Strange Gods — A Conversation with Elizabeth Scalia

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About one hundred times per day, I thank God for his goodness towards me, for his boundless generosity in my life. I’d say that at the very least, one of those “Thank You, God!” moments has to do with something my friend Elizabeth Scalia has taught me. Aside from being the author of the amazing book  Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, Elizabeth is for me an editor, a mentor, a spiritual role model and a friend. Along with inviting you to read the following conversation with Elizabeth about this terrific post, I would like to point you to her blog at Patheos. If you’re not already a daily reader, you should be! I hope you enjoy this interview and that you’ll take time to check out Strange Gods too. I know you will love it!

Elizabeth Scalia

Elizabeth Scalia

Q: Please briefly introduce yourself and your family to our readers.

Well, I’m married and the mom of two grown men — one of whom is getting married next May while the other is fronting a blues band. We’ve been married 31 years, this October, and we really, really need to take a vacation.

Q: Could you give us the “elevator pitch” for this book? In other words, how would you describe Strange Gods to someone whose never heard of it.

Strange Gods explores Gregory of Nyssa’s statement that “Ideas create idols” and finds evidence that he is correct — that we are still very much Israelites creating sacred calves, still very much, in fact, in Eden, serving ourselves and our ideas, and rationalizing it, and in all of that distancing ourselves from the God who only wants us to look at him, It examines how the first commandment is meant to save us from ourselves, and how we never really consider it, or even realize we’re breaking it almost daily. Everyday idolatry.

Q: Elizabeth, since I am blessed beyond measure to call you my own editor and friend, I heard your voice in my head when I read the book. Was it challenging for you to be so personal and open in your writing, especially on such a daunting topic?

Why, that’s nice of you to say, and I am privileged in my friendships, too! The challenge of the book was to stop talking about myself, because once I really got down to pondering and praying about the issue, the discoveries of my own idolatry came at me fast and furious. It was like being in the middle of a space-junk storm. Wherever I turned, I was discovering that the biggest, worst idolator I knew was myself, and discovering, too, how insidiously I allow idols to be formed and how easily I serve them. Thankfully, I’ve come to realize that awareness is a great blessing, because it is the means by which I can daily examine and acknowledge where I may be entertaining idols, or building those calves, and then try to wrestle them to the ground. And for the first time in my life, when I make my examen, I am really looking at the way I break the First Commandment. Doing so helps me to see where I am blowing it with the rest of the commandments. It’s made for interesting confessions! The first time I confessed idolatry the priest was pretty shocked. He said, “no one confesses that.” And I said, “I’ll give you a copy of my book when it comes out.” :-)

Q: As I read your book and knowing that it was likely nearly completely finished by the time Pope Francis as elected, I wonder what you might say now about how our spiritual shepherd teaches us to look squarely into the idols in our lives. Also, is there the risk for even some very pious Catholics to turn Pope Francis himself into a bit of an idol?

That’s a great question, especially the second part. It has been a running joke among my friends, and over at Patheos, that Pope Francis and I are in a bit of a mind-meld, because he really does bring up idolatry a lot in his homilies and within his audiences, and he even addressed idolatry early, and with strong words, in his encyclical Lumen Fidei. As to making an idol of Francis, that is always a danger, as it is with any pope, or person we admire, whether in politics or entertainment or whatever. The formation of an idol is always based on ourselves — what we think of ourselves, how we want to see ourselves reflected back to us. Politically we saw it happen in 2008, when people projected themselves onto Barack Obama and Sarah Palin to the point where, as I saw on my blog, even mild or constructive criticism was met with fervent denunciations by their fans, who really saw themselves in their candidates.

As to popes, remember what Gregory of Nyssa said: Ideas lead to idols. When it comes to a pope, or a president, we can turn them into idols when we think they are giant validators of our own ideas. People can make an idol of a pope — any pope — simply because they like the idea of him, and what he’s saying (because his ideas seem to be our ideas) without ever really hearing a word he is saying, or internalizing the lessons and adopting the habits of prayer, service or humility that he is exhorting us to. I actually wrote a piece in the Washington Post, which I’ll give you the link to, where I wondered whether the world was, in fact, turning Francis into a kind of idol. The piece annoyed a lot of people, particularly if they read the title but not the whole article, which made the point that if we’re only hearing what we want to hear from Francis, or truncating his words so they more closely resemble what we think, then yes…we’re in danger of making an idol of him. Interestingly, the Spadaro interview with Pope Francis was released the day after the WaPo piece was published, and we kind of got to watch my thesis play out in real time.

1-59471-342-1Q: Now that you’re a few months out from the writing of the book, how do you find people reacting to it?

What has been so surprising, is how seriously people took the book and how many people have told me, “this book convicted me”; one woman told me it had her crying because she identified her idols for the first time. I felt kind of bad about that because to my way of thinking, I’d written a “light” book — I tried to keep it light, insert humor where appropriate, and I certainly kept pointing the finger at my own failings, but perhaps the commonality of those failings is what registered. The Holy Spirit uses whatever surprising means and people to work the will of God and between the book and Pope Francis’ nearly weekly raising of the issue, I feel like maybe God is trying to tell us, “look at me, let me love you, put all of that away.” And to be honest, it feels like there is an urgency to it.

Q: We Catholic authors also often double as our own cheerleaders, which is a challenging role for most of us. We’d rather promote anyone else’s book before our own! Has your own life been changed fundamentally by the exercise of writing and then promoting this book?

Its’ been really humbling, often uncomfortable — you’re right that it’s not always easy to promote oneself, but part of writing a book is being prepared to work with your publisher to do just that.

Has that changed me in some way? I think so. Before the book, I think my life-motto might have been “Work hard, very hard; If you are awake, be working”. Now, frankly, my motto is “kiss it all up to God and calm yourself down.”

While I was writing the book I took everything so seriously and fussed and fretted and treated it all so much like work (instead of privilege and gift) that I became blocked and couldn’t write at all. Talk about taking yourself too seriously! Instead of just kissing it all up to God and getting on with it I got so bogged down in me that nothing could get done. I was in my own way. Blocking myself, so to speak. I’ve learned to get out of my way (and God’s way) and just, yeah…bend into the curve of the Holy Spirit — not insist so much upon my own ideas.

In this, I am very fortunate in my family; I don’t see how anyone writes a book without a lot of help from family members willing to eat Chinese take-out or Pizza more than anyone should reasonably be asked to. More to the point, though, while my family is supportive, they also are very funny, irreverent sorts who have really kept me grounded through this whole experience because their support always came with a measure of teasing, or awful pun-making and joking. So, supportive they were (as Yoda might say) but they never took “me” seriously and perhaps that’s one of the reasons I was surprised to see others take the book seriously. My sons and husband are delighted for me but not that interested in the book; even better, among my in-laws the book is an amusingly great mystery, because they think “writing and reading books is crazy! Very nice, of course — and that’s a nice cover — but it’s crazy!” When you’re around all that, you can’t get on a high horse or start thinking too well of yourself. I’m grateful for it. I’m laughing more.

Q: What is the most important point you hope readers will take away from their experience with Strange Gods?

That God is constantly urging us to look at him, not because he’s a control freak or a jealous egoist but because when we look at him, and let him love us, we are doing all we need to do to effect our salvation — the rest is grace. If we are observing the first commandment, all the rest of them become moot. As we place God before all else, we give him direct access to our hearts and souls — no detours or circuitous routes — and this cannot help but change us; it helps us to detach from the world, from expectations and times and trends and materialistic tendencies. Placing no strange gods before Him, we are set free.

Q: What’s next for you personally and professionally?

Oh, I don’t know. I love managing the Catholic channel at Patheos.com. The entire Patheos crew in Colorado is a pleasure to work with and the channel writers are a blast; they’re like dear friends and mischivous children all at once. The job has actually helped my parenting skills and also helped me to discover diplomatic depths (and levels of patience) that I didn’t know existed within myself, so that’s been good; it’s making me feel civilized instead of feral for the first time in my life.

I have a couple of book ideas in my head but working full time while writing is really tough so I don’t know if I am going to pursue them. I have been thinking lately, that I’d like to branch out into radio, because doing the book signings has made me realize that — while I am shy — I actually do enjoy meeting people and getting to know them and asking them questions about themselves. And also, radio might be attractive because I’m so tired of typing. I type all day, every day! To just sit around talking sounds so…efficient.

Most immediately, though, I’m really looking forward to my son’s wedding, next May; his fiancee is already very much like my own daughter, and he’ll be the first grandson married so I am hoping for beautiful weather and a very joyful family event. And I’m thrilled to watch my other son blossom as a working musician. My husband and I are very blessed and perhaps over the winter and spring, we’re meant to really absorb that reality a bit more.

Q: Are there any additional thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

Do you know, I hope I don’t sound like Miss Platitudes, here, but I’m going to be 55 years old in a day or so and now that I am a senior citizen, I actually do have a life lesson to share: Do not be afraid. God is good. In all things, God is good.

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Copyright 2013 Lisa M. Hendey

3 Comments
  1. November 15, 2013 | Reply
  2. November 16, 2013 | Reply
  3. Maggie Goff
    November 16, 2013 | Reply

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