By Pat Gohn, author and Patheos columnist, A Word in Season
The Ten Commandments first declare, “I am the LORD your God… You shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex 20: 2-3 rsv). And yet, we do. This thoughtful and thought-provoking book, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, exposes to our chagrin, yet ultimately to our benefit, that this premiere command of the Decalogue cannot be overlooked if we are to ever dare to live the other nine. Armed with faith in the graces that that sustain us in our failures, plus witty sensibilities regarding the nature of fortitude and wisdom, author and blogger extraordinaire, Elizabeth Scalia, offers us mortals in search of grace, a thorough reality check:
“We dismiss the golden calf story and its lessons at our peril. It’s true 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.”
Who among us has not bowed down to something we have really wanted? Or maybe we’ve used different language for it — we might be flinging ourselves toward someone or something, or actively achieving something that consumes us — even the seemingly good things in life? Or what about all the trophies we line up for ourselves — the way we make plans, use time, or even play or work with technology? Whatever captivates or demands our attention has the distinct potential to become an idol standing between the verity that is our true life with God — an encounter we may miss, delay, or betray in favor of our strange gods. Ouch! Do you really what to read this book? Yes and yes.
Yes, open this book, and prepare to feel, perhaps momentarily, panicked that all of your life is an unexposed idol minefield, fraught with spiritual missteps that you can never avoid. But, YES, take courage! Like an experienced special ops mission commander unlocking the mysteries of night vision goggles and other tactics to detect the presence of The Enemy at close range, Scalia teaches plebes and veterans alike how to see more clearly so they can wisely navigate the previously unseen dangers of modern idolatry.
A particular strength of this book, and why it will be successful in furthering the new evangelization, is that Scalia offers a self-effacing demeanor and candor in describing her own idol worship. But more than that, Scalia affirms, ultimately, that Christianity as a yes — at its heart is a benevolent and loving God Who really is worthy of all attempts at idol smashing. Scalia writes of G.K. Chesterton who believed “the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but… of its liberality and humanity because most things are permitted.” Scalia explains,
“We are so conditioned to think of religion as being a bunch of rules — of the commandments as being a sometimes sensible, sometimes irrelevant, sometime annoying list of restrictions… [but]… There is nothing wider than God’s mercy or deeper than his love, if we consent to bend to him, rather than toward our own inclinations.”
When we are willing to throw off the things we have purposely or inadvertently consented to place between God and ourselves, we begin to live more open to God’s best for us. And the more we experience that, the better we detect the early warning signals of would-be idol building and avoid it.
This book’s underlying theme is the great hope that God’s commands really do have our eternal good in mind, and when we become aware of our propensity for false idols and seek to eliminate them, our soul’s’ vigor to live all the commandments grows proportionately.
Perhaps, over time, Elizabeth Scalia will grace us with a series of books delving into each of the Ten Commandments as she has with this first one? Until that time, Strange Gods, is highly recommended.