Not gonna lie, I just bought all the books from The Catholic Hipster’s Catholic Book Cover Up. So as I read them, I’ll let you know the highlights and whether or not they’re worth your time. Since they already made his list, I’m pretty sure they all will be!
Woof. Elizabeth Scalia’s Strange Gods came to me at a uniquely fateful time. As I’ve said before, I’ve been in counseling and EMDR a long time now to deal with fears around pregnancy and a few other things that have happened to me.
What do these things have to do with creating idols in the every day? Nothing, I thought. But as I worked through Scalia’s book, it quickly became clear that yes, the holy spirit was at work in my Amazon book queue, and it was time to take the hint and break through some thick, painful walls.
Here we go!
My Personal Reaction to Strange Gods
I have five past traumas or struggles that I am trying to understand in the context of my Catholic faith. Each affects a different category of life, but each has done damage to my sense of well-being, safety, and trust in God (which in turn damages my relationships with other people, my husband, and, you know, God).
When I reflected on these experiences throughout my EDMR counseling sessions, I started to form a question: Where was God during these traumas? If he is always with me, how did these awful things happen? Doesn’t the pain I experienced mean that God abandoned me? If God abandoned me, that means I’m really on my own, and in each of these situations I couldn’t trust myself or other people, because my thoughts and feelings and those other people lead me to make bad decisions…. so, this whole thing is hopeless.
Even phrasing this question, my throat thickens a little and I feel the tears coming. Each experience on my list brought me a boatload of pain and alone-ness. I felt like a failure, an unwanted mess, and someone without hope. It’s been hard to see anything redeeming, valuable, or loving in any of those experiences… until now.
Scalia’s approach to the process of building and breaking idols seriously cleared up and ordered some of the things I’ve been struggling with in counseling, like: Where was God when I was choosing a unhealthy relationship over my personal boundaries? Oh yeah, he was with me watching it happen, wishing I would wake up and look at the power I had in the relationship.
I don’t mean any of this to imply it’s “my fault” that these negative things happened (or that any victim is at fault). But when I look at my particular situation through this lens, I am humbled to recognize how empowered I really was to stop and change what was happening… if I had only put first things first.
Each of the situations I listed was an idol I’d set up between God and myself. I was relying on each idol to “see me through” and bring meaning to my life, when the only source of meaning that is permanent is through God.
Far from abandoning me, God gave me the freedom to make my choices. He waited patiently in the background while I built these idols and re-arranged my life to pursue them. None of these failures were God abandoning me. He was with me when I sacrificed my body and my mind for each of the idols I created, and he was with me when each idol — inevitably — came crashing down.
But through each of these phases, I wasn’t with God.
When each idol fell apart, the ground under my feet dissolved. But it wasn’t God that dropped out, it was the idol that fell away (and God fell with me), revealing a huge pit of failure and wasted time because I had poured myself into yet another thing that couldn’t hold me. Each created a hole I tried to fill with other idols, which also failed. Until I realized I was on a path where I would have nothing left but God.
Amazing Quotes and Ideas from Strange Gods
Focusing on thoughts and quotes that resonate with me at this point in my life, the following jumped out at me:
- God doesn’t hurt us; idols hurt us. One of the many special moments in Scalia’s book was the following:
“To become too attached to a thought or feeling or thing is to place it between God and ourselves. When we attach ourselves to something other than God, God’s presence is blocked, unseen, and disconnected from our awareness.” p14
“…God — who created a world of order that far surpasses our attempts at order — points his cannons at those heaping compartments [of things we value more than our relationship with God] and goes “ba-boom!” And when we ask (because we never learn), ‘Why did you do that when I had it all so beautifully planned, thought out, and settled?’ God says, ‘It was blocking my love. My love couldn’t reach you with all that stuff in the way.'” p47
Reading this paragraph — in combination with the rest of the chapter, of course — was a “ba-boom” to my heart. God didn’t leave me when those things happened. He was there, hanging out. But I wasn’t looking at him. I was looking at the idol I’d created of whatever I was dealing with, and that’s what let me down.
- God will ask, but not overpower; God asks for our consent. As I struggled with these different idols, there was a piece of the puzzle missing for me all this time: God wants our consent. He wants to be chosen. Until then, he is always with us, and he will turn what happens to us into goodness. But he can’t stop us from reaping what we sow, because that’s not how free will works.
God wasn’t passively watching me get railroaded by life over and over again. He was patiently waiting for me to realize that these idols weren’t worth my time. He was watching me get exactly what I needed: cut off from physical temptation, boarded up from pouring myself into my work, and withdrawn from the temptation of money, success, and ambition. And if he ever removed that choice from our hands, we would lose the amazing freedom that comes with choosing him.
“Isn’t it interesting to ponder that God is not pushy. He sought the consent of his own creatures in order to incarnate and dwell among them. God seeks out our yes because it is most like him; it creates more abundance.” p44
- The Church’s “Nos” are “Yesses.” If there’s one stereotype for “religion” in general, it’s that it’s a big book of rules that prevents everyone from having fun. That’s fine if you want to go through life thinking on a fourth-grade level, but it’s sort of like saying the Constitution is there to keep everyone from having fun, when in fact, we all know it’s there to provide the maximum amount of freedom and happiness for everyone living in America.
God’s rules are the same way, but in a much bigger way. The ten commandments are framed as “shall nots,” but the meaning behind them might as well be, “If you want to be happy, thou shall not…” As always — since the beginning of creation — we’re free to do whatever we want and make whatever mistakes are most attractive to us. But the one thing we cannot change is the truth that living outside those rules will make us miserable and horrible people filled with the idols of ideas, groups, political parties, preferences, sexual addictions, and hatefulness for the “other.”
“[…If we are open to hearing the wisdom of those who have come before us, rather than insisting on our own notions…] we discover that if the commandments and teachings seem heavy on the “shall nots,” those words are not actually about God or Church saying no. Rather, they are warnings about what takes us away from God, what creates distance — the actions (born of ideas) that say no to him, no to others, and yes only to ourselves, which makes our world very small indeed.” p44
“[This person] proclaimed that she wants to do the life in Christ on her own, while saying yes to the world and its values. She misses the simple truth (and our emptying pews suggest she is not alone) that far from being an institution of no, the Church is a giant and eternal urging toward yes to God — whose ways are not our ways and who draw all to himself, in the fullness of time — rather than a yes to ourselves.” p114
Available here on Amazon for about $14
Tangents Inspired By Strange Gods
I’ve already covered my tangents at this point, but there’s one more thing to be a little cranky about: how God gets the blame for all the bad things that happen.
The way it goes (as C.S. Lewis also presents it), if bad things happen, God either can’t stop them or won’t stop them. Which means he’s either not all-powerful, or not all-good. But that’s such an illogical division. It breaks apart when we stick free will in there, when we understand that God is all powerful — but chooses to leave it up to us whether to embrace him or not.
In these situations, God gives us good things (sex, health, love, friendships, money, power) and we choose to do awful things with them. We create cycle upon cycle of awful things… and then look up and say, “There’s no God, because we’re doing bad things.”
I’m not in the clear, here. I’ve asked these questions and made these kinds of statements enough times myself. It’s just frustrating now to see how wrong I was from the other side. This book really helped me see how free will is a sticky wicket that gives us all kinds of confusion if we don’t respect our role in it from the start.
If You Only Get One Thing Out of It….
If you’ve ever felt like God abandoned you, dig a little deeper. It’s not that it’s your fault that a bad thing happened — it’s that you might have been trying to hold onto something that wasn’t good for you instead of embracing what God wanted for you. In any case, the happy ending is that no matter what we’ve done, what’s been done to us, or what we wish would be done for us, God is right there — RIGHT THERE — waiting for you to turn around and say “Yes.”
Don’t Stop Here!
Like the man said, if you don’t read good books, you’ll read bad ones. Here are more Catholic book reviews to keep you busy: