Instead of carved statues of Adonis or Venus, we have created for each person his own hand-held idol, designed with amazing ingenuity and carved with utmost skill from precious materials. Each one of us has a little god who offers us the world in the palm of our hand.
I’ve been traveling in Italy and the universal ubiquity of the smart phone hit home. Everybody has one. Chinese tourists, American sightseers, Muslim women in burkhas, children and old women, beautiful Italian teens, thugs with tattoos, and charming African nuns.
Everybody has an iPhone and everybody has their nose stuck to the screen. Not only are their noses stuck to the screen, but there seems to be an odd obsession with taking photographs of everything all the time. (Remember when you only had 24 or 36 shots in a roll of film?)
In the Uffizi, crowds of tourists do not stand in front of Botticelli’s Primavera in awesome wonder. They snap a quick selfie and move on, thirsty for the next famous picture and another snapshot. Crowds of Chinese people trudged through the Forum not taking it all in, but filming themselves with selfie sticks—as if the experience was not the experience but the experience was the experience of filming oneself experiencing the experience.
I was baffled.
I asked an artist friend about this odd human behavior, “Why do they do this? Why do they stand before Michelangelo’s David and take a snap? They can buy a postcard or poster. It’s a famous image. They can see it anytime.” My friend turned out to be not only an artist but a speculative moral theologian. “I think they take the photographs because they want to possess that thing. They don’t want a postcard or poster. They want it on their phone. They want David for their own. They want that priceless, unbelievable masterpiece in their pocket.”
This brought back the verse from the beginning of all things. In the garden, our first mother eyed the forbidden fruit, and the storyteller says, “She looked on it with desire.” She desired it. She wanted it. She wanted to own it. So she reached out and took it.
In doing so she gave her allegiance to the subtle but serpentine gentleman who seduced her in the first place. She said, “You can have me if you give me what I desire.” That set up the dynamic of idolatry, for what were those ancient carved images but representations of the demonic demigods—fellow fallen angels—who promised their devotees the fulfillment of their desire? “Worship me. Be my slave, and I will give you prosperity, peace, pleasure, and power.”
You have heard of the “temple prostitutes” who gave themselves to serve the demons of desire. They prostituted themselves.
And so do we. Instead of carved statues of Adonis or Venus, images of horned chimeras, monstrous hybrids or six-armed, blood-sucking goddesses from hell, we have technology. Designed with amazing ingenuity and carved with utmost skill from precious materials, we have created for each person his own hand-held idol. Each one of us has a little god who offers us the world in the palm of our hand.
I hear you protest: “Come now, Father. You exaggerate. You are playing the Jeremiah. Your Amish roots are showing. These gadgets are tools—no more than that. Hi-tech to be sure, but really no more and no less dangerous than any other tool… a corkscrew, a jackhammer, a chainsaw, a bulldozer, or a ballpoint pen.”
Yes, perhaps, but these gadgets offer much more than a spade, a hair dryer, a microwave oven, or a trowel. They seduce us by offering our heart’s desire, do they not? These screens offer us all the knowledge in the world. They tempt us with pornography or endless bargains in the online, always open, global shopping mall. They entertain us with endless worlds of unreality, drawing us away from apprehending the present moment. They take us away from the people who long for our attention to give homage to other more attractive distractions on the screen. They demand our time, and what is time but the measure of our life itself?
Corkscrews and staplers don’t do that. But idols do. The mischievous demigod within the idol offered endless entertainment, pleasure, power, and prosperity. He offered the deadly fruit of our desire, and like our first parents, we took the fruit and did eat.
If I am right, then what shall we do, all we who worship the idol Phone? Like the prophet Elijah shall we summon all the prophets of Baal to Mt Carmel? Shall we slaughter them and let not one of them escape? Shall we come down the mountain with Father Moses, smash the golden iPhone calves, ground them up, mix them in water, and make the repentant apostates drink the foul concoction? Shall we do as the iconoclasts of old and smash the false gods?
I think not. Abuses should not undo right uses. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater, but being aware of the temptations we should step away and teach our children to step away. As in all things, we should avoid excess. The way of balance is to love all things according to their worth. Your gadgets really are no more than tools. They should serve you. You should not serve them.
So to show it who’s boss, turn the darn thing off. Be alert. Become more aware of the reality around you. Pay attention to people. Cultivate conversation. Rejoice in the beauty of the natural world. Observe the joys and sorrows of the world around you and be thankful. Pray more.
And speaking of prayer, just for the record, what was I using to pray the Divine Office when I came across that psalm?
An app called iBreviary on my iPhone, of course.
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