Two years ago at the American Academy of Religion, we had a Pagan Studies session with “idolatry” in the title. Sessions are described by posters on easels outside the meeting rooms, and I heard a few snickers from people passing in the corridor.
Inside the room, people were talking about statues, etc., as windows on the divine. One paper compared the ritual treatment, dressing, and so on of a Madonna in a Spanish village with a goddess image in Glastonbury.
At the Get Religion blog, which examines the journalistic treatment of religion, there was some discomfort with the way a reporter in India wrote of an “idol” of Jesus that had been vandalized. To me it seemed that the word was used merely in a technical sense, but to the blogger it seemed defamatory: “For a Western audience calling a statue of Jesus an idol is thoughtless or a deliberately provocative statement — both have meanings bellow the surface.”
But I doubt if the original article was meant to provoke, merely to describe.
Meanwhile, here is a review of a new novel with this premise: “This is a sprawaling and subversively funny satire centered around two down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs who stumble upon the idea of reviving for-profit idolatry. Selling statues of household gods to the masses, and building a neo-pagan religion around it.”
I think that this has already been done, guys. Have you looked at the Sacred Source catalog lately? “Fair-trade statuary featuring ancient deities” — looks like they are avoiding the I-word too.
(I have blogged on related topics before. See “The Street of the Idol-Makers” and “Casual Labor at the New Age Trade Show.“)
Now there is a somewhat more sophisticated, more nuanced way in which the monothesists use “idolatry.” It is when they accuse people of putting lesser goals ahead of the Ultimate Goal, as they see it.
Here is Catholic blogger Elizabeth Scalia writing at First Things:
But I wonder if it is not the first and greatest sin named by Yahweh and given to Moses, that is most at fault: the sin of idolatry. We have loved ourselves so well; we have denied ourselves nothing and placed too much of what we love between ourselves and God; we have cherished mere things or other people; over-identified with ideas or ideologies and made an afterthought of God, who will not be mocked.
You can find essentially the same rhetoric from Muslims, merely substituting “Allah” for where Scalia, a few paragraphs down, writes “the Triune God.”
Here “idolatry” is not about whether material things can embody a divine presence, but it has become a metaphor for misplaced philosophical or spiritual priorities. I have less quarrel with that. But I still mistrust the implied devaluation of “the material”—not in the sense of a $4,000 wristwatch, but in the sense of the Earth around us.