In the six degrees of separation, a friend of a friend is friends with Margaret Atwood. My friend was trying to set up an invitation to Atwood to help out with a project here in St. Catharines, and I excitedly demanded that if something like that did indeed materialize, she would invite me along. “I don’t want to be introduced to her, or anything,” I said. “I would just love to be in the same room as her.”
In fact, the idea of meeting someone like Margaret Atwood, or Leonard Cohen — the artist that I respect above all others — fills me with a sort of dread. My ideal encounter would involve a dinner table of six to eight people, allowing me insight into the person beyond the concerts, interviews and book signings. I imagine observing Cohen’s every elegant mannerism, listening to the dry lilt of Atwood’s studied opinions, drinking in the details of their struggles, their humour, how they might be funny and fragile with friends and how friends might be less than deferential with them. But the operational words for me in this dream scenario would be “observe” and “listen.” I wouldn’t presume to have anything to say in return. To be a fly on the wall at such a dinner would be ideal. I could soak up their masterful presence without any sort of pressure or expectation from me to contribute anything in return.
The possibility of my sitting at a dinner table with Margaret Atwood or Leonard Cohen in this life is not on any horizon, so I don’t need to lose sleep over this. But the conversation with my friend did cause me to consider how my attitude toward these celebrities might also reveal something of my relationship with God. The Hebrew Scriptures consistently and fiercely warn against idolatry, and yet there is no other descriptor for my feelings for these famous people. They are undeniably my idols. What is more, it is entirely common for all of us in North America in the 21st century to claim an idolatrous relationship with ordinary people who have come to exist in that rare stratosphere of celebrity.
The Scriptures seem to suggest that the problem with idolatry is that God is jealous. But there is something less than satisfactory about this explanation. Jealousy is a very human emotion, and one of the baser ones at that. Does God really get jealous, or are we reading our human emotions onto God? Are we guilty of the all too common instinct to fashion God in our own image?
The broader and deeper witness of Scripture is that the instinct behind any divine directive is to protect and care for us. In other words, if God is so concerned about idolatry, then there must be something destructive about idolatry from which God is seeking to protect us.
The obvious problem idolatry causes for us is that we are replacing our relationship with God with something less than God. The Carmelite tradition notes especially the role of desire in our lives and claims desire as good and true. However, when our desire gets misplaced, when we come to want, respect, and worship those things that are not God, then we are setting ourselves up to be disappointed. We are giving our hearts to things that aren’t big enough or lasting enough to truly meet our desire. (Hence, perhaps, the outraged glee that we collectively take in seeing one of these larger-than-life personalities topple off the pedestals on which we have set them). We settle for not-God and we miss out on the thing for which we are created: relationship with God.
But maybe more than that, idolatry opts for a one-way relationship rather than the ultimately mutual relationship into which God invites us. It is a sin, it is separation from God, to adopt a practice of worship which only goes one way, which asks nothing of me in return. We may, for example, have an impulse to worship Jesus, and that is fine and good. But clearly God chose to reveal the divine life to us in human form for the sake of relationship. The word atonement suggests the repairing of a broken relationship, but the implications of the word – at one – also suggests the fulfillment of relationship. We are to learn, to listen, to follow; to bring our faith and doubts and needs and hopes and courage to gather with Jesus at a rowdy banquet and to find that something of all that each of us brings will be used to make the fellowship around that table sparkle and the healing that is offered real and true. What is more, the witness of Jesus is entirely consistent with the personal God that is seen through the Hebrew Scriptures as meandering in the garden with the newly created people, wrestling with Jacob in the middle of the night, crying out as the beautiful lady Wisdom in the streets, yearning as a mother or lover for the affection of her people. Yearning. Yes, there is a risk that we might worship the wrong things, that we might worship mortals instead of the immortal. And there is an even greater risk that we might miss that sweet and forever note of God’s yearning: the yearning for us to know God and also to be known by God; the yearning that we might open our hearts and discover our gifts and become the fullest expression of the person that we were called to be by discovering what God has given us and how those gifts can become an offering of love – two-way, mutually delightful love, multiplying into the world.
Now, these insights into my relationship with God don’t give me any more confidence that I should do anything other than shut up and listen should I ever have the honour of meeting Leonard Cohen or Margaret Atwood. I assume that Cohen and Atwood are wise enough as celebrities to surround themselves with people who don’t merely admire them, but who are real with them and allow them to be real in return. They don’t need that from me, but they do need that. Every tragic story of a fallen Star begins with idolatry, with mere mortals being elevated to a one-way status of worship and affirmation, surrounded by nothing but Yes Men and lacking the all-important checks and balances of authentic relationship.
The costs of idolatry aren’t just felt in the realm of celebrity though. I also need to check my worship of human idols. I need to guard against it taking over my ability to offer and participate in the world around me, to use my God-given abilities of courage and perseverance, my baptismal responsibility to develop an inquiring and discerning heart. We are perhaps witnessing in this upcoming election south of the border the collective cost of celebrity culture – the choosing of the one-way wrestling ring of entertainment over the basically human responsibility and capability of being engaged, informed and to contribute to our collective life in ways that are both thoughtful and respectful.
Finally, idolatry also yields a cost for God. It isn’t the cost that we might assume from a light reading of Scripture, the image of our God with His nose out of joint, pouting in the heavens because we have chosen someone other than Him. God doesn’t need to be in relationship with us, doesn’t need to be loved by us. That is important: it means that God’s need doesn’t ever trump our freedom. It is the case though, that from the beginning of the holy witness of faith, down through the pages of the Bible and the lives of the saints, comes the message that core to God’s nature is love. That we were created in God’s image and likeness to choose that love and to bear that love. That God groans with all of creation as long as we settle for anything less than the fullness of that love. That God’s hands stretch out in suffering as we choose lives of separation, imprisonment and powerlessness over the ones for which we have been created. Amazingly, God calls us all to the table, not as flies on the wall, but as participants in the conversation, fellowship, joy and love shared around the great banquet.