The Funny Thing About Idols
David Heddendorf

I. Devisings

Why do the biblical writers talk about idols the way they do? In the Psalms, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk, a number of similarly worded passages describe idols as helpless, immobile images that human beings foolishly worship:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
  the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
  they have eyes, but do not see;
they have ears, but do not hear,
  nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them become like them,
  so do all who trust in them. 
(Ps. 135:15-18 ESV)

These familiar phrases end up coloring the way we think about “idol worship,” so that we picture Israel’s neighbors bowing down to artfully devised images, trusting in chunks of carved stone or cast bronze for the necessities of life.

But if we shift our perspective a little, and recall photographs of ancient statuary in, say, our college history textbooks, we find ourselves regarding these images differently. They obviously represent gods—invisible beings to whom people ascribe influence over natural conditions like fertility and weather. The stone or metal images stand for absent deities. Contemplating these pieces in our history books, we would no sooner imagine adherents treating the images themselves as gods than we’d think of people confusing shrine images with Hindu divinities—or, for that matter, than we ourselves would confuse a crucifix or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with Christ or God the Father.

cinemaYet the Old Testament writers insist on deriding the blind, deaf, and dumb “idols” that their contemporaries worship. Are the writers simply being obtuse? Are they, in a way, more naive and unsophisticated than the idolaters they lampoon? Or is their scorn a kind of chauvinism or unfairness, a willful failure of imagination?

What’s happening here might best be understood as a kind of elaborate joke. Since in fact, as the writers would contend, no gods exist “behind” the carefully crafted images, the images themselves remain the sole objects of worship, and the writers pretend that people trust in them. No matter how much the faithful or their solemn clergypersons might protest otherwise, they’re essentially bowing down to their own symbols. In an ironic charade, the writers play dumb in order to ridicule an empty religious practice.

The most famous example of such mockery comes, of course, in 1 Kings 18, where Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal. Why won’t their god “answer by fire,” and consume the offering they’ve prepared? Perhaps, the man of God sarcastically suggests, the deity they depict and serve is neglecting their sacrifice because he’s asleep, or away on a journey. Or maybe he’s just in the bathroom. Even by the Bible’s earthy standards, this last crack is a surprising bit of low comedy; but any notion of Elijah as an irrepressible kidder is dashed when he personally executes the 450 prophets of Baal. Humor in the Bible rarely leaves us laughing very long.

II. Devices

“Devices” we call them, the cunningly wrought objects we’re never without. Cradled lovingly, reached for unconsciously, clung to with a deep and mostly unacknowledged need, they’re at once our symbols of self-absorption and, increasingly, the locus of our public life. They disrupt our communion with God, family, friends. They steal our time. They lead us into temptation. Long before our children text and drive, or discover what sexting is, or succumb to cyberbullies, we leave them to their devices—like any Canaanite offering sons and daughters to Molech.

But surely this overstates the case? Doesn’t blaming our devices amount to fetishizing a wafer of digital circuitry—naively focusing on the object, as if it were some graven image, while ignoring its intangible yet real purpose? Our devices exist to bring us data, information. They make knowledge flow, and deliver us from grinding, time-consuming tasks. They help us track down our best friends from high school. They help us monitor our children’s progress in math. They warn us about tornadoes, give directions to the hotel, channel money to a host of good causes. They even promote, for millions of users, the free exchange of reflective, insightful opinion. Such benefits manifest the spirit of the device. Don’t they?

Of course, there’s the dizzying volume of so much information, and the effects this surfeit has on our forms of attention. For years, psychological studies and more personal reports have observed our dwindling ability to concentrate. The confessions of the penitent device user are becoming a stock essay genre—available most often in digital form. It’s time to disengage, unplug, get back to nature, say these writers. We’re losing our wisdom, our humanity, our souls. But no one really means it. If we meant it, that would mean…well, no one really knows what it would mean.

Then there are the specific evils our devices bring: bogus information that was once called—when everyone knew and agreed upon what the phrase meant—“fake news”; instantly available, casually accepted pornography; character inflation and character assassination, whether the targets are celebrities or sensitive teens; and sheer corrosive, numbing stupidity, from incoherent use of language to videos of mindless behavior. To such we yield ourselves, drifting imperceptibly and sometimes willfully from whatever is honorable, whatever is lovely, whatever is worthy of praise.

But none of that has anything to do with the devices themselves, right? Data is content, and content can change. Once we suffer through these growing pains, the internet will come of age, its true potential revealed. We’ll experience the real benefits of our devices. The destructive impulses will wear themselves out, like a thunderstorm or a bad cold. When the Zeitgeist turns, the people who produce and control content, wakening to their enormous influence, will make a collective effort toward truth and the common good, applying the same ingenuity that they now expend on ephemera and profits. Maybe they just need to see things bottom out. Maybe they just need some prodding from a concerned public.

Maybe they’re just all in the bathroom.   


David Heddendorf lives in Ames, Iowa. His literary criticism has appeared frequently in the Southern Review and Sewanee Review.            

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