Are we modern, Western people really more advanced than the ancients? We certainly believe we are. This arrogance is one of the reasons modern Americans have such difficulty with the Bible; after all, we are advanced and advancing, and the Bible–particularly the Old Testament–is backwards and primitive.
It is true that we are an advanced people technologically–think of all the ways we can kill or display pornography!–but when it comes to idolatry, we are as prone to idol worship as the ancients. Or more so.
Israel and the Golden Calf
We read in Exodus 32 of the golden calf that the Israelites made and worshipped while waiting for Moses to return from Mount Sinai. Like so many of the stories in the Bible, the account of the golden calf seems remote and distant. But that’s because we don’t understand what an idol is.
The Definition of an Idol
In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller describes idolatry in this way:
What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.
A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving ‘face’ and social standing It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry. When your meaning in life is to fix someone else’s life, we may call it ‘co-dependency’ but it is really idolatry. An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’ There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.” [Emphasis mine.]
Be Proud, O Modern
Idolatry isn’t something that we’ve grown out of; idolatry is something modern Western culture is perfecting. The ancients would be astounded at the brazen boldness of our idolatry: we are worshipping idols of which they never dreamed.
Which Idol Did You Get?
J.A. Medders has a nice summary of Keller’s material on his blog, which I’ve excepted below.
Life Only Has Meaning/I Only Have Worth If….
- I have power and influence over others. (Power Idolatry)
- I am loved and respected by _____. (Approval Idolatry)
- I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life. (Comfort idolatry)
- I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____. (Control idolatry)
- People are dependent on me and need me. (Helping Idolatry)
- Someone is there to protect me and keep me safe. (Dependence idolatry)
- I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone. (Independence idolatry)
- I am highly productive and getting a lot done. (Work idolatry)
- I am being recognized for my accomplishments, and I am excelling in my work. (Achievement idolatry)
- I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions. (Materialism idolatry)
- I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities. (Religion idolatry)
- This one person is in my life and happy to be there, and/or happy with me. (Individual person idolatry)
- I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and am living by a self-made morality. (Irreligion idolatry)
- My race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior. (Racial/cultural idolatry)
- A particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in. (Inner ring idolatry)
- My children and/or my parents are happy and happy with me. (Family idolatry)
- Mr. or Ms. “Right” is in love with me. (Relationship Idolatry)
- I am hurting, in a problem; only then do I feel worthy of love or able to deal with guilt. (Suffering idolatry)
- My political or social cause is making progress and ascending in influence or power. (Ideology idolatry)
- I have a particular kind of look or body image. (Image idolatry)
The Only Known Cure
The only known cure for idolatry: faith, hope, and love.