is well suited to this careful unfolding of the implications of her thesis for our lives. Her judicious use of personal anecdotes humanize her points without falling into self-exposé (victimhood as idol?) or finger-pointing (blaming others as idol?), that are all too common in our culture, where everything is someone else’s fault.
This book is about what is your fault — and my fault — and everyone’s fault. But the book’s greatest strength is its hopefulness. There is an alternative to idolatry, Scalia says, and it’s worship. The alternative to strange gods is the real God.
“In our age the self is everything to be celebrated and never to be diminished,” she says. But our age is just our age, and like all ages it will pass. It’s difficult for us to escape the habits of our time, but not impossible, and in any case God knows we are broken and accepts us in our brokenness. The Church He established for us — the real Church, not one part of it seized and magnified, and not some other part of Creation write large — is what destroys the idols we make for ourselves.
“The Church subsumes;” she writes. “Liturgy subsumes; community subsumes; and when we are subsumed, all of the idols disappear; we become not lone worker bees but the very buzz of the hive.”
Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life by Elizabeth Scalia is published by Ave Maria Press.
Gail Deibler Finke is Senior Editor of The Catholic Beat. An author and freelance writer, her claim to Catholic fame is that she nominated Scott Hahn to their high school Hall of Fame.
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