Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
If you've been online at all in the past month, you've probably seen the buzz about Elizabeth Scalia's new book, Strange Gods. I'd seen a sneak peak at some of the chapters and was anxious to read the whole thing; after hearing what Calah, Elizabeth Duffy, Pat and Sarah had to say about it, I was even more excited. I finally got a chance to sit down and read my copy the other day, and it was even better than I'd expected.
Ave Maria Press publishes only the very finest books, and this one is no exception. Each chapter examines something different that we might turn into an idol. Elizabeth covers the big ones, such as money or self-love, but she also unearths some idols many of us may not have ever realized we have. How often do we consider that even our love of good things like the Church or our country can veer into idolatry if we aren't truly putting God first?
For me, the most powerful part of the text was her deeply personal conclusion, in which she admitted that her own book about idols had become an idol for her. The first red flag was when she stopped having time for the people she loved because of her work on the book. Elizabeth writes:
One discovery I made in the process is that even if you are managing to make it to church on Sunday and squeeze in fifteen minutes of prayer time here or there, if you do not have time for your family or friends -- if you're willing to put other things, most notably your work, before them -- then it's only a matter of time until you start to put your work before God and create a genuine idol of it.
Oof! That one hit a little too close to home. I laughed with weary familiarity when she continued:
If I was not being all I could to my family, at least I was still praying as much of the Liturgy of the Hours as I could, every day...until I wasn't.
Well, I was still managing to make the weekly hour of Eucharistic Adoration that has been my constant wellspring of learning and consolation for more than a dozen years...until I wasn't.
But Sunday Mass. That was something that I would never miss -- not for this! Not for a project that is all about God, a project that I had lain before the cross and completely offered up to him, to grow or die according to his will. And then came that final weekend deadline, when I did miss Mass, although, truthfully, not wholly intentionally. It just happened.
But still. There it is. Intentional or not, I had my head so buried in my work that I managed to put it before God and to forget to "keep holy the Lord's day" -- a commandment-busting twofer. Thank goodness that upon realizing what I'd done (or hadn't done), I didn't compound the issue by taking the Lord's name in vain.
I get to laugh, because I've done something like that so many times. I don't have time to pray! I'll think in exasperation. I have to finish writing this post about how important it is to pray!
Perhaps because I spent the first few decades of my life seeking salvation in the world, I'm a natural idolater. Change a few names and details, and Elizabeth's book could have been my biography. Since the beginning of my conversion, I've had to struggle against a tendency to put my hope in anything other than God -- a tendency that was deeply ingrained in me over years and years of practice.
Luckily, thanks to the counsel of wise confessors and spiritual directors, I'm slowly learning how to reject the temptation to idolatry and put God first in my life. And, for me, it almost always comes down to one simple thing:
There are a lot of issues at the root of my idolatrous actions, but none are more potent than my own desire for control. When I put my writing before God, it's usually because I'm in a time crunch and feel certain that the universe will promptly cease to exist if I miss my deadline by a day because I sacrificed writing time for prayer time. When I put various internet distractions before God, it's because I fear that I'll be too worn down at the end of the day if I don't have enough relaxation time. When I put good food or drink before God, it's because I fear that something will be missing in my life I don't eat and drink exactly what I want, when I want to.
In each case, the message is clear: I don't trust God to give me what I need in order to put him first.
On the (all-too-rare) occasions that I let go of my idols, it is stunning to see how God provides. The missed writing deadline ends up being a blessing in disguise, I feel more energized by prayer than if I'd spent that extra 15 minutes on Twitter, or I find that, to my great surprise, I am just as fulfilled without the double-bacon cheeseburger. You would think that I would have been able to get my idolatrous tendencies more under control by now, since I have never once regretted it when I made the choice to put God first.
Until I read Strange Gods, none of this was clear to me. I had an awareness of the issue and a vague sense of the sins I needed to guard against in order to combat it, but it's only now that I've read Elizabeth's lucid and powerful examination of the subject that I feel truly equipped to root out the idols in my life.
If you haven't read the book, you must. You just might be surprised at how many idols you have lurking in your own life, and how inspired you feel to get rid of them once and for all.