Casting Down Our Own Idols: A Review of Elizabeth Scalia's "Strange Gods"
As Ms. Scalia points out, the problem of following false gods can't be limited simply to those with whom we disagree, however we wish it could. None of us have the luxury of looking down on others for their obvious worship of strange gods. Republican and Democratic Christians alike place too much faith in politicians or elevate issues above our call to love, care for others, and live as Jesus taught. As I argued in Faithful Citizenship, we are often guilty of being Americans first, or even being party members before we claim our Christian identities.
Although she writes specifically as a Catholic (Ms. Scalia is a well-known Catholic blogger and—full-disclosure—the managing editor for the Catholic portal here at Patheos), she knows that Protestants and Catholics alike can make idols of things that may in fact seem like they ought to be a part of their faith—but actually aren't.
She tells a powerful story about the death of Betty Ford and the response from a pro-life advocate that all but celebrated the demise of a pro-choice figure. Maybe, Ms. Scalia notes, those critics who comment that Catholics "idolize the fetus" have a little accidental insight into the theological problem that is the subject of this book.
As important as a faithful ethic of life is, to elevate it above other Christian teachings on love and mercy—the simple awareness that human lives are messy and complex and, irony of ironies, that no idea is more important than the dignity of a human life—leads her to reflect that even those of us who think of ourselves as supremely faithful are making idols of something other than God. (109-11) (It is, I think, the same thing that Brian McLaren is talking about when he says that we Christians tend to make things that are not articles of faith into articles of faith—and then we are surprised when those idols lead us away from the true faith!)
H. Richard Niebuhr used to talk about a concept he called "radical monotheism," about the failure of people of faith to place the one God of the universe on the throne of our lives. His classic Radical Monotheism and Western Culture was a great book for the last century. The virtue of Elizabeth Scalia's Strange Gods is that it too is an advocate for radical monotheism—and that it names those strange gods who today pull us away from faithful living: "anger, past injuries, praise, pride, possessions, politics, patriotism, porn, poetry, film adaptations of Jane Austen novels, human love, family relationships, hate, the fetus, the baby, abortion rights, gay rights, constitutions, careers, reality shows, social media, fitness, food, pets, even religion and its trappings." (155)
Maybe, as she points out, we won't be able to rid ourselves of all of these idols this side of Heaven. But simply knowing they exist, that we are prone to worshiping them instead of God, and that the God who loves us totally wants to be loved totally in response offers a powerful counter to our very human failings. Strange Gods prompts me to be more thoughtful and more faithful, and I believe it might do the same for you.
For more conversation on Strange Gods, and to read a book excerpt, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.