Reflections from Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life

It isn’t often an introduction keeps you thinking. Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, written by Elizabeth Scalia, is a wake-up call to our way of life. She wastes no time. The introduction sets the stage and opens up the reader’s understanding that those passions and pursuits of our life, on dangerous ground, dancing a dangerous line which can tip the scale into idolatry.

She sets the stage then spends the book helping us to unmask those idols.

First, ease us into understanding:

“Idols are not like opinions or even convictions. They don’t ask for consensus or even strong advocacy—they demand worshippers.”

“If God created humankind in his image, we humans tend to create gods in our own image—or perhaps more correctly, we humans create gods so reflective and shiny, they keep us looking at ourselves.”

I have read about this before. The sin of Adam and Eve was not that they ate an apple, but rather that, having heard the commandment of God, they decided for themselves what would be good. This is how they would be like gods. Scalia rightly points out that when the modern Christian-mind thinks of idolatry, we think of golden calves and silly looking orgies from Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments. It is a concept so far removed that it becomes easy to gloss over the commandment. Of course we would not worship another god. That commandment must reference some other culture where that might be more likely to happen.

Recognizing where we’re at, Scalia leads us another step in understanding:

“We stop and think of what it means to have something “before God”? It means to put something “first,” yes, but more fundamentally, it means to put something “in front” of God, as one might put a screen in front of a fireplace and therefore place it “before” the fire…it stands before God and us; it separates us from him.”

What is an idol in every day life?

St. Gregory of Nyssa said “ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” “I’ve come to believe that an idol is an idea, fleshed out or formed by craftiness and a certain needy self-centeredness.”

An idol is an idea, fleshed out. It takes on a life of its own. Her definition will help us identify them in our own lives. They will be creative, deep, well-formed and multi-faceted. They will reflect a need we have, a need projected outward but points inward to ourselves.

A pretty weighty introduction indeed.

To carry her introduction, Scalia related the story of an incident she witnessed in an online forum where Scalia saw unfold a love of security that seemed somewhat deeper and close-minded than it ought to be. She looked deeper into the words of those on the forum. Could this be a form of idolatry?

“Rather, I decided, it was the anxiety beneath it—lying coiled like a snake under the mist—that the America they had known might be over. It was in service to this strange god of anxiety—which hissed of threats to everything familiar, sure, and safe, and played to naturally protective instincts—that our rural friend was chased away.”

A god of anxiety? My reflection becomes personal.

Coming from one direction to my thoughts: I have struggled with anxiety. The struggle continues. It is an ongoing effort to maintain a calm so I will not get too near the edge.

Coming from another direction: I am alarmed by the atrocities committed by ISIS. I’ve written on that only once, in “The Christian Mission“, but it stays in my thoughts and prayers. My husband and I watched the The Pianist. The parallels of what I imagine the innocent suffering at the hand of ISIS and what the Nazi’s did in Poland and other counties were undeniable. ISIS is moving and their goal is to destroy Christendom. They have stated goals to attack the US, the President, destroy Rome and Pope Francis. Is the world as I know it being destroyed? Do my children face a radically different future in the US, in the Catholic Church, without the security I have known all my life?

The feelings Scalia describes following 9/11 reflect my current fears. Fifteen years ago, I was a teenager when the towers were struck. I mourned the loss of countrymen, but living in California, was so distant that my world was not shaken, only my heart. I am older now and better see the bigger picture, and with that comes questions.

Coming from, yet another direction: the four-year old son of a family we hold dear to our hearts died last week. His funeral was yesterday. As I reflect on the pain of my friend, I think to myself how we never have the hold on our children we imagine we have. She may have understood it better than I, as he was born with a heart condition. Perhaps she daily made the prayer to God offering her son to his protection and love. I am the one under an illusion that these children are mine. In trust, they can be snatched away in an instant. I had to learn this when I miscarried, but in the economic, environmental and philosophy stability I wonder if I have grown complacent.

I am pondering all these things. Scalia’s words act as a scale by which I can weigh them. Do I put my fears before God? Have I offered them to God, essentially putting them behind him so I see only him? Can I come to place of trust, a willingness to endure the storm should the storm arise, from whatever direction? Or do I make a god of my fear, willing to sacrifice to its appetite, willing to organize my life around its worship?

I will trust. As Lent evolves, my health improves and I can think productively again. I have begun praying through the meditations and art provided in Mark Haydu‘s beautiful work, Meditations on Vatican Art. Day 1’s meditation on St. Helena, dressed in fine robes, pondering a vision of the Cross, reminds me that holiness is possible in stability, I can trust God even though we do not suffer as we did when we were un- or under-employed. What are my treasures?

Thirty minutes into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the man says he lost everything. He has a son with him. It does not seem to me that he lost everything if his son is still with him.

Let me always remember where my treasure is. Let me find my security in God.

And all this from only the introduction.

The Christian Mission

Since this devastating persecution of Christians and other non-radical-Islamic-terrorist/thinking persons began in the summer I’ve been posting a number is articles from Elizabeth Scalia, The Anchoress at Patheos.com. I’ve never gotten a comment on these articles. Perhaps it is because the topic is too gruesome or upsetting, perhaps it is because clicking a “like” button just isn’t the right thing to do, perhaps because people don’t want to think about it, like contemplating death.

St. Francis

I just don’t know the reason. More recently, I posted this:

“Is anyone hearing about the slaughter/exile of our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria from the pulpit? I feel like I’ve only heard about it twice and today the message was we should be more concerned with what’s happening here at home, which while that is important, with everyone plugged into their own personalized digital world, it seems like a little global awareness of our fellow man could be a good thing for us.”

Only one person responded. She wrote “I heard about it once.”

Next she posted this on my page as food for thought and I thought it was very good. To summarize: the internet floods us with news from the minute to the magnitude, from what happens in my no-stop-light hometown to New York to Nigeria to the Kardash ians. We can become so passionate of what’s happening over there that we fail to feel for what is happening here. Live locally he says. Do not be telescope Christians, as Peter Kreft says, with only our sights and sighs set on what happens far from neighbor. Here is my response:

I agree with what he says. I really do. I think we can live too much of our lives on the internet. However (if I could italicize that word I would) I think no matter where we hear about ISIS, internet/newspaper/pulpit, the awful thing is that as Christians are we suffering for our brothers and sisters? Do we hurt knowing the reality that they are dying in the name of Christ? Being exiled or sold as slaves? We should hurt for our fellow man, our local fellow man, we can’t bleed for every cause, but God help us, can we tear away from the leisure and entertainment to care that a massive persecution is taking place? Those places are relevant to us. The Church, the place of the ancient Church is relevant to us. We are one Body and all that jazz. Christ is being crucified, and nobody is talking about it (or so it seems). This is not the same thing as Cardinal Dolan or Fulton Sheen’s cause or celebrity gossip. It’s not even the same as Israel and Gaza. They are Christians! They are our people, our heritage. I heard more about the movie on the Mexican persecution than this one. Are they not just as much our people as the people who lived during through the Cristeros war are our people or the people of those whose families or are themselves from Mexico? We share the same Blood in Holy Communion. They are our people! And so my brother and my sister are being killed because they are in my family. Yes, there are people dying here, people on drugs, people committing suicide, and I care, I really really do, but this strange silence about ISIS…”

The author here makes some great point on a similar path as mine. She says “We must stand witness to these our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering and dying for Him. We must. It is our charge, our call and duty. It is our vocation before God. We must write about them and develop a literature for them as the Jews did for those who died in the Holocaust. Because this is another holocaust. It is the holocaust of Christians in an entire region of the world.”

So why the silence? What if it is because the question that arises is, what can I do about it? And quickly the devil answers, nothing!

Today I read this, Ephesians 3:13-21: Brethren: I pray you not to faint at my tribulations for you, which are for your glory.

If we are remotely alert to what is happening in Iraq and Syria, we should not be overcome. We should not held in fear for the fate of non-Muslims or Sunni Muslims or moderate thinking Muslims here in the US. We should not lose sleep. Our thoughts should not be consumed.

For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened by His Spirit with might unto the inward man.

We must pray for them. In all we do, we must pray for those suffering. Yes, those for suffering locally and those suffering in far off lands. We are called to pray for the innocent. Pray for strength, pray for endurance, pray for an end to this terrible, horrific thing.

That Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts; that being rooted and founded in charity, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length, and height, and depth. To know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge; that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God.

In this old translation, these words sound so lofty. The Christians he writes to are shocked at his suffering, they are overcome and he tells them not to. He says to use the scandal of his sufferings to deepen their prayer, their faith, to find strength in what he endures. When we hear about someone enduring, somehow, it gives us to the strength to endure more. When we hear about them starving, we can be thankful for this meal we have. When I am home with my children I experience an acute awareness of their existence. They are always on my mind because I must be mindful of them for their well being. I can carry an awareness of my brothers and sisters in the Middle East in this way, praying for them, allowing it to deepen my gratitude and my charity towards my neighbor. Each man on the stret is Christ to us. If I want to help those suffering there, I can help those suffering here and offer that sacrifice as a prayer for the safety and survival of those persecuted.

Now to Him who is able to do all things more abundantly than we desire or understand, according to the power that worketh in us: to Him be glory in the Church, and in Christ Jesus, unto all generations, world without end. Amen.

And it will not be in vain…

Le_Grand_Saint_Michel

Why not preach about that?