I don’t worship false gods, at least not on purpose.
Let me explain. I never say I was raised Catholic. My mom’s side of the family is Catholic, which is the reason I am a Catholic (although not the reason I remain one). We didn’t go to church for most of my childhood. Because of that, most of what I know about Catholicism is what I learned on my own. I taught myself the basic “Bless Us, O Lord” table grace; all my Catholic friends in college knew it already. I started attending Mass weekly of my own volition. Even now, it can take a minute for me to remember the Commandments. I know them all, though, which is part of what intrigued me about Elizabeth Scalia’s first full-length book, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life. We hear about people “making sex and money into idols” by placing them before God, but do we ever really think about what that means? I hadn’t at all until I started reading this book. I am so glad I did.
Scalia blogs as The Anchoress at Patheos.com in addition to managing the entire Catholic Channel. She notes that, although people rarely think of themselves as worshipping a god other than God, we are all prone to placing things between ourselves and God. The golden calf fashioned by the Israelites in the desert reflected back the affirmations the people projected onto its shiny surface as they gazed. When we fix our eyes on something that is not God and slowly stop seeing God at all, we have created an idol. The temptation is so real and dangerous that it is not only a commandment, it’s the first one. It comes before the Sabbath and not killing! An idol begins as an idea. Left unchecked, it can expand into an ideology, so firmly held that we are quick to quash any “nonbelievers.” Simple ideas and broad ideologies alike are opposed to God. Scalia spends her book describing common idols—prosperity, technology, and, yes, sex—and how we can hold them so closely that we can’t reach out to hold God anymore.
The most frightening thing about Scalia’s idols is that I could identify with so many of them. She tells stories from her own life, but I saw myself in those pages. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether God didn’t give us enough commandments; those are the moments when I fail to place God before myself. (He knew what he was doing.) When God seems to love all the things and people we love and hate all we hate, we’ve created our own version of God. When we are upset with God for spoiling our plans, we are worshipping our plans, not our God. When we want others to think we’re cool no matter what the cost, we’ve forgotten whose opinion of us is the only one that really matters. Scalia helps us realize that idolatry is alive and well even in the 21st century.
I confess that I’m not a follower of The Anchoress, but I found Scalia’s style to be very balanced. The writing didn’t seem too heavy, but it wasn’t overly simplistic in an attempt to be “down to Earth.” If you’ve already got a good theological background, you’ll find that this builds on in it a refreshingly practical way. If you’re still learning, you’ll find a good path to connecting a concept so basic as the Commandments with deeper reflection.
Ultimately, Strange Gods will challenge you. What are your idols? What are you worshipping instead of God? How can you let go of what is comfortable and popular and run into the arms of the one who is perfection and love? Give up on the strange gods and love the familiar, the ultimate, the almighty.
Many thanks to Ave Maria Press for providing a free copy of Strange Gods for me to review. I received no other compensation in exchange for my review.
Up next: Confessions of a Mega-Church Pastor, by Allen Hunt