Items and Ideas: A Review of Strange Gods by Elizabeth Scalia

I was dropping off a bag of stuff at Goodwill, and another car pulled up behind me. An older lady got out with one very pretty blue sweater in her hands. She gave it a once-over and started towards the drop-off. When she approached me, she held the sweater up.

“Do you need a sweater? This would look pretty on you,” she said.

I was sorry that I did not need the sweater. I was trying to get rid of stuff.

“It’s a good sweater.  Paid a lot of money for it. It’s a shame I can’t find anyone to wear it.” She hesitated one last time, and relinquished the sweater to the thrift store.

I could feel her pain. It’s so hard to come to that crossroads, where you part company with a dream–in this case, the dream of the blue sweater, purchased with high hopes for some special occasion.  Over the years, I’ve let go of many such dreams and only once have I returned to Goodwill to buy an item back (Favorite Hooded Sweatshirt, why did I ever want to quit you?).

How many times have I come to the conclusion that something in my home needs to go, but I don’t get rid of it because I can’t seem to do it in the right way? Someone else might not treat it well or recognize its value. Or worse, I might not get reimbursed for its value, even though I’ve already affirmed that it has no value for me, and that in fact, people pay good money on monthly terms to store their overflow in storage units while I have been storing this item for years for no cost at all in spite of the inconvenience of having it around collecting dust, and crowding me out of my home.

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Scalia’s new book, Strange Gods, and finding myself very turned on by her Benedictine spirituality. In the chapter on “The Idol of Prosperity,” Scalia discusses her commitments as a Benedictine Oblate to “resist cluttering up my life with anything that seems superfluous to my actual needs.”

 

“Because Saint Benedict was a sensible man, he wrote a sensible Rule. In it, he acknowledged that while attachments and ownership are to be minimized as much as possible, some monks will simply have more need of material things than others. But, Benedict said, instead of being a source of pride, it should be a source of humility, because it is better to need less. Every worldly, earthly thing you “need” is something else that can come between you and God.”

 

“It is better to need less” is the line that jumps out at me there, which means that my hazy foraging around my home, thrift stores, and the internet, thinking What do I need? –all while developing new plans and aspirations for my home and my life– is a sign of weakness. That I don’t actually have real needs, and that I’m manufacturing them as a source of entertainment, strikes me now as a peculiar kind of self-violence.

These are the kinds of discoveries one makes about oneself reading Scalia’s book, which guides us through a few everyday idols ranging from our own plans, to the internet, to the gods of sex and coolness, and how each of these idols upsets the peace that we all so desperately hope to achieve.

The internet, for example, “exploits that restlessness” of a heart that really yearns for God. Regarding the plans we make:

“To be inflexible about deviating from the plan is to erect a roadblock, an encumbrance–an idol–and put it in the way of what the Spirit might be trying to do with us and for us.”

Regarding the confusion that results when our super-idols rule the public discourse:

 

“We are in a place of deep cynicism, but that is rarely acknowledged, because so many of us residing within this disordered idol’s shadow confuse cynicism with cleverness. Similarly, we confuse love with hate, silence with peace, narrowness with breadth, and we do this mostly because everything is relative in this place….

The most insidious part of this hate collective is how easily we can slip into its influence through the simple error of attaching real but disproportionate feelings of love onto things which are often ultimately meaningless: I love my politics so much I must hate you for your policies; I love my church so much I must hate you for not loving it. I love yogurt, cheese, and butter so much I must hate you for being a vegan. I love my own opinions so much I must hate you for having your own.”

 

Like all really wonderful books, Strange Gods has caused me to make some reassessments in how I’m living my own life. My first pass is to reevaluate my gut reactions to internet feeds that contradict my most cherished religious and political opinions. Can I love the bearers of bad news in my life? What about the friends who make a great impression in person, but whose online persona is like a clanging gong in my psyche? If I can’t get past the persona to the real person, my next pass is to walk away from the technology that enables this objectification of others–thus wiping out two idols with one stone.

After that, of course, I’m left to my own devices in this little house with my family and my things. Am I going to let my desires for more information, more stuff, more desire even, bury me?

Over the course of the next year, I would like to divest myself of fifty percent of my belongings. Fifty percent? you say, That’s a lot of stuff. When I open my closet, I feel oppressed by what I find there. Mainly, I find nothing, because half of my clothes are hidden behind other clothes. For years, I’ve been adding to the contents of this closet, while subtracting, fractionally, much less.

Not only that, with eight people bringing material goods into the home, it must be someone’s full-time job to also be sending goods out of the home lest we crowd ourselves out of existence.

I don’t want to keep feeling a pang at even the hint of the need. I can be comfortable with the ebb and flow of goods on the shelf in my pantry. Sometimes the shelves will be full, sometimes empty, but neither should cause panic. Currently both do, probably because I have made an idol of my comfort even while that idol makes me physically uncomfortable.

I love the anecdote Scalia sites about Dorothy Day, how when someone donated a diamond ring to the Catholic Worker Movement, Day passed it on to a homeless woman who frequented the shelter. When questioned why she didn’t sell the ring to buy the woman lodgings, Day responded that:

 

“the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose, ” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?””*

 

It is a tremendous freedom to have such detachment from ideas and material objects, not to begrudge someone else’s enjoyment of the things and opinions to which I feel entitled. All of God’s creation has dignity–the wealthy, the poor, the ignorant, and the so-called intelligentsia.

This is the heart of Scalia’s message, that the idols we place before God, rather than providing the comfort, affirmation, and satisfaction we desire, really only enslave us.

 

 

*From Jim Forest’s essay “What I Learned about Justice from Dorothy Day”

 

Visit the Patheos roundtable discussion of Strange Gods.

About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Lauren

    You don’t know how much this speaks to me today. On many levels.

    My husband is reading this book. I can’t wait to grab it up when he is done.

    And, just before I sat down to read your post, I was wandering around my empty house – husband at work and all my kids off at school or playing with a friend. Looking at all the stuff – the laundry overflowing the baskets, the toys overflowing the closet, the dishes overflowing the sink – and I thought “We don’t need this” and “Oh, the amount of work it will take for me to weed it out.” But this speaks to me, and now I think I can actually do it. Not because it will make our house tidier or prettier or more organized. But because it is overwhelming me. And it must overwhelm everyone else here, as well. “It is better to need less.”

    So, thank you!

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    So what’s her definition of what constitutes an idol? We all have to earn a living, most people try to get ahead in life, we all have interests such as sports or reading or music. We all need material things to live in the modern world without being a burden on others or society. We all want the best for our children and retire at a reasonable age. I don’t have the charism of living like a monk. When do we cross the line into idolotry?

    • joannemcportland

      Read the book, Manny. You’ll love it. She doesn’t preach or set up rules; she reflects on the things in her own life that might stand between her and God, and invites us to do the same.

      • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

        Thanks Joanne. “Read the book.” I figured someone would reply with that…lol.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

          She tackles the “what is an idol” question in the intro:
          “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.”

          Elsewhere she says, “I’ve come to believe that an idol is an idea, fleshed out or formed by craftiness and a certain needy self-centeredness.”

          She does a very good job of highlighting the point at which necessary goods cross a line into idolatry. Owning property, for instance in and of itself is not bad, but when owning property has become a source of “needy self-centeredness” or when it becomes an inordinate focal point of our lives, we’re in troubled waters.

          And as Joanne says, reading the book can only do you good.

    • Petro

      It’s interesting how we rationalize away the value of poverty so easily.

      “We all have interests.” “We all need material things.” “We all want the best for our children.”

      Imagine if we did the same thing with chastity.

      “We all have urges.” “We all need physical love.” “We all want our kids to be happy.”

      Alas, we don’t all have charisms of living like monks. Think about those two virtues together and consider where the line is for idolatry in that context.

      • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

        “Think about those two virtues together and consider where the line is for idolatry in that context.”
        It’s not coming to me. Can you explain it to me?

        • Petro

          Both work and sexuality are gifts from God. In both we are co-creators with God. The use of both gifts should be directed to life-giving, fruitful and constructive action. The fruits of these gifts should be offered back to God with love in a spirit of giving.

          Just as we use the gift and fruits of our sexuality in self-serving, egotistical, disordered ways, we can also use the gift of work and its fruits to these ends. At that point, both work and its fruits might become idolatrous.

          Work becomes idolatrous when ambition for worldly success and desire for power leads us to act in ways that are self-centered and destructive in the workplace or at home. This might be through how we act or treat others at work, as well as how our work controls our life and interferes with our family life or our relationship with God.

          The gift of our talents for work can also be misused when directed in fruitless, destructive work. There are many occupations, particularly in the modern world, in which this can occur.

          The fruits of our work can become idolatrous when they are used to acquire things that glorify ourselves through conspicuous consumption, or when they are misused through waste. While not demanding asceticism, the teachings of the Church make it clear that we are to use the fruits of work labor for others and for the glory of God.

          1 Peter 4:10: As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good steward’s of God’s grace.

          We must ask ourselves whether we are being good stewards of these gifts by limiting our personal use of them to what we need for our support, growth and development, or if we are making decisions primary for our pleasure and self-glorification. For me, it seems like much more use of the fruits of our labor is put to self-glorification than glorifying God.

          In these ways, a spirituality of poverty is similar to a spirituality of chastity. It is about ordering the gifts we have and the fruits of these gifts toward God. The Church has many well-established guidelines for sexuality, but has been less clear about how we deal with our wealth because, up until recently, wealth was an issue for very few people. It is critical for those, like most American Catholics, who are the holders of such tremendous wealth seriously consider the use of that wealth.

          Check out the CCC on the value of poverty: 2544–2547.

          • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

            Thanks. That was more than I expected in a reply.
            “We must ask ourselves whether we are being good stewards of these gifts by limiting our personal use of them to what we need for our support, growth and development, or if we are making decisions primary for our pleasure and self-glorification.”

            I can tell you that there are a heck of a lot of Catholics that don’t live up to that. And life isn’t so stark. There’s a lot of middle ground in that spectrum.

  • Trish

    Funny that I should read this today. Yesterday my toddler singlehandedly destroyed my most prized and necessary possession: my relatively new MacBook Pro. I have often thought that it’s the only thing I would really care about losing if our house got robbed. And now it’s gone, beyond fixing… although we are working on getting some sensitive and necessary files off of it. I felt real physical pain and anguish when this happened last night. Today I think I’m going through the Kubler Ross 5 stages of grieving. What an expensive lesson in poverty… to lose my one indispensable material thing. And yet, I’m still alive and after the terrible deed, my toddler was so happy and cheerful and adorably unaware of having caused me havoc that I couldn’t help loving her… although with an ulcer in my gut. Ugh, the expense… right when finances are tight. Anyway. Such is life.

  • Terri

    This is a topic which seems to be at the forefront of my mind most of the time. In addition to the attachment to the material, I have to deal with memories and loss. My husband and I have lost our parents. The houses have been sold and they are all buried in places which require us to travel to visit the graves. The furniture, decorative items, etc., etc…, oh, the etc…are a very basic connection to my parents, particularly my mother. So, I’ve let myself take time and I’ve not been too hard on myself. I gave away and sold so much when we were cleaning out my parents’ house, but there are still a few items that will make me sometimes stop in my tracks as I realize that I will never see them again. I’m sure this book could be a part of this journey for me. Thanks for the review!

  • http://twitter.com/BusyCatholicMom BusyCatholicMommy

    This is something that we desperately need to teach our kids as well. Their friends at school have so much stuff and their parents are constantly buying them more stuff. So our kids are getting the false idea that they need to have more and more stuff to be happy. It is very difficult to combat the god of stuff when you are surrounded by it on all sides.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X