EDITOR’S NOTE: CV is happy to include a new entry in our “Five Questions” series. This interview features author and well-known Catholic blogger Elizabeth Scalia, who spoke with CV’s Stephen Kokx about her new book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life (Ave Maria Press). We hope you find this a helpful addition to our ongoing conversation about how to best live out our Catholic faith in the modern world.
On Wednesday, June 12th, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins faced off in game 1 of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Finals.
Predictably, Blackhawks and Bruins fans have been glued to their television sets ever since. Both want to their team to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup – the trophy awarded to the NHL’s champion.
I’m not much of a hockey guy, but it’s safe to assume most Americans have a favorite sports team of some kind. When our team wins the championship, we typically throw them a parade. Some of us might even call in sick to work so we can attend the celebration in hopes of catching a glimpse of the championship trophy.
Unfortunately, too many Americans are elevating the Cup of Lord Stanley above the Cup of Jesus Christ. In the past five years alone, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has risen from 15% of the adult population to 20%. And according to a recent Gallup poll, “over three-quarters of Americans (77%) say religion is losing its influence on American life.”
One of the reasons this is happening is because we are supplanting God with man-made idols. Idols like sports.
Sports, however, aren’t the only idols we’ve turned to. According to Patheos.com blogger Elizabeth Scalia, we’ve fashioned ourselves dozens of idols. Idols such as material prosperity, technology, being cool, tolerance, sex and politics, among countless others.
In her latest book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, Scalia, known in the blogosphere as “The Anchoress,” argues that we succumb to idol worship when “we attach ourselves to” things that cause God’s presence to be “blocked, unseen, and disconnected from our awareness.”
In today’s enlightened world, Scalia believes most people don’t “stop to think of what it means to have put something before God.” Therefore, she decided to write a book that seeks to “help you discover your idols by revealing” some of her own, which she undeniably accomplishes in less than 200 pages.
In some ways, Scalia’s eminently readable book reminds me of Thomas à Kempis’s timeless The Imitation of Christ. It might not be as profound, but the message of Strange Gods is essentially the same: Beware of the temptation the world has to offer. Guard against that which seeks to establish itself between you and God.
In my estimation, Strange Gods is required reading for any serious Catholic. Make it a priority to pick it up ASAP.
You begin the book by revisiting the 2008 presidential election. You write about how millions of Americans deified not only Barack Obama but Sarah Palin as well. How did this observation lead you to write an entire book on idolatry? Also, is it really idolatrous to have strong political views?
It’s actually a question I first asked during the presidency of George W. Bush, when I wondered whether ideologies could become idols. The more I observed, and the more I pondered a line from Gregory of Nyssa (“ideas create idols but only wonder leads to knowing”) it seemed the answer was “yes.” The theme of idols, ideas and ideals kept cropping up in my writing, for First Things and elsewhere, and finally one night, while struggling to get to sleep, the whole book popped into my head, fully realized. I’ve learned the hard way not to ignore the Holy Spirit when things like that happen, so I got up, wrote the outline and submitted it — an exercise so seemingly-organic that I really feel like it has almost nothing to do with me.
Of course it is not idolatrous to have strong political views; the Holy Father just spoke the other day about the need for political engagement among the faithful. But there is a difference between being engaged – which involves discourse and a measure of openness to dialogue, because you cannot reach hearts and minds if you’re not speaking to anyone who thinks differently than you do – and being enthralled. Enthrallment is where we can easily lose track of God and slip into idolatry by putting the person or idea that so-perfectly represents us in between God and ourselves.
I can give you an example: In the book I talk about how Barack Obama enjoyed an almost messianic narrative – he understood that he was an idol, and exploited it. On the right, Sarah Palin enjoyed a similar, if less obvious, exaltation, particularly after the press began to savage her. People who identified with her really went over the top with it, until – as with Obama – even the mildest of constructive criticisms of Palin were deemed hateful and un-American. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some in my comboxes seemed to think her as Mother America. I said that recently and someone in social media wasn’t having any of it. Calling me “corrosive”, he tried to gather other Palin fans and make war on her behalf. It seemed to me he was proving my point. When I checked his bio I read “I live for this country and the founder’s vision” and I thought, “really? Not for God? Or your family?”
That’s enthrallment that slips into idolatry; it can’t see anything but the idol. We love our country; we fight for our country and sometimes die for it. But we don’t live for our country, because – as history shows us – countries and governments are temporal and changeable, not pieces of the Eternal.
You do a great job of identifying the idols we worship in our everyday lives. However, you differentiate between everyday idols and “super idols.” Briefly explain the difference between the two.
Well, everyday idolatry is what I described above: enthrallment; the placing of an idea or a person before God, and I don’t mean only that the idol is “first” in your thinking – although it is – but that we literally, in our minds, place something before God, as in, “between” God and us, so that we cannot see God clearly. If you can get an image in your mind of, say, a fireplace mantel with a mirror behind it, and God sitting upon it, we shove all of our idols in front of God. An everyday idol might be anything, but it’s always about ourselves and what we demand. It might be our iPhone; it might be our devotion to the zeitgeist and the need to be in on whatever is trending. It might be an enthrallment with liturgical rubrics that keeps us so busy criticizing how a Mass is said that we do not actually participate in the sacrifice, at all.
A Super-Idol is different in that it moves beyond the everyday idols, beyond God himself. Picture that mantel again but imagine us going past God and through the mirror; now our backs are to him and we’re guiding ourselves – running by our own lights, so to speak – so enthralled with ourselves and our ideas that we don’t even realize how incompatible they’ve become with what we think we believe. The Super-Idols not only keep us from seeing God, they distort humanity as well, until some humans seem less human than others, and some hatred begins to feel like love. An example of that might be a Catholic or Christian who claims God as great, but not so great that his creation, or his will, needs to be honored if it means getting in the way of a goal. Such a person might be a politician who is extreme on abortion rights or a businessman who engages in illegal chemical dumping — or you, or me, and our single-minded obsessions.
Over the past 50 years, the number of attacks on the traditional family unit has increased. In Strange Gods, you spend a lot of time writing about family, especially your own. Specifically, you write about how our relationship with our family effects which idols we end up worshipping later on in life. Talk about how our families shape us, how your family shaped you, and what you think the future will bring given the continued assaults on the traditional family unit.
Oh, boy, that’s like five questions all-in-one! In her book, How the West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt writes, “The Christian story itself is a story told through the prism of the family. Take away the prism, and the story makes less sense.”
That’s a great insight and it helps explain, why – in order for a secularist culture to thrive — the family must be distracted, distorted, diminished and denied as much as possible. She lays out how family members model God for each other in their examples of familial love and sacrifice. The last thing our culture is about is sacrifice, or perhaps we have a very strange notion of it. I recently read an article by a woman who is very serious about her religion – she is, in fact, a scholar in her faith tradition – who nevertheless had an abortion, with the support of her husband, when a surprise pregnancy threatened to extend her degree process. So, in essence, she made a sacrifice in her life, but it was the sacrifice of the child to the accomplishment. She had a million intellectual justifications for her decision, too, but she couldn’t answer one simple question: if God is All, (and you are not), then how can you decide that he does not know what is best for you?
That upside-down sacrifice is how the family ceases to model God for us, and models something very different.
Not all families are healthy. In my book I quote a Rabbi who says, essentially, that the commandment to honor our parents is a way of honoring God (and one’s own life) since God did have some purpose in choosing that man and that woman to create you. I could write a whole book on that mystery, so I’ll put a stop to it here and go back to Eberstad, who notes that if a family cannot model God for us, then we have a difficult time understanding the Holy Family, and the way in which they permitted God to work for and through them – that whole concept of moving forward on faith is lost. If the Fatherhood of God is underemphasized for reasons of “correctness” or “sensitivity” where do people with bad, harmful fathers turn for that consolation? Must they simply be bereft?
I am not sure I can presume to speak for the future of the traditional family – I’m no prophet – but the family is currently being shoved to the side, and it’s being replaced with an amorphous idea – that family can be anything we say it is. Remember, ideas create idols; as this new idea advances, things will only grow more confused and chaotic as the definition of what a family is, how it lives and what behaviors it may engage in becomes more elastic. Chaos does not reside in God, but in his nemesis.
Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson recently wrote a book entitled Eleven Rings. While discussing the book and his religious beliefs with Time magazine, Jackson remarked that we should strive to live “in harmony with the moment.” In chapter six of Strange Gods, “The Idols of Coolness and Sex,” you seem to condemn this outlook. Why is living in the moment such a bad thing and how do we convince those who prefer to live “in harmony with the moment” to live “in harmony with God”?
Thanks for the link, so I could hear him in context. Obviously I do not “condemn” being “in harmony with the moment” in the context of the Holy Spirit, which (I think?) was what Jackson was talking about in his syncretismic way; I described to you in the very first question my response to a “moment” when I obeyed what I took to be the nudge of the Holy Spirit.
In chapter six, I’m talking about becoming a hostage to the zeitgeist and making an idol out of being right in the middle of whatever “the latest thing” is – what Flip Wilson used to call “The Church of What’s Happening Now!” which keeps us living in a kind of adolescent suspension – always looking for the next trend, so we can jump on and ride and never, ever be thought out of touch or unhip. How do we connect with Eternal God when our habit of attention and the driving dynamic of our lives is that everything is fluid, of-a-moment — temporary and easily discarded (and disdained) once the moment has passed? Increasingly I think this is a particularly nefarious sort of idol, because it is one that we also train our children to bow down to from a very young age: our kids must have the latest everything, see the hottest hit movie, have a party in the trendiest place. We barely catechize our kids – most of us bring them to a 50 minute CCD class and barely broach the subject the rest of the week – but we every day educate them in the Church of What’s Cool and its great Commandment: I Deserve It And Must Have It Because Everyone Does!
As a blogger who covers politics and spends the majority of your day on the internet in front of a computer, how do you balance the idol of technology and what advice do you have for others who do work similar to your own, especially those working within the Church?
Yes, that’s the question everyone asks and it’s a fair one. In the final chapter of my book, I come clean about the dreadful idolatry in my own life, and part of that has been work, the need to know everything the moment it happens – and yes, these are idols that have definitely been placed between me and God and made outreach and connection difficult. Identifying the truth of it was certainly helpful, and noting the irony more than a little humbling. I can only say that making sure you have included prayer into your day – several times a day – is the great balancer of all of this.
It’s so easy to get caught up in online work. You feel like you’ve been at the computer for an hour, but you look up and it’s been three or four hours, and you’ve gotten all involved in some headline and in email and social media and it all feels so real – as U2 says “even better than the real thing” of life (mostly because so many people are agreeing with you). But if you plan prayer into the day it pulls you back from the illusions and brings you into what is authentic. I have prompts on my phone that ring at specific times to call me to prayer; sometimes it’s the Angelus, sometimes an Office from the Liturgy of the Hours. I use these prompts the way a monastic uses the bells — as the voice of God that must be obeyed – and whether the break involves a minute, or ten minutes, it “puts me in my place” so to speak and also restores my mental equilibrium. Returning from prayer, suddenly an article that had me all worked up is more easily seen as silliness and the tab can be closed. Suddenly the email that looks overwhelming is something to be grateful for, because life is better with people communicating with one than not.
I don’t see how anyone can work in new media — with its infinite reach, its hero-worship and its rancid hate and its time-wasting, yet irresistible kitty pictures – and survive for very long, without prayer.