Pop quiz: define “idol.” If the first thing you think of is Israel dancing around a golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Catholic blogger Elizabeth Scalia would have you know that you’re a bit out of date. But with the publication of her new book on idolatry, Strange Gods, it might be more appropriate to wonder if she’s the one late to the party. From Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart to Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller, Seattle mega-church preacher Mark Driscoll to pop theologian Pete Rollins, talk of false worship is all the rage these days. Even the pope is on board. In an article for First Things, theology student Nathaniel Peters made the alarming observation that Francis’s first encyclical had somehow managed to discuss faith without explicitly mentioning sin, posing idolatry as its opposite instead.
But it’s wrong to infer from all this that talk of idolatry is replacing discussion of sin. Rather, Christians are putting renewed emphasis on the first commandment in hopes of revitalizing conversations about sin. For the past couple of hundred years, post-Enlightenment Christianity has been driven by the hope that we could build society on a religion of morality that would transcend the continuing problems of post-Reformation sectarianism. Thus it has tended to conceive of sin as transgression of universal moral laws, construing ethics primarily in terms of disobedience and obedience—acts of the sovereign will. It also served to prop up the emerging order of democratic liberal capitalism, a fact that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would note with great displeasure, writing in his Twilight of the Idols that “the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, of finding guilty.” Punishment, of course, meant control.
With this quest went a shift in the meaning of idolatry. In pre-modern times, the aristocratic elite adopted the category of idolatry primarily for the purposes of criticizing folk religion. In the throes of modernity, however, it became a weapon in the hands of those marginalized by the (mostly) liberal Protestant hegemony. Ironically enough, the decision to replace idolatry-language with morality meant that secularists could take possession of the concept of idolatry in order to critique the Christian establishment. Idolatry became ideology in the hands of the masters of suspicion, and the critique of folk religion became a critique of religion itself.
Today, in light of the decline of the mainline Protestant denominations and the growing sense of antagonism between Christianity and secular society, it is only fitting that the modern project of finding consensus in moral philosophy has begun to collapse and a recovery of categories different than that of transgression has begun. The discourse of the “New Idolatry” couches sin in the language of ideology critique. No longer identifying with the establishment, Christians are arming themselves with the Marxist, Freudian, and Nietzschean categories with which they can critique the emerging status quo. “The Biblical concept of idolatry,” Timothy Keller writes in Counterfeit Gods, “is an extremely sophisticated idea, integrating intellectual, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual categories.” Sin has entered the postmodern era.
It is within this context that we should understand Scalia’s Strange Gods. At the center of the book is this disturbing claim: we are all idolaters. For Scalia, this means that we are constantly creating illusions about life and giving in to ideas that turns us away from God and towards ourselves. Throughout the book, she interweaves personal anecdotes with quotes from Catholic writers to try to show from her experience how she herself has struggled with idols in her own life. She reflects on her own battles with the idols of self, freedom, wealth, technology, affirmation, control, political ideology, the language of tolerance, and liturgy, detailing how these ideas can cause us to act in ways that distract us from God.
Scalia’s writing is sharp, witty, and approachable, and she is at her strongest when illustrating idolatry through her everyday experiences, describing, for example, how she gets distracted in prayer, or loses track of time online. The book, however, never makes the transition from discussing her personal idols to questioning where they come from and what forms of life promote them.
Here, the limitations of her approach become clear: Scalia’s account of idolatry remains woefully individualistic. While she occasionally raises the suggestion that there is something one can do about the larger patterns and institutions behind various temptations, she fails to tease out these societal critiques. Her response to the ways that social media can make us lose track of the real world, for instance, is to “give the internet a soul” by “incarnationally” using technology for the sake of evangelism. The thought that perhaps a deficient anthropology lies underneath such software programming isn’t broached. Neither is the complementary notion that we could appropriately respond by developing technology that better reflects who we are as embodied temporal beings. The advice she gives for dealing with idols often only amounts to paying more attention so that you don’t get too attached to things.
Contrast this with Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods, which brings our attention to two categories of idols: the personal and the collective. In the former, Keller addresses the ways that love, money, success, or power, when made into objects of ultimate concern, destroy lives. In the latter, he moves past the individual level of analysis to the ways in which systems of economics, culture, and religion can be considered idolatrous. In chapter after chapter, Keller makes the comparison between the false gods and the true God, contrasting the values and institutions of contemporary society with the values and lifestyle of a follower of Jesus.
In doing so, he draws from philosophy, sociology, theology, and Biblical stories in addition to anecdotes about people’s lives. Whereas Scalia’s discussion of sex doesn’t go far beyond defending the Catholic Church’s teachings on virginity and contraception, Keller draws on the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker to suggest that a lot of our problems with sex and marriage come from attempts to find in romantic love the transcendence and meaning that come only from faith in God. Love, while a wonderful part of our lives, becomes a cruel taskmaster when turned into a god, a point Keller makes by telling a story about how one woman’s desperate thirst for love trapped her in an abusive relationship.
Fans of Scalia’s blog will no doubt enjoy the book, but I can’t help but think that some alternatives, like Keller’s Counterfeit Gods, are superior—better researched, organized, and just as approachable. Arising primarily from personal experience, Strange Gods discusses idols with an arbitrariness that suggests that the only thread connecting all of them is that Scalia happened to become too attached to them in her life. It is difficult, for instance, to understand exactly what is so “super” about the “super-idols” which are the topics of the final chapters. I also wonder if becoming too attached to something adequately exhausts the content of the f irst commandment.
Whatever its shortcomings, Strange Gods is nevertheless a book that will challenge its readers to think twice about their lives, if not broader trends in society. And if Scalia and her fellow idolatry enthusiasts are right in their diagnoses of contemporary culture, we are a lot more sinful than the moralists would like to admit. In an increasingly post-Christian world, perhaps we ought to wonder how much of it was Christian after all. We are, after all, born idolaters.