Religious Nostrums

Nostrums Aplenty

Prayer cloths are but one of a thousand ways religious people — not just Christians — try to comfort themselves in a cruel world. Special oils, TV shows with popular leaders, the right worship song combination, the church building itself, crucifixes, even the Bible itself can be false talismans and idols. Anything object or person that we imbue with supernatural power to calm our fears and assuage our existential crises is an idol for we are giving that person/thing the status of god.

Why we search

Idolatry is not merely the literal crafting of wooden or golden objects for worship. Idolatry occurs anytime people elevate a person, thing, or power to greater status than God. Anything we worship or fear more than God is an idol.

Idols Always Fail

No matter how fully we place our trust in idols, no matter how much effort we give to propping up our religious nostrums, no matter how many others we draw to our side in support of our feel-good, fear-reducing talisman, our idols always fail us. Witness the massive number of political and religious leaders whose personal moral failings have crushed innumerable followers and laid waste to families, careers, ministries, and even countries. See the ways political leaders crumble in scandal after scandal. See how pop stars too often end in ruin, how the greatest musicians often flame out and die young. Human idols fail because no human can withstand the burden of expectations from the adoring crowd. Idols simply cannot do whatever it is we want them to do. They are not powerful enough or emotionally stable enough. Object idols fail because they cannot do anything. They only bear the meaning with which we imbue them. They are valueless outside of our faith in them.

Lashing Out

Ineffectual idols force us to grasp at more powerful ways of alleviating our fears. Anger is common. Anger at the minority report and also anger at anyone who isn’t as fearful as you. Anger at the people who make you feel fear. Anger itself becomes a panacea, as though if we are just angry enough about X then we cannot be afraid of anything, X included. Politics is a constant source of this kind of anger. We get so built up and so afraid of things over which we have absolutely no control whatsoever. Once elected, largely it is very difficult to remove elected officials until the next time around. But given the amount of political news most people ingest you would think that we get to provide input on national governance on a daily basis! We do not, and while elective representatives do care to hear feedback, the amount of television and news media we consume and the anger in which we marinate are usually uncalled for.

Tragic Syncretism

I am convinced that a great number of so-called Christians in the United States are merely syncretists. God’s invisibility combined with his effectiveness at meeting man’s deepest needs causes many to turn to syncretic religion. Worshippers combine an idol with a ‘controlled’ version of the one true God, picking and choosing which parts of the Scripture make most sense to them while never rooting out their beloved idols. They combine Jesus with wealth, using his sacrifice as a means to achieving “your best life now.” Or they combine Jesus with political domination, using the name of Christ as a pathway to power in Washington, DC. I read with horror a popular book on “Christian” politics that never mentioned the sacrifice of Christ or the necessity of developing the virtues as a politician. It was as though the Bible merely taught the political party platform of that author’s state. These syncretists will ignore the many sins of their chosen party or candidate so long as they get their desired political goals. They view people as means to an end, and that end is a religiously-informed politics, not the glory of Christ in salvation.

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

(Matthew 6:24)

Anything or anyone or any idea that holds mastery over you is a syncretic idol. The Lord will not tolerate an oligarchy. He alone is Lord, king, ruler, master. Christ makes this point throughout the gospels as he calls people to obedience at significant cost, at times coming across as callous:

Everything in its Right Place

Christ is merely living the greatest commandment — love God — and letting that commandment orient all human activity. He is saying: Let God be God before doing anything, even the ‘normal’ activities of having a family, burying a father, deciding what to do with your money, or even your daily job. Any activity pursued outside of our love for God is based in idolatry, having been motivated for selfish reasons and pursued in a pragmatic atheism. This is why James tells Christians:

Solomon with Idols



Pastor, — Boards: Boards: — MDiv SEBTS, BA Duke

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