Idolatry. It’s not a word we use much anymore. It carries the taint of ancient superstition, of the backward ways of people who lived before the age of scientific rationality. Sure, sure, let them have their funny little religions. But we know better.
Or do we? I’m not so sure.
Worship and idolatry take the forms appropriate to the age in which people live. We don’t live in the Stone Age, or for that matter, the Bronze Age, or the Iron Age. But we are heir to the Industrial Age in ways we take for granted, and are becoming slaves to the so-called Information Age in which we now live. To some contemporary ears, particularly in cultures that don’t understand ancestor worship or family shrines, passages like the one below might sound a bit quaint:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but they do not speak;
they have eyes, but they do not see;
they have ears, but they do not hear,
and there is no breath in their mouths. (Ps 135:15-17, NRSV)
It’s not that we can’t understand what the psalmist is picturing. The ancients fashioned idols out of wood, stone, or metal to represent their gods, the beings they would petition for various favors. In that context, the people of Israel continually struggled themselves to stop worshiping idols and to give their devotion to God alone, a problem poignantly illustrated by the debacle of the Golden Calf. It was still a problem even in the New Testament era. The apostle Paul, for example, struggled to help the Corinthians understand the relationship between faith, grace, and holiness, and the need to give up their former pagan ways (e.g., 1 Cor 10:14-22).
But without that shared history and context, it might be hard to connect with what Paul or the psalmist is saying. What, so people were praying to their garden gnomes? Didn’t they realize how silly that is?
Yes, the apostle would probably say. It is silly. But it’s also serious, especially in the way it affects the relationship between believers.
That’s why it’s important to note what the psalmist says next:
Those who make them
and all who trust them
shall become like them. (vss. 15-18, NRSV)
You are, one might say, what you worship. This doesn’t necessarily mean building an altar where we kneel, or bring gifts, or offer incense to spiritual or celestial beings. Worship has always been a part of a romantic mythology in which the beloved is idealized, put up on a pedestal. Worship is part of our celebrity culture; there’s a reason pundits warn of “cults” of personality, even in churches.
And in an age driven by the instantaneous availability of information, one of our most precious resources is our attention. We may think that we are merely using our electronic devices as convenient tools to do what we wanted to do anyway, and there is some truth in this. But the more insidious reality is that our devices are also using us. Or, to put it more directly, the people who develop and market our devices and apps are all competing for our attention, and specifically design those apps to grab hold of our attention and not let go.
You’ve already experienced this if you can’t help falling for the click-bait that pops up on your screen. Or you can’t stop “doomscrolling,” obsessively reading one prediction of disaster after another. Or you just have to check your social media feeds, even when reading other people’s posts makes you depressed. Or you can’t stop playing that stupid video game, even when your eyes can’t focus. Or, or, or…
This isn’t meant to be a guilt trip: You say you don’t have enough time to read your Bible, but you have two hours a day to spend surfing and scrolling on your iPhone — what’s up with that? Rather, it’s a plea for us to examine our habits and ask the hard questions. Our online obsession with shopping, bad news, or social media unavoidably shapes our perspective and character, and affects our mood.
It pains me to go to a restaurant, for example, and see a young family sitting at a table, with no one talking to anyone else; everyone’s eyes and attention, from the youngest to the oldest, is glued to a phone or tablet. Believe me, I get it: I know the temptation of using devices as “shut-up toys” to keep the kids quiet. But there is a long-term price to pay, because whatever kids are getting on those devices is more immediately compelling that any conversation they might have with their parents. It’s designed that way. The practice becomes a habit, and the habit a disposition. Soon, we find we’d rather look at screens than talk to each other.
If that’s your family, consider this possibility: don’t just go to church on Sunday, but institute a family “technology Sabbath.” Turn off your phones. Don’t check your email or social media accounts. Instead, talk to each other. Play board games together instead of video games alone. You get the idea. It will be hard, and everyone will be tempted to break ranks. But families who stay on course often rediscover something they had forgotten: that family life, life together, can be a gift.
Your ability to direct your attention is a God-given ability.
Don’t squander it needlessly.