Book Review: StrangeGods and the Idolatry of Me

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To join the discussion about StrangeGods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, or to order a copy, go here. 

I’m going to suggest that my book club read StrangeGods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life for its July discussion.

The reason is simple. Author Elizabeth Scalia has written a book that is so thought-provoking it makes me want to sit down with her and talk about it. I think my book club members will feel the same way.

StrangeGods unmasks both the meaning of our personal idolatries and the way we spiral deep and deeper into worshipping them until all perspective and thought are lost to them.

Idols and idolatry violate the First and greatest Commandment. When we put anything in our lives as the center of our thinking and make that the touchstone of our values and the object of our desires, we have created an idol. The extent that we allow this idol to become the center of who and what we are reflects directly the depth of our idolatry.

Jesus told us, “You can not serve two masters.” You cannot serve two gods. You can not follow the real God and also an idol of your own devising at the same time.

That, at root is what is wrong with idols and idolatry. They are placebo gods for the real God, and like all placebos, they only appear to have power in the imaginations of our minds.

Elizabeth understands that we can have big idols and little idols. We can and do make an idol of almost anything. I would say that in an odd fashion, I make a idol of food because I reach for it to find comfort. I sooth myself with food like a monkey, rocking in place with its tail wrapped around it, is soothed by the motion of rocking back and forth.

In that sense, food, for me, is an idol of sorts. It’s not the intellectual idol that politics or commitment to a cause can become. But it is something I use to deal with my troubles instead of turning to God with them.

That’s the core of idolatry. It is a substitute for God, the real God. 

StrangeGods makes the point that many of our idols are, like my use of food, strange indeed. Our obsessions quickly become our idols, as do our compulsions. All these little idols, each of which begins with our self-referencing self-absorption and moves outward to an unhealthy focus on things, actions and ideas, are an expression of isolation. Me first is ultimately and always me only.

Whether you waste time, money and health on unneeded food, or you isolate in front of a computer or make some idea or plan or ambition the center of who you are, you are always at root isolating yourself on an island of me first. The seminal idol is always ourselves. All the rest flows from that.

StrangeGods leads us from a discussion of the many ways and many things we substitute for God in our lives to the really egregious mental addictions of what Elizabeth call “Super Idols.” Super Idols are the overarching idols that become ideologies, philosophies and ultimately, world views.

We see them and their damage all about us. As our society has moved more and more from a God-centered world view to a me-centered world view it has shattered and divided along the fault lines of our selfish desires. We dress these things up and call them “rights” or “causes.” We label ourselves along the divisions we create to separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters, but in reality these things are all lies. They are just idolatry spread large and become organized into the false religions of political and social movements.

I know something about this. I’ve practiced this form of idolatry and I deal with its practitioners on a daily basis. There is no person so indifferent to the consequences of their actions to their country, other people, or even themselves as someone who is in the grip of a super idolatrous false social religion. 

These people have checked both their brains and their hearts at the altar of their super idol and they are fueled by the twin evils of unthinking rage and self-righteousness that super idols pump into them. They’re dangerous. They’re destructive. And they are mean and cold-hearted to a level that their saner selves would find abhorrent.

As you can see, StrangeGods is a thought-provoking book that leads you to find yourself on most of its pages. It is a convicting and inspiring read in that it convicts you of the idolatries in your own life and it also inspires you to repent of these sins of false idol worship and turn back to the real God.

In the end, we turn to false idols because they are comforting reflections of us. They don’t appear to ask the difficult things of us that relationships with an other always does. Idols seem easy and comprehensible because at root they are ourselves.

But you cannot serve two masters. You cannot follow false gods and the real God simultaneously. You have to chose, and given our proclivity for self-referencing you have to make this choice many times in a single day. Banish the little gods and you will spare yourself the true evil of the super idols that take your mind and your goodness away from you. 

I heartily recommend StrangeGods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life. It is that rare thing: A book that can make you want to be and do better.

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Book Review: Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious. Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood

To join the discussion about Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious, Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood or to order a copy, go here

Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious, Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood, by Pat Gohn is a hymn to woman’s essential femaleness.

Femaleness, or true femininity that is based on the reality of who we are as women, has been dissed and put down since time immemorial. Ms Gohn’s book incorporates the teachings of the Popes, especially John Paul II, and the saints, in particular St Edith Stein, to illustrate the beauty of the unique gifts of womanhood.

Reading Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious was like opening a series of chocolates, all wrapped in shiny paper, and finding that the treat inside was prettier than the wrapping. Ms Gohn is unafraid to acknowledge the maternal instinct that is part of every woman. We may deny it or ugly it up by twisting it into shapes it was never meant to take, but the desire to hold your own child in your arms is real and powerful.

Pat takes the reader by the hand and leads her (the book is clearly written for the “hers” of the world) through the many reasons why God made us blessed, beautiful and bodacious. She encourages women to joy in their feminine maternal natures instead of thwarting and denying them.

At the same time, the book is informed on every page by her deep faith in Christ. As a breast cancer survivor who had young children at the time she was diagnosed, Pat is able to communicate what it means to trust God in the extremities of life. Her description of the prayer discussion she had with God about what would happen to her children if she died from the cancer is itself blessed, beautiful and bodacious, as well as profoundly moving.

Every mother has walked a good bit of this road in one way or the other. We’ve all been through the ailments of pregnancy and the all nighters caring for a sick child. I agree with Pat completely that these times bring women close to God in a profound and absolute way.

My own faith grew deep in those years I was a mother of small children. Bringing new life into the world and then raising those babies to be healthy and productive adults is the greatest challenge and gift any human being can know.

Women are, as Pat says, blessed, beautiful and bodacious. God made us that way.

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Book Review: Our Place in the Order of Creation

To join in the conversation about The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good, or to find a link to buy a copy, go here. 

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We are the clay. God is the potter.

We are the created. God is the creator.

Our dominion over this Earth is ours by designation, not because we made it or because we can keep it. We have dominion over the Earth because God assigned it to us as a trust.  It is the same with our lives. We did not earn them. We do not merit through our own actions either life or love. We are here because God breathed the breathe of life into us and we became living souls. When that days comes that our souls are required of us, these bodies we inhabit will die and return to the dust from which they came. 

We exist as a thought in the mind of the God Who made us.

That is our place in the order of creation. We are free because God made us free. We have life because God gave us life. We are able to choose and decide and act out of our will because God gave us minds and hearts and the freedom to use them as we wish. 

But this world, this sinful fallen world with all its prevarications and cruelties can not be saved by our actions. There is nothing we can do to redeem humanity from its own willful sinfulness. Nothing we can offer that will turn back the tide of original sin that blights each of us and the whole of creation. 

What this means is that we can not play God. When we try, we fail. When we try continuously, we become weary with a Sisyphean weariness that leaves us defeated and bitter if we do not face the reality of who we are in the order of creation. 

Christians, in particular, are easy prey to the peculiar hubris of trying to save the world from itself. In my work as an elected official, I encounter people on a daily basis who profess Christ but behave as if He doesn’t exist. They battle for what they think is His cause with an angry fanaticism. But they do not have the faith to trust Him with the outcome. The less they trust, the angrier they become.

They work and worry and experience each defeat as a personal failure, until they are ready to fall over from emotional, physical and moral exhaustion. They take on the whole problem themselves. They forget that their might is nothing against the evil of a fallen world, and, more importantly, they forget that it is not, never was, never will be, up to them. 

All any of us has to do is our part. In the final analysis, all any of us has to do is what God tells us to do. In my experience, God doesn’t share His plans in detail. He just tells you what you are to do. Then, He tells someone else what they are to do. But He doesn’t tell either of you about the other. You part is to do what God wants and let Him unfold the plan.

Which He will. 

In His time and in His way, He will bring all the disparate parts of His plan together. You are a thread in the fabric He is weaving, nothing more. You may have to wait a long time to see it. You may not see it in this life. But the whole pattern will come together and when it does, it will be glorious beyond anything you could have thought of. It is not your job to see the whole of it. Your job is to trust and obey. 

You are free to enjoy the wonderful life He has given you, safe in the knowledge that He makes all things work to the good and whether or not you can see it doesn’t change that. 

As Tyler Wigg-Stevenson put it in the title of his book, The World is Not Ours to Save.

The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good is basically a meditation on Micah 4. Micah 4 is a prophecy of Christ and the conversion of the Gentiles, as well as the coming Kingdom of God. It contains the beautiful verses They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. 

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson has obviously thought a great deal about these prophecies. He shares his interpretation of their meaning and applies them to the work of every person who feels called to engage in the social justice battlefield on the side of the Gospels. 

The World is Not Ours to Save is a wise book with excellent advice for those who are worn slick from trying to do God’s job of saving the world rather than focusing on simply doing their part. I recommend it. 

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Book Review: Joining the Present Day Abolitionists


Join the discussion on Refuse To Do Nothing or find a link to buy a copy here

I serve on the board of directors of All Things New. All Things New is dedicated to helping women come out of sex slavery, which ranges from trafficking to prostitution.

That position brings me face to face with the reality of what we are doing to our women and children in the name of “victimless crimes.” It has made me aware of how our culture glorifies pimps, excuses johns and victimizes the women and children these predators use and degrade.

Refuse To Do Nothing was written by two women, Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Yim, who had heard similar stories and found that they had to “refuse to do nothing” about the suffering present-day slavery wreaks on both the victims and the victimizers.

I recommend this well-researched book. Instead of just telling us how horrible the problem of present-day slavery is, the book gives simple, do-able ideas for actions that ordinary people can take to help in the fight to end it. There is nothing over the top in any of the ideas these women provide. Each of them is simple, easy to do and, if enough of us do them, effective.

Slavery ended in Great Britain and America largely as a result of Christians, particularly Christian women, who understood the Gospel claim that every human being is beloved of God. They could not abide the contradiction of Christian people owning and using other human beings as chattel.

That understanding is just as true today as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then as now, slavery was big business. Avarice and sloth fueled slavery just as avarice, sloth and lust fuel it today.

The idea that prostituted women and children are somehow less than fully human is the basic philosophical underpinning of sex trafficking and prostitution in our world today. The authors of this book rightly identify that sex slavery would go away if men stopped buying women and children. I think that most men would stop buying women and children if they saw what they were really doing.

It is so easy for any one of us to become someone else’s nightmare. All we need to do is subscribe to the world’s opinion that there are human beings who are less than human and we may do to them what we please with no moral harm to ourselves.

However, this idea of the disposable human is entirely opposed to the message of the Gospels. It refutes the meaning of Calvary, when Our Lord died for each one of us. There can be no worthless people to anyone who truly believes the Gospels of Christ.

We have an obligation to the God Who made us to treat one another as fully human. When we do less than this, we separate ourselves from Him in a profound and deeply sinful manner.

I recommend Refuse To Do Nothing to everyone who has a heart for the Gospel value of human life.

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Book Review: The World Needs Quiet People, Too

To join the discussion about Quiet, or to buy a copy, go here.

I am an introvert.

I am also an elected official.

Many people assume that this makes me a walking, breathing contradiction in terms, an oxymoron, a rarest of the rare. However, they are wrong about this. Most of the politicians I know — and I know a lot of them — are introverts.

I’ve only known a few true extroverts who actually managed to make it into office, and they usually drive the rest of us crazy with their other-the-top, always-on, go-go-going. While extreme shyness would certainly be a problem for a politician, introversion, with its ability to focus, reflect and think things through, is, in fact, a huge advantage.

Susan Cain’s excellent book, Quiet, describes introverts quite well. It talks about the need introverts have to spend time alone, the powers of reflection, concentration and self-direction that are such a part of the introverted personality. In an earlier time, this was called “reserve;” as in “She’s not shy. She’s reserved.”

That’s what the school principal told my mother about me when I was in first grade. Mama commented that I was shy, and the principal corrected her with the astute assessment, “She’s not shy. She’s reserved.”

Personally, I like the word “reserved” better than introvert for the simple reasons that it’s both less clinical and more accurate. As Ms Cain describes, reserved people tend to think things through before they leap. They are prone to analyze and consider a move before they make it.

While the world needs people who will jump right in there when the occasion calls for it, it also needs more reflective and deliberate thinkers working alongside them. The excesses of either personality type can be destructive if they are allowed to run unchecked. They need the balance of association with the other personality type.

As with so much of what works with people, our personalities perform best in tandem with one another. The hard-charging extrovert will drive you right over a cliff if there isn’t someone sitting beside them with a map to find the way.

Unfortunately, as Ms Cain notes, American society is wired for extroverts. This can be downright punishing for young children in our schools. I suffered with it a bit when I was little, but I grew up in a much less chaotic time. One of my own children — who had inherited a good dose of his mother’s reserve — experienced public school as an isolating and utterly miserable box. I remember at the time thinking that our schools were designed for only a certain type of child and that all other children were judged defective to the extent that they failed to be that one type of child.

I took my child out of this environment. My only regret is that I ever put him there in the first place.

According to Ms Cain, many reserved people are forced to struggle to imitate their extroverted colleagues, even after they become adults. Her descriptions of life inside certain corporate environments explains at least in part why I knew instinctively that the corporate world was not the place for me.

Quiet is a good read and a needed book. The author makes the point that many of the tragedies of American life, including the economic debacle of 2008, are at least in part a result of the unbalanced emphasis we place on extroversion. Human beings were made from our beginning to work together in community. Our various parts fit together to create a whole that is civilization.

The author implies, and I agree, that our society would benefit from acknowledging the value that introverted people bring to any endeavor.

I highly recommend Quiet. It raises important points. It also is a necessary read for teachers, parents, and administrators who must learn to bring the best out in their children, students and employees who are “reserved.”

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