I’m no expert on Elizabeth Scalia, except that every time I take the time to read her or listen to her, I’m struck to the core.
I’m not a newsie, so I often find myself not reading her blog. Even so, I’ll catch her commentaries on things that not only hit the nail on the head but pull my heart from my chest in a recognition that I can only call frightening.
Truth, though a pursuit, isn’t necessarily comfortable. Truth, though a goal, isn’t necessarily easy. Truth, though a fine thing to talk about, isn’t necessarily anything I’m gonna do more than blather about.
I knew I’d have to read Scalia’s new book, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, when I heard she was writing it. I didn’t expect to be in the first wave of reviewers, because, well, the topic seemed…distant.
And then I heard her talk about it on Catholic Weekend.
There I was, innocently mowing my lawn, grooving with a favorite podcast when BAM. I knew I NEEDED TO READ HER BOOK.
Because, you know, it was written for me.
Lucky for me, the Patheos Book Club plays a role in my reading such that I have books land in my lap with the demand to be read just at the point when I need to read them.
It’s no surprise that Strange Gods is well-written or thought-provoking. Anyone who’s come across one of Elizabeth Scalia’s columns or blog posts knows she’s articulate and masterful with the written word. She writes through life as a boy pokes through the mud, examining each and every thing she finds and bringing it to the light or stashing it in her pockets to bring out later.
What surprised me was how relevant I found Strange Gods to my life.
Do we stop to think of what it means to put 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. What is before God, then, is also before us; it stands between God and us; it separates us from him. Just as a covenant of marriage cannot grow in closeness and oneness—cannot become one flesh—if something is put between a couple, the covenant between God and humanity cannot grow and survive if our strange, self-reflective idols are placed between ourselves and him.
Idolatry isn’t just putting up a statue and kneeling down in front of it in a literal sense. Scalia continues, less than a page later:
We dismiss the golden calf story and its lessons at our peril. It’s true that we are no longer literally flinging our precious metals into a crucible and buffing up stolid beasts of burden to worship. In some ways matters are worse, for we do not know the idols we bow down to. Our present-day idols are much less obvious, but they are also less distant and more ingrained within us. Idols begin with ideas. From there, we shape them in the psyche, grow them in the ego, and then engage with them intimately, throughout our lives, in our families, our culture, our entertainments, and our political discourse. We create idols out of our norms of behavior, our material possessions, and social status. We even create them out of our faith.
This is the kind of book that gets so marked up and dog-eared as I’m reading it that it’s twice as thick when I’m finished. Not only does Scalia write colorfully and clearly, in language that even an oaf like me can understand and relate with, but she pushes the edge of the issue of idolatry with each chapter. She begins with a large idea, one that seems so distant. It takes her less than a chapter to bring it home, and with each following chapter, she circles around it and brings it in closer and closer.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure how an entire book about idolatry could speak to me or even make sense. I’m no theologian, and I don’t have time for real noodling. (I fall asleep too quickly.) And yet, in under 200 pages, Scalia has defined and demonstrated the concept so well that I can’t go through my life blindly any longer.
Do you think it’s any accident that, as I was reading this book, that my iPad (aka my “Preciousssss”) was baptized in red Kool-Aid? Do you think it ironic that I haven’t been able to read blogs for a few months because of some weird scheduling priorities?
I don’t have to think very hard or look very far to see the idols in my life. Arguably, my fingers are pecking away at one of them…
I considered, after finishing this book, writing a letter to Scalia to thank her for this book. It’s just what I needed…and I suspect it’s what I’ll continue to read. This book is equal parts conversation, reality check, and theology lesson. It’s filled with personal insight, hard-earned wisdom, and Spirit-inspired prose.
I highly recommend you buy two copies: one for yourself (and don’t lend that one out) and one for a friend. If we called our idols what they were, how would it change the world as we know it?
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Over at the Patheos Book Club, you’ll find a Q&A with Scalia, as well as an excerpt of the book.