Everyday idolatry: Not just golden calves

“Not only does the devil have the best music,” a former pastor of ours used to tease, “he also has the best lines in movies and the most interesting of the Commandments — the ones we want to break.”

It was a smart, funny observation, and Father employed it with some regularity because it guaranteed a laugh. Anyone who had ever thrilled to “Lord of the Rings”’ Smeagol’s dementia over his “Precious” or “Star Wars”’ Darth Vader’s repeated “come to the dark side” — or had ever entertained angry or lustful fantasies (in other words, most of us) — could appreciate the truth of it.

After all, when we think of the Ten Commandments, those injunctions against stealing, killing, fornication and covetousness come immediately to mind; they interest us because we know the struggles we wage against our worst instincts and fallen natures.

In preparation for confession, we quickly find ourselves dwelling within that promptlist of easy sins: yes, I took the Lord’s name in vain; yes, I missed Mass; yes, I lied; yes, I had impure thoughts; yes, murderously angry ones, too. Yes, I was jealous.

The Ten Commandments are a great unifier; they speak to our common brokenness as we recognize our behavior in them. There is one commandment, however, that almost none of us ever bring into the confessional, and that is the very first commandment: Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.

Sin of idolatry

Of this commandment, a typical examination prompter reads, “Do I pray to God every day? Have I thanked God for his gifts to me? Did I engage in superstitious practices?”

Those are all good questions and they do relate to that first commandment by breaking down some components of faith, adoration and humility that belong to right-worship of Almighty God, but they are rather gentle nudgings; they keep us from fully realizing that what we have been dicing into chewable, conscience-clearing bites is the great sin of idolatry.

Well, pshaw, we say to that. Nobody’s casting their gold into fiery crucibles and molding them into stolid beasts and then polishing them up and worshiping them! Idolatry is ancient Hebrew stuff, and we are advanced and sophisticated and too well-educated to fall for that hokum, we scoff. As all of our grandmothers might have said: “the very idea!”

The very idea, indeed, for our ideas are the means by which we enter into idolatry. As St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote when he covered the issue in “The Life of Moses,” “Ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” And that makes us no different from the calf-erectors of old. We are simply more subtle these days in what we use to reflect us back to ourselves, which was all the golden calf ever did, and all any idol ever does.

Barriers to God

technology idol
Technology can become an idol. Shutterstock photo

The idol is always about the “I”; it is the thing that stands not just before God but between him and us; it is the self-mirroring barrier that gets in the way of his constant outreach to us, and its erection always begins with an idea held too dear. We take our fealty to an ideology, or a good cause, or our pleasant hobby or our love of family or even of a liturgy, and we overburnish them, like a trophy made by and for ourselves — one in which our reflection is only a little distorted in the glow — just enough so that we stop seeing others clearly or God at all. And then we keep that thing before our eyes; we give the idea primacy to our consciousness, and then we are lost.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider the story of “Pop,” which I relate in “Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life” (Ave Maria Press, $14.95). Pop’s family came to our rectory seeking to arrange his funeral and demanding a Latin Mass, because “Pop stopped going to church when they took away the Latin Mass, and we want him to have it.” Since our priests are not trained in the extraordinary form — and the family, largely unchurched, thanks to Pop’s example, would not have understood the rite — we were eventually able to persuade them that a Novus Ordo Mass with hymns sung in Latin might be preferable.

On the day of the funeral, which did seem to bring some comfort, the family’s unfamiliarity with the Mass kept them looking toward me for prompts. Afterward I couldn’t help but mourn the decades of Eucharistic consolation and sacramental graces that had been lost to Pop and his family, all in service to an idea of what constituted a “real” Mass, and the idol it became. Not even liturgy — as important and powerful as it is — should be accounted as more meaningful than God himself and placed before him.

Awareness of our idols

Since writing “Strange Gods,” one question I am frequently asked is “what is the worst, or the biggest idol, today?” Because I am as self-involved as anyone, my answer usually reflects whatever annoyance I have permitted to become a peeve-of-the-day, but the truth is, they are all of a piece. The sin of idolatry, no matter what shape it takes, is the one through which we lose sight of God.

Early in the book we examine the Decalogue, and come to the realization that if we are truly obeying the first commandment, we will have rendered all of the other commandments moot. If we are keeping the Lord and his right-worship first in our thoughts, then we will not be taking his name in vain, or missing Mass, or indulging our anger or our desires, or fretting about our possessions because someone else has more or better things.

The key to living the first commandment well is awareness; by being aware of what our modern idols look like — how connected they are to our notions of prosperity, technology, hipness, sexuality and more — we can begin to catch ourselves in mid-construction of a sparkling new idol and dismantle the thing, with God’s help.

Correcting orientation

In one of those coincidences that tempts us to wonder whether the Holy Spirit is trying to get our attention, “Strange Gods” was released right around the same time Pope Francis began mentioning “idols” and “idolatry” with some frequency. Those two words have appeared in transcripts of the casual daily homilies he offers at Mass, in his exhortations to teeming crowds of young people, and even in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), wherein he writes, “While Moses is speaking to God on Sinai, the people cannot bear the mystery of God’s hiddenness, they cannot endure the time of waiting to see his face.”

Indeed. In the Nicene Creed we acknowledge a world “seen and unseen,” but we are drawn to serve what is seen. When our former pastor joked about the devil having the best lines, and the commandments we want to break, he was talking about the allure of the material world, which is visible and immediately before us. The first commandment is immaterial; it resides within the unseen, and it is primary because God understands our need to see what we serve, and the terrible risks that lie therein. Through the first commandment he saves us from ourselves by continually calling us back, to look at him and correct our orientation.

The world predominates within those commandments that we are continually breaking and confessing to. Heaven resides in the first commandment and, as we grow in the awareness of our everyday idols and how we forge them, we will surprise ourselves with how frequently we confess to breaking that one, too. 

Elizabeth Scalia is the managing editor of the Catholic portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress.