Our Gilt-Free Other Gods
By Audrey Stallsmith
Most of us modern, civilized types realize the foolishness of making gods out of wood, stone, or even gold. But we have our ways of compensating--with more virtuous seeming idols.
We often fail to see them as idols because they are, in themselves, such good things. I was reminded, by a depressing movie set in 1930's Ireland, that one of those can be the land.
There have been a lot of films out there over the years about families trying to hang on to the farms or ranches that have been owned by their clans for generations. It is a theme with which we rural types can identify strongly! But The Field points out the grim consequences that can occur when the land actually becomes more important than the people--and when those family ties turn into chains.
The movie's protagonist, Bull McCabe is fiercely attached to a field he and his family have farmed--and built up--for years. When the widow who actually owns the land decides to sell it, an American developer threatens to buy and cement over the all-important field.
Although Bull claims to be looking after his son's interests, that weaker-natured son isn't enthusiastic about farming. So we can guess that the field is actually what gives Bull his own sense of self-respect and accomplishment.
Having only intended to beat up the developer, Bull accidentally kills him instead. Although he is extremely remorseful, we might say that the aptly named Bull "doesn't know his own strength" in more ways than one. His two sons have obviously never been able to live up to his expectations. (The other killed himself when only thirteen.) And the townspeople blindly follow Bull's lead, just because he is such a powerful personality.
They even cover up the murder for him, though the local priest tries to point out that they are violating the tenants of their religion by doing so. That priest has to conclude bitterly that their Christianity is only a thin veneer and other things are more important to them.
This movie, as you might guess, ends in disaster. That's what happens when we try to make gods out of even such good things as land or tradition--or out of anything except the true God.
Some environmentalists too seem to care about the land--or animals--more than they do about either God or other people. Human nature being what it is, we can sometimes see their point with that second one! But how can you ignore a Creator in favor of his creation?
Christ told us that the most important commandments were to love God first and then to love other people as much as we love ourselves. Part of that love for others can, of course, mean preserving our Father's work that has been entrusted to our care, so that it will be around for our descendants to enjoy. But we'd better make sure that it's really them about which we are so concerned, and that we aren't raising the creation higher than its Creator.
Anytime we choose something else over God, that something turns to dust and ashes on us, because nothing else can live up to that kind of demand. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in “First and Second Things,” "The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping." And he goes on to address one of our most prevalent idols: romantic love.
"It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman–glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life. . .that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?
Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made."
Another of those "partial" goods is art. Some of us artistic types decry the way the world is turning ugly, abandoning its beautiful cathedrals for more practical modern architecture. But we must realize that G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown had the right idea when he said, "If you don't know that I would grind all the Gothic arches in the world to powder to save the sanity of a single human soul, you don't know so much about my religion as you think you do."
After all, as Chesterton points out elsewhere, "In some cases the love and care of the artistic symbol has actually become more important than the human reality which it was. . .originally meant to symbolize." When an art (rather it be art itself or music or literature) becomes an end in itself for us, we must realize we've carried it too far.
Education has become a religion to some as well, one that can only be cured by the true religion, which--according to Chesterton--"may be defined as that which puts the first things first." He holds in "The Superstition of School" that Robert Burns "instinctive consideration of men as men came from an ancestry which still cared more for religion than education. The moment men begin to care more for education than for religion they begin to care more for ambition than for education."
As Frederick Buechner writes in Wishful Thinking "Idolatry is the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth." He goes on to point out that things like patriotism, family loyalty, and physical health are fine things when kept in their proper place, "but to make them the standard by which all other values are measured, to make them your masters, to look to them to justify your life and save your soul is sheerest folly."