Our Idols and Ourselves

by Kathryn Jean Lopez
Elizabeth Scalia unmasks the false gods of everyday life.

In “those rare moments when we find ourselves alone and the gadgetry silent, we feel we are at a loss,” Elizabeth Scalia writes in Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life. “With nothing to distract us, we come face to face with a keening emptiness.” Scalia, known on the Internet as “The Anchoress,” says that “silence” can be “terrifying” then. ”But only because it lays bare our loneliness, our self-recriminations, and our doubts. Possessing nothing that is equal to those depths, we sense the need to distract ourselves and the cycle begins to churn again.”

Sound familiar? Read on. Scalia talks with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about her new book.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s so “strange” about the idols of modern American life?

ELIZABETH SCALIA: Perhaps primarily what is strange about our idols — beyond the fact that they are strange gods we were never meant to place before the Creator — is that they are so interior to us. When you mention an idol, the first image most people will conjure up is the golden calf the Hebrews created while Moses was on the mountain. It was an external thing, something outside of the people themselves — and they understood the God of Abraham to be outside of themselves, too. We are more sophisticated in our understanding, now — so comfortable with the notion of “God within” that we barely think what it means.

We may still have idols residing outside of ourselves — if we allow our things, our possessions and creations to stand between us and God, and to essentially own us — but we are very adept at burnishing the godlings of the mind, the ideas and opinions and beliefs formed interiorly. These are petted and loved and fed, and they grow directly in proportion to how much we indulge them, until they become the object of our enthrallment and the entity we serve. If our ideology, for instance, has become an idol, then we nourish it by reading only what suits our point of view; we speak and gather with only those who think as we think; we visit websites that echo our thoughts back to us, until we lose sight of anything beyond it — even the humanity of the one who does not conform to our beliefs. We begin to serve the idol of the idea, alone.


LOPEZ: Do you come close to sacrilege when you write, “As a Catholic priest stands ‘in persona Christi,’ Obama stood, ‘in persona meum’” in 2008? Was it so in 2012, too? Now?

SCALIA: Wow, that’s a big question. Sacrilege? No, I don’t think so. It is a rather apt comparison. As a Catholic, I believe that a priest truly does stand “in persona Christi,” and as a living, breathing observer of the world, I do believe that for some people, in 2008, Obama was a personification of the wonderfulness of themselves, made manifest. And I think Obama would agree. In The Audacity of Hope Obama wrote, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” He completely got the idol thing; he knew he was an idol, and in 2008 he brilliantly exploited it. The grandiose speech in Germany, the Greek columns behind him at the Democratic National Convention — Obama, I believe, understood that these events and props were as much meant to flatter his admirers as to shape world opinion. People who thought themselves smart, urbane, sophisticated globalists saw themselves shining in Obama, just as the Hebrews saw their reflections coming back to them with the golden calf. There is a line from the musical Evita: “I came from the people/ they need to adore me/ so Christian Dior me/from my head to my toes.” The idol flatters the idolator. The idolator wants to be flattered.

And by the way, in 2008, the idol-as-candidate model was also true on the right, but it was the veep candidate, Sarah Palin, and not John McCain, who was the adorable reflector: People looked at Palin, with her despised non-Ivy degree and her “you betcha” ways and her blue-collar background, and they saw themselves, their values. When she was savaged by the media, they saw themselves being savaged, and they got to the point where they — like the Obama lovers — would not tolerate a negative word said about her. Palin, quite unlike Obama, didn’t realize she was an idol until after the election, when her patina quickly rubbed away.

Was it the same in 2012? Not the same, but idolatry still played a part. People who were disappointed in Obama had no intention of admitting it because to do so would, in a way, be an admission that they had been wrong — his failures and disappointments were reflective of them, because — again — the idol reflects the idolators. Having no way to justify his reelection beyond “he is us” (more correctly, “he’s not them!”), a fake “war on women” was mounted; the press continued to ask him nothing more difficult than “How’d you get to be so great?” and whoever the Republican contender ended up being would — we all understood — be a villain of the first order, and stupid and out-of-touch with “regular people” to boot.

On the Republican side, of course, the Great Idol of Ronald Reagan was used to smash any-and-all contenders, none of whom could (or perhaps would be allowed to) compare favorably with a Sainted President who (it must be said) often battled the far-right within his own party, but whose hagiography seems to have air-brushed all that away. Republican candidates had plenty of faults, but the party always managed to find even more, which is why it seemed like every contender had a three-week shelf-life-in-turn during which they were hosanna’d as “the last best hope” until they would say or do something that the base couldn’t handle, or they made national fools of themselves, and thus imploded.

And yes, the Republicans are still finding and discarding saviors at a remarkable pace — now Cain, now Rubio, now Christie, now Cruz. And yes, the Democrats are still, for the most part, falling in line, although perhaps falling less in love.


LOPEZ: You write, “Why do people allow their relationship with God to become disoriented? Sadly, the problem usually starts with love.” How could love ever disorient us?

SCALIA: It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? One of the best examples I can think of — and I’ve lived with it, so I know it’s real — is the love of a parent for a child that becomes so possessive and over-controlling (all in the name of keeping the child safe) that it becomes a love that is disordered. If we want a model of love, we look to the Creator who not only loved us into being, but gave us the gift of free will — we are free even to walk away from him; to ignore him; to deny him. That is love rightly oriented. Love does not compel you, or cripple you with guilt, or keep you caged; it sets you free.

Another example of disorienting love happens in the church pews, of all places; love of liturgy is part of how we love God, but when we go to Mass, for instance, and spend so much time interiorly snarling because the priest didn’t do something “just right” or the lector stumbled or the altar servers seemed insufficiently reverent by our judgment, then our love is disoriented. Rather than attending to the Mass and our own participation in it, we’ve allowed our love to diminish us, and in a way imprison us. It keeps us away from our community of believers, away from the imperfect priest, and ultimately, away from God.


LOPEZ: You say we live in a culture that is “over-connected, media saturated and weirdly obsessed with the fake glamour of ‘reality’ exhibitionism.” Shouldn’t you get offline already then? And yet, you’re probably selling this as an e-book, too. Why are we doing this interview?

SCALIA: All valid questions. Yes, I am over-connected, and I fully get the irony of the interview. It’s kind of a trade-off, though, isn’t it? We have to make our livings, and many of us do that online. I wrote a book a publisher expects me to promote, and so I talk about the book so much it’s almost unbearable. But that’s where we have to try to find balance — where prayer helps, and the examination of conscience helps. To begin a day with “Lord, don’t trust me; help me to do what serves you and others,” and to end it with a “Lord, forgive my screw-ups and show me where I can do better tomorrow” helps. If we can keep a sane hold on our intentions, then we can at least hope to keep a rein on the monster of ego that helps build our idols.


LOPEZ: How has sex gone from being “something mysteriously sacred to something efficiently nonchalant”? Does the decline of the family have something to do with this?

SCALIA: There is a kind of efficiency in hooking up, isn’t there? When we read scriptural accounts of marriage, or we think back to a time when sex was at least culturally understood to be the gift and consolation of marriage, there was a sacred, mysterious sense of two becoming “one flesh.” Virginity once mattered, but now it is considered to be meaningless — a thing to be gotten rid of as soon as possible (and what a strange idea that is!) — and we are told by pop-culture observers like Hanna Rosin that women are as appreciative of the hook-up culture as men are, because they are looking for careers and don’t wish to be burdened with serious relationships and families. Mary Eberstadt, in her book How the West Really Lost God, makes a strong argument that faith and faith practices grow within families and suffer when marriage and children are denied.


LOPEZ: How has silence become terrifying?

SCALIA: When was the last time you got into the car and didn’t turn on the radio? When was the last time you went to Mass and had a few minutes of silence, either before the Mass, or after, or at some point within it? Do you go for a walk with earbuds in your ears?

Silence is what permits us to hear “the small, still voice” with which God communicates with us, and we go out of our way to ensure that we give no opening to it. Why is that? I think it’s because if we hear that voice, and the tremendousness of its love, we will feel compelled to respond to it — and to respond to it will require something of us. We don’t want much required of us — it’s one of the reasons we walk away from God, to begin with. What might he require of us? That we let him love us; that we draw near; that we turn, and turn again, and turn again. Conversion. “Don’t look over there,” says God. “Look at me and let me love you.” How terrifying is that, when we know the sinful state of our souls, the hate or lust, or pride or malice we harbor in our hearts? It’s very terrifying! Better to not hear that call at all, and thus not have to respond to it. Silence is terrifying for what you might hear within it.  


LOPEZ: You assert: “Nothing grows in no.” Isn’t Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, one big no?

SCALIA: The whole world was created on the intentional “yes” of God. Had he not said “yes,” nothing would have been created. It’s that lovely opening to John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.

I’m always struck by that: “Without him, nothing came to be.” There could never have been “nothing.” God was always there, and God fills everything, down to the molecules and atoms. So, there can only be “nothing” where God is not. Like an idea, an intention is a thing; what God has created in his intention — his “Yes” — has no counterpart in “no.”

I often hear that Catholicism is the “church of ‘no’” or that the Commandments are all about “no,” but how we receive things is a choice we make. If it all looks like “no” to us, it is because we’ve chosen to understand it as “no” — and we’re backed up in that understanding by the affirmation of the world, which seems so full of “yes” — the permission to indulge all of our longings. But the world is worldly; how can we use a worldly measure to receive what is other-worldly? The God of No; Church of No; Rules of No are only “no” if we insist on keeping our understanding tied to what is before our eyes and earthbound. But if we choose to broaden and deepen how we receive a thing, we are more likely to discover the “yes” that underpins everything.


LOPEZ: How is it that “ideas lead to idols” and “ideologies lead to super idols”? Ideas have consequences, and sometimes good ones, don’t they?

SCALIA: Sure. Ideas can be great — the gas oven was a great idea until someone decided that it was useful not just for a Sunday roast, but for the efficient slaughter of human beings. How we let an idea grow — how we allow it to grow, again in that eternal dialogue — is where we get into trouble. Once we’ve moved from idea to idol to super-idol — and I think this happens to us most dangerously when we have made an idol of ideology — we have done more than blocked God, we’ve moved past him; he’s in the rear-view mirror, and we’re intent on creating something of our own, wholly without him. At that point, all we can create is sin and death. We begin treating human beings as commodities and “things.” We begin thinking of other humans not as people fighting all the same demons we are, but as “theys” and “thems” to whom we may assign all manner of evil, and who are therefore due all manner of punishment. We are in the “nothing” where God is not.


LOPEZ: Why is the high-school honor roll so important?

SCALIA: Even the elementary-school honor roll is important because it provides two very excellent life lessons: Sometimes if you work hard, you reap the benefits. And sometimes, you work hard but things don’t turn out as you had hoped. Both lessons are sound. The first gives you optimism, the second gives you fortitude — they’re both necessary to live a healthy, balanced life, and both teach a hell of a lot more than “everyone is special,” which — outside of God, family, and a few friends — is irrelevant.


LOPEZ: You write, “We need to reclaim all the words we’re seeing redefined, for the sake of honesty and reality; but of all of them, it is imperative that we reclaim the word love.”

SCALIA: It’s the most important word, and we haven’t a clue anymore what it means. It is a word of depth, communicating all kinds of messages about permanence, commitment, self-abnegation, and sacrifice, but it has become like the word “amazing!” so overused as to be rendered meaningless — they’re wallpaper words we use to shove into awkward moments. “I love your dress. I love the flowers by the road. Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, I’m lovin’ it!” Really?

I used to tease my kids, “You love it? Would you want to marry it?” What is the action of love? Love creates; love supports; love surrenders. I think so many people choose to use the reading from 1 Corinthians 13 at their weddings because they’re rather desperate for someone to define what mature love really is in an age where the word is thrown around so casually, and where love no longer seems like something that can be permanent or unconditional.


LOPEZ: How do we better honor sacrifice, in a way that makes it real to the everyday?

SCALIA: Well, first by recognizing that the word “sacrifice,” like the word “love,” means something, and that it cannot be compelled because it is based on the action of free will. Shared sacrifice in the interest of “fairness” is a nice idea, but people have to want to participate, or it is not sacrifice at all; it becomes instead another word: “penalty.” One of the reasons socialism does not work, except in monastic houses, is because the idea of sharing all things or sacrificing something for the sake of a community involves a willful self-abnegation — one of the qualities of love — and monastic men and women want to give things up, for the love of God. “Love of country” or “love of neighborhood” might be enough to elicit a spirit of sacrifice from people — during World War II women “sacrificed” silk stockings because the silk was needed for making parachutes among other things — but then again, practically every able-bodied man was in the war, so there was a deeper, more personal connection to the sacrifice. People had “skin in the game,” so to speak. Love must be connected, somehow. And even love of country, love of the Constitution can suddenly seem abstract, if it’s going to cost something. And love always costs something.


LOPEZ: What was the best thing about writing Strange Gods for you?

SCALIA: You know, when you’ve been blogging for a long time, you begin to think you’re incapable of writing anything on a sustained level, so it was good to know I could hold a thought. Mostly, I really have come to appreciate how perfectly God times things. Although I whined and railed about it at the time, it turns out that the monumental case of writer’s block that delayed the release of the book was, in fact, a perfect assist by God — not for my purposes but for his own. His timing is perfect; Pope Francis talks about idolatry quite a lot, and so the book — being published almost simultaneous with his discourse, lends some support as we grapple with what idols mean to our life of faith. As our Holy Father might say, “This was Providential, no?” For me it was a lesson, and a nice smack upside the head to keep my ego in line, because I can’t be tempted to think anything is about me, when clearly there is a design and a plan that has nothing to do with me, except as I make myself available to it. This isn’t pride speaking; we none of us are worthy of doing anything for or with God. But if we’re willing, then God will use us to work his will. My book is very slender; I’m not a scholar or an intellectual, and God perfectly understood my limitations. He gives the heavy lifting to stronger minds. But where I was willing, he used me and put something forth. Again, our “yes” is always answered with a greater “yes.”

 Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.