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Posted on Jul 20, 2013 | 2 comments

Review: Strange Gods

Review: Strange Gods

Idol worship isn't a thing of the past, Elizabeth Scalia says in her book Strange Gods.

Idol worship isn’t a thing of the past, Elizabeth Scalia says in her book Strange Gods. Photo by Mira Pavlakovic, courtesy stock.xchng.


strange gods cover

The book’s cover depicts internet symbols in a stained glass window, as the lure of the internet and other digital devices can become an idol we sacrifice our time, families, and jobs to.

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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  1. Another “strange god” is energy healing.

    This has been written about by Moira Noonan, a former Reiki Master. Her memoir, “Ransomed from Darkness” stated that “Reiki is a method of healing through the transmission and activation of a person’s spiritual energy.” As Noonan describes, “This therapy looks somewhat like the Christian laying-on of hands, but this is deceptive. The symbolism of Reiki is deeply influenced by Buddhist traditions and invisible spirit guides. These spirit guides are specifically invoked by name to confer their healing powers.” Energy Healing techniques are normally obtainable through weekend workshops, at a cost. Becoming a Reiki master can be expensive: Workshop fees range from $175 to $500. (Asking to buy the power of healing is what got Simon Magus (Simony) corrected in Acts 8:18-24.)

    Susan Brinkman, EWTN’s Award winning Catholic journalist and Women of Grace staff writer, stated “Everyone wants to be healed as anyone who has ever attended a healing Mass can attest to the crowds that flock to the altar of the Lord to receive His healing touch. Unfortunately, there are plenty of imitations available in the so-called “New Age” movement. One of the most popular is Reiki, with a variety of close cousins such as “healing touch,” “therapeutic touch” and “hands of light.” Susan warned that those alternative therapies are among practices that Catholics are cautioned about in a Vatican document, “Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life — A Christian reflection on the ‘New Age,’” issued in 2003 by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In the Vatican’s warning, the councils note that in such New Age therapies, “the source of healing is said to be within ourselves, something we reach when we are in touch with our inner energy or cosmic energy.”

    Others in the Church such as former New Age practitioner, Clare McGrath Merkle, now spend their life to warning people about the dangers of the New Age. Susan Brinkman had noted that “Merkle says one popular, so-called energy healing technique is being promoted by a company called Healing Touch International (HTI). HTI was founded in 1993 by two nurses who wanted to bring the influence of New Age “energy channeling” techniques to hospitals, schools and parishes. Merkle writes in the article, “Is Healing Touch at your parish?” (Note: available on the web) that “The HTI web site describes the techniques as ‘energy based healing therapies from a Judeo-Christian perspective.’ They (say they) teach ways to ‘integrate Healing Touch into church/parish healing ministry.’” But, Merkle says, beneath its Christian veneer, the principles underlying “Healing Touch” are not compatible with Catholicism. Merkle pointed out that “If you go to their Web site and look at their recommended resources and books, it’s a mile long of occult texts.,” That is not how it appears to the public however: “They work in teams at hospitals, and come around to your bed and ask, ‘Would you like us to pray over you?’ Of course people who are sick are going to say yes. Then they start doing their ‘energy’ work.”

    What is this “strange god” of energy healing? Merkle says that New Age “energy techniques” and “healing modalities,” as they are called, are forms of this magic. The fact that these practices borrow from other religions is not the problem, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in the 1989 document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” Speaking about various forms of Eastern meditation, he assures us that we can adopt what is good from other religions, “as long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured.” The problem with Reiki and healing touch (HTI) is that it is based on beliefs peculiar to various forms of Hinduism and Buddhism which “posit the existence of a life energy (ki or kundalini) and interpret that energy as spiritual,” which is not a Christian belief. Christians believe that man is a union of body and soul, and that the soul is an essential form of the body — not an energy force.

    “From a spiritual perspective, we believe the soul is the life-principle of the body, not something else,” wrote the editors at Catholic Answers. “Consequently, there is no spiritual ‘life energy’ animating the body. Any energy used as part of the body’s operations — such as the electricity in our nervous system — is material in nature, not spiritual. . . . Since this (belief) is contrary to Christian theology, it is inappropriate for Christians to participate in activities based on this belief.”

    The USCCB had reached the same conclusion on energy healing as it issued guidance that finds energy healing, such as Reiki is ” unscientific and inappropriate for Catholic institutions.” (See the USCCB’s “Guidelines for Evaluating Reiki as an Alternative Therapy.”)

    What other risks are there with this “strange god” of energy healing? First, Church exorcists such as Fr. Gary Thomas (of “the Rite”) and Father Jose Antonio Fortea of “Interview with an Exorcist” warn that these New Age practices can serve as a doorway to the demonic. Second, Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, an internationally known biblical scholar and popular EWTN television and radio host, asked about practitioners of energy healing that are being practiced, in some cases, on a church’s property. “Are these people practicing medicine without a license?” he queries. “And if so, who is going to be liable if there’s a malpractice suit?”

    Father Pacwa says that it is troubling is the fact that energy healing practitioners disguise their “services” as a form of the Christian laying-on of hands. However, according to Father Pacwa, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the laying on of hands as a “sign” (CCC, No. 699) not a means of channeling “energy.” “Reiki is an attempt to make a ‘technique’ out of praying for the sick,” Father Pacwa said. “Praying for the sick has to be understood as an aspect of God’s grace operative in our lives. It’s not a ‘technique.’ That’s where it becomes ‘magical,’ and Christianity is not about using magic.”

    [This “Practicing Catholic is grateful for permission of The Catholic Standard and Times, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to reproduce parts of Susan Brinkman’s article on energy healing]

    • Reiki is completely made up. It means “faith healing” in Japanese and what we now call reiki was invented by a Japanese man a couple of decades ago. There is no one reiki method or technique — anyone can call himself or herself a reiki master and teach whatever he or she wants to teach. Same with “healing touch.” A complete invention.