I decided early on in the lockdown that this would be an ideal time to embark on a sustained reading of the Old Testament, a part of the bible that I have rather neglected, apart from a few choice books and passages. It happens that the Church lectionary, whose bible readings I use every morning, is taking us on a journey through Exodus, kindly omitting the lists, genealogies and other more cumbersome sections and sticking to the interesting bits.
This morning we got to the part where the people, in the absence of Moses, who was busy up a mountain, are constructing a golden calf for themselves by melting down all their valuables. They then proceed to ‘worship’ it. When Moses comes back down the mountain he is furious with Aaron, the priest who he had left in charge and who tries to explain to him that a riot was about to break out, so he had to give people something to keep them busy (collecting the gold and making the calf) and which might help channel their aggression into something more creative and positive – ‘worship’, presumably. God is even more furious than Moses and commands that the calf should be melted down and the people made to eat it. End of today’s reading.
History is all very well, but not all history improves the mind of the one reading it, especially biblical history read in the wrong way, with the wrong pair of glasses on, as it were. Allowing for this, we still have this story in the bible and it invites quite a bit of thought about God, specifically, whether the God of the Old Testament, who it appears was quite happy to poison the population in a fit of jealous pique, and the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ, are the same person. Some of us put off thinking about this for as long as possible. Others, in the past, have thought a great deal about it and decided that the OT God is not the same God as the one Jesus worshipped as Father. These thinkers have, for the most part, been written off as heretics.
Be that as it may, it’s tempting to dismiss the question as irrelevant, or even to dismiss God altogether and, given his Old Testament reputation, many people have decided to do just that. But this is also where we can miss the real point of the golden calf story. I don’t think we are being invited to ponder the existence of God here, or even what kind of God he might be.
What we are being invited to reflect on is ‘idolatry’ and its cognate, ‘worship’. Again, it’s easy to dismiss the idea of idolatry as being of interest only to a pious religious minority. But this is not quite the case. Idolatry is very much with us as a deeply destructive inclination which surfaces in the human heart from time to time and takes the form of various kinds of addiction. Addiction fulfils, for a while at least, a need.
One addiction that I, for one, am falling victim to during this pandemic is the hold that social media is starting to have on me. It is a ‘hold’ because I cannot, given the present set of circumstances, see a way of dropping out of it altogether. I need the people out there, even if for most of the time they probably don’t need me. I need the conversation platform which both these amazing facilities offer us. What I don’t need, and certainly don’t like, is how easy it is to unconsciously transfer one’s present mood, be it of anxiety, irritation, boredom, or impatience onto the medium via whatever conversation channel gets me going. I try to think before I tweet and I generally do, which is why I seldom say much. But if you don’t say much, you don’t get much back.
This suggests that neither twitter or facebook, or any other social medium, are conversation partners in the real sense. If you neither give nor receive, being on social media amounts to voyeurism. On the other hand, if you engage full bloodedly you can very quickly find yourself tilting at windmills, with the thread either vanishing into thin air or becoming too stressful to continue with, allowing for all the clever things you can do to mitigate the situation, like ‘muting’ and ‘blocking’. At the end of the day, both of these scenarios are idolatrous because they have failed to meet the need for genuine human exchange, for genuine conversation.
Idolatry is about throwing away one’s soul. Perhaps idolatry creeps up on us because in times of great stress or emotional need, we forget we have a soul. A ‘soul’ is that aspect of a human being that reflects the light and goodness of God, something that is purposed for conversation and relationship with that God. This returns me to Exodus and the anger of God in the face of the people’s idolatry. Idolatry is not just disengaged voyeurism. It requires our passions and intelligence. It requires our souls. It seduces and as a seducer it brooks no competition.
The people were happy to give away their souls in return for a brief period of respite from boredom, anxiety, discomfort and even hardship. They were happy to forget who and what they really were, a people called to be in a proactive relationship with God, not as passive spectators, but as worshippers.
To worship God is to engage full bloodedly with the realities that are going on around us and to try to see them through the eyes of that same loving God. I would say that this puts an altogether different picture on our present predicament, in the context of covid and lockdown, and on how we might relate to one another through social media. There is a way to ‘worship’ fruitfully through social media by engaging the heart and mind with those who need reassurance and kindness, not with a clever retort shot off the cuff in a moment of irritation in which we only bare our own fear and insecurities, but in a gentle ‘like’ or affirming comment. Let’s have the humility and grace to acknowledge, in this time of trouble, how much we all need those ‘likes’ and comments. We know what they really mean to us, so let’s be the first to give them.