While I was reading from the prophet Isaiah during Morning Prayer, the imprecation, “they go in disgrace who carve images,” jumped off the page.
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?
Read more at the Imaginative Conservative.