(2nd in a Series on Fear)
Vainly we seek salvation in anyone and anything but the God. This is the human way.
Every election we hear “I can fix your problems” and the corollary “my opponent will only hurt you.” “Finally,” supporters think, “we will get the one person in office who can save our country from all of her problems.” The fervor of a candidate’s supporters is most revealed by loss: tears, fears, and inconsolable mourning mark far too much trust placed in a candidate or party. Nostrums like this abound in popular culture: every product, every politician, and every popular figure has a solution to your problems. If we only do/buy/think/vote for X, we will be happy/safe/healthy.
These nostrums are most damaging when they are religious in nature. A classic example is the prayer cloth. Right now at rodparsley.com I can order a cloth that was prayed over by Rod Parsely himself at the WORLDWIDE MIRACLE, HEALING AND VICTORY PRAYER CLOTH SERVICE for my benefit. From the website:
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The prayer cloth is a hook. They are offered for free or cheap with the intention of drawing in donations for the health-and-wealth ‘ministries’ these men promote. These salesmen use Acts 19:11–12 as proof text to peddle their wares, the idea being that if you take this cloth and prayer over it, your prayers will always be answered! Of course, in Acts none of the clothes were called prayer cloths. Moreover, prayer itself requires nothing — no totem, no incantation — and when Christ modeled prayer he did not whip out his prayer cloth before saying “Our Father.” Indeed, nowhere in church history do we see the prayer cloth idea at play until the marriage of American capitalism with American Christianity in the 19th Century produced certain strains of Pentecostalism that rely on these sorts of talismans to produce ‘faith.’
What does a prayer cloth gain the believer that is not already present in the relationship between God and his people? Nothing. It is a piece of cloth. Toss it in the fire and it is ash. Wipe your mouth and it is a napkin. Wrap your cat in it and you have a tidy blanket.
Isaiah mocks this kind of idolatry in Isaiah 44:
How foolish are those who manufacture idols.
These prized objects are really worthless.
The people who worship idols don’t know this,
so they are all put to shame.
Who but a fool would make his own god —
an idol that cannot help him one bit?
All who worship idols will be disgraced
along with all these craftsmen — mere humans —
who claim they can make a god.
They may all stand together,
but they will stand in terror and shame.
The blacksmith stands at his forge to make a sharp tool,
pounding and shaping it with all his might.
His work makes him hungry and weak.
It makes him thirsty and faint.
Then the wood-carver measures a block of wood
and draws a pattern on it.
He works with chisel and plane
and carves it into a human figure.
He gives it human beauty
and puts it in a little shrine.
He cuts down cedars;
he selects the cypress and the oak;
he plants the pine in the forest
to be nourished by the rain.
Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire.
With it he warms himself and bakes his bread.
Then — yes, it’s true — he takes the rest of it
and makes himself a god to worship!
He makes an idol
and bows down in front of it!
He burns part of the tree to roast his meat
and to keep himself warm.
He says, “Ah, that fire feels good.”
Then he takes what’s left
and makes his god: a carved idol!
He falls down in front of it,
worshiping and praying to it.
“Rescue me!” he says.
“You are my god!”
The fool who needs a cloth to pray and fool who needs wooden god to pray are one and the same.
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.
God knew this and called out his own people time and again for this sort of idolatry. Consider the Israelites of Jeremiah 7. While God through his prophets repeatedly called his people to repent of wickedness and follow Him for safety and health, the people of God listened to those who offered the panacea of the Temple. “‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie!” Jeremiah says in verse 8, and he proves his threat by referencing God’s previous home at Shiloh:
“Go now to the place at Shiloh where I once put the Tabernacle that bore my name. See what I did there because of all the wickedness of my people, the Israelites. While you were doing these wicked things, says the LORD, I spoke to you about it repeatedly, but you would not listen. I called out to you, but you refused to answer. So just as I destroyed Shiloh, I will now destroy this Temple that bears my name.”
The Temple was to be God’s home among his people forever, so it is unsurprising that the people of God tried to rely on the Temple for security. Surely if God was with them, they thought, then they would be alright in the face of oncoming enemies. But God reveals the flaw in their thinking: their reliance on the Temple reflected a total lack of faith in Him, so much so that they set up idols in the Temple itself. Because they rejected relationship in favor of totems and talismans, their morality reflected their depraved hearts; they even burned their own children in sacrifice. As he did when his people chose fear of the occupants of the promised land over trust in Him, God again vowed to destroy His people and force them into exile.
The Temple cannot protect God’s people when God is no longer worshipped in it. In the same way, the church itself — both the buildings and the collection of people — cannot offer any grace to the believer when the church fails to worship God. Nevertheless, many people treat church as the solution to their problems and the end of their fears. This idea of “church as refuge” was taken literally for centuries as people imbued church buildings with mystical properties and set them off-limits for violence and war. In the Sean Connery flick Highlander, the ancient warriors cannot attack one another in a church. In other films, demons and vampires cannot enter church buildings.
This may seem silly to modern audiences, but in modern times this idea of “church as refuge” has shifted to the people of God instead of the buildings for God. The rallying cry of Jeremiah 7 — “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” — is far too often the rallying cry Christians, especially American Christians, in the face of our fears. We are prone to overly rely on the fallen-but-redeemed believers around us for comfort and safety rather than on God Himself. Our reliance on the body for support is not unfounded — Scripture tells us to support one another, bear one another’s burdens, to rebuke and train one another up, and to operate in love — but is harmful when our reliance on the body excludes reliance on Christ himself. How could this reliance on the body be harmful? The test comes when the Body of Christ inevitably fails the people of Christ: gossips spreads, a lie blows up, a Pastor resigns in scandal, trust is betrayed. Do you lose faith in Christ when you lose faith in the Body of Christ? If so, you placed too much faith in this gathering of frail humans from the get-go. Nowhere does God allow men to base their faith in God on the outcomes of His people. He knows his people are terribly untrustworthy and has known it from the beginning; Christ died because God’s people have always and will always fail. The New Testament Epistles, as full as they are of rejoinders and rebukes, are proof positive the resurrection of Christ did not bring about the perfection of the church on earth. The church is only a good source of encouragement and comfort to the extent that it points the hurting to Christ and emboldens the fearful with greater reliance on the Holy Spirit. The church can be a nostrum and an idol.
What about Scripture? Well, given there is a word for it — bibliolatry — it must be a thing. This word can be used as slander against the reformation principle of Sola Scriptura, that is, Scripture as the basis for knowing God. But there is a real pernicious form of bibliolatry that elevates individual texts and proofs above the Bible itself. Proof-texting pulls a verse or chapter and uses it as the hermeneutical lens for all of the Bible and, more often, for all of Christian ethics. For a time, John 3:16 verged on becoming an idol as it was adored by Christians across America. The reference was plastered on signs all over the country and painted on bare chests and bellies at football games. This one word and three letters took on mystical power in the eyes of some: if we just put this reference in front of people, they thought, then the world will both know Christ and give him Glory. In the same fashion, Christians of late have clung to 2 Chronicles 7:14 with the same amount of fervor, repeating it almost as a mantra against political liberalism, ignoring both context and the meaning of the verse in context. The “if,” of course, is never and was never fulfilled save in Christ alone, and the land — “my land” — of the verse is not America. But the verse is held aloft, even — dare I say it — worshipped. This is bibliolatry. God’s people and God’s word can be nostrums.
What about music? If our worship depends on the presence or absence of drums, we are toeing the line of worshipping music rather than the Maker. If we require certain songs to make feel safe or happy, we are relying on chords rather than the Creator. I know many souls who have relied so heavily on the feelings created by the music before and after the sermon that the words spoken by the preacher (or even sung in the song!) ceased to matter one bit.
What about the sermon? Do you need the right word from the right person to put you right with God on a given Sunday? This is merely an extension of the political fallacy above: you trust in man and not God. Men cannot resolve fears, only assuage them for a moment. They are the cough medicine of the fear business, only covering up the symptoms for long enough for the disease to hopefully go away on its own. A sermon only matters inasmuch as it points the listener to God as the author and perfecter of our faith.
The list of nostrums could go on, for our avenues for finding peace where none exists save in God alone are as many as the stars. Scripture reveals people who sought peace in military strength, in kings, in the Temple, in rules and regulations, in the constant repetition of prayers, in public giving, in having many children, in fig leaves and hiding in bushes, in… I could go on. In every case, the people of God who turned their trust from God to anything less than God for help were both disappointed and sternly rebuked by God. Some of these religious nostrums twisted versions of God’s many gracious gifts to his people while others were specifically proscribed by God. Whether a maligned good or just pure evil, though, every one of these talismans and false hopes became an idol. Every single one took the place of God as the sole source of hope and peace in the world. Anything we believe will save us that is not God Himself is an idol. These objects and actions are not to be worshipped but are to point us, in worship, to the Lord 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.
We craft idols from fear. The math is simple: we all deeply experience fears that motivate us and shape our decision-making. These fears must be addressed. Without God, these fears can only be addressed by idolatry. If we do not fear God, we will worship someone or something else.
Wrote David Foster Wallace,
“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.”
Worship, fear, and idolatry are inseparable. Wallace goes on to suggest that “the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.” But indeed they are sinful default settings. They are the hard-coded wiring of men and women who must find something to allay their fears and conquer the baseline scariness of being a human in this uncaring world. His suggest solution — “attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day” — only creates new fears like “am I getting this self-sacrifice thing right?” or “am I unselfish enough?” Absent any self-dethroning divine power, we create new layers of neuroses, new pathways to self-doubt and self-loathing. We simply replace the fear of being rich or popular enough with the fear of being nice enough toward other people. Without God to fear or worship, we have no choice but to worship ourselves or something else, and this is most definitely sinful and harmful.
Most often in Scripture, idolatry comes about in a corporate form. The fear of the Lord rightly occurs in communal worship and, in the Old Testament, in the nation of Israel. It should come as no surprise, then, that idolatry — the supreme fear of anything but God — most often occurs in a corporate setting as well. We humans tend to worship together, whether the object of worship is God or not.
One only needs a superficial reading of Scripture to find rampant corporate idolatry. The most egregious example of this is the narrative of the Golden Calf, that classic idol born of fear:
When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.”
So Aaron said, “Take the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters, and bring them to me.”
All the people took the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. Then Aaron took the gold, melted it down, and molded it into the shape of a calf. When the people saw it, they exclaimed, “O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
Corporate idolatry born of mass fear occurs dozens of times throughout the history of God’s people. God’s people encounter some prolonged difficulty — a rival nation, hunger, thirst, weariness, boredom, jealousy — and elevate for themselves some false teaching or false ruler to alleviate their fears instead of waiting for God’s leadership.
Corporate idolatry is not limited to Israel. The nations around Israel all adhere to their idols rather firmly. The infiltration of foreign idols into Israel would not be so tempting were it not for their prevalence in surrounding kingdoms. Israel’s syncretism involves multiple rival gods and idols from these other nations, and each of those gods is corporately worshipped in their own cities.
Often, leaders are worshipped instead of other gods. There is the cry of the leading priests as Jesus and Pilate stand before them: “we have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15) The crowd join in and calls for the crucifixion. Political stability meant more to the Jewish leadership at that moment than adherence to the Son of God. For the crowds, Caesar had provided safety and relative peace to Jerusalem after centuries of changing hands among various occupying nations. Christ was a threat to their idol of stability and the priests’ idol of power.
Barely scratch the surface of modern life and you will encounter widespread corporate idolatry. The cult of personality still reigns and people make idols of movie stars and television “personalities.” Entire industries are built on “influencers” who can garner tens of thousands of likes on social media outlets. They get paid gobs of cash for selfies with certain brands or events. Their market value is counted in idol worshippers.
We also have brand idolatry, the mass worship of brands or companies. I have an eye twitch from all the times I’ve heard teenagers explain their deep love for Starbucks and their specific orders that they simply must have on a daily basis or they would “just die…” Different areas of the country, age groups, and cultural groups have different idols. People will attack others for shoes in some cities. In other places, you’d better drive the right car or have the right size and shape of house with the right kind of furniture inside.
Inasmuch as Americans love things, though, they love their human idols even more. We make idols of political leaders, religious icons, corporate raiders, artists, musicians, actors and actresses, authors, and even fictional characters! A lot people loved Harry Potter, which is fine, but some people loved Harry Potter, which is weird; still others worship Harry Potter, which is diseased. Video games now occupy this same space as well. But far above video game characters or Harry Potter, people love to worship their politically-engaged public figures. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were not merely respected by their supporters or even beloved by their partisan fans. They were worshipped as “saviors” in various media outlets, as in “he/she will save America.” They are still treated with religious terminology well after the 2016 election. The same can be said of the candidates in several elections, but as a political hack for more than two decades, I believe this electoral cycle reached a level of corporate idolatry unique in modern American politics. 2016 was not a decision between different politicians; 2016 was a decision between different worldviews headed by their respective gods.
Idolatry has two simultaneous sources: innate hatred for God and a childish need for immediate satisfaction. The first source we know from Scripture: “While we were God’s enemies.” Enmity with God is our natural state. We hate God because a) we cannot ignore him (Romans 1) and b) loving God demands a change of behavior. We cannot love God and love the world, but the world is awfully enjoyable. The reason sin is so tempting — why the Tempter is able to sway us so often — is because it feels good, at least for a time. So we find religious solutions to our fears in idols that demand nothing from us but still approximate the feelings of peace and security we need from God.
Our hatred for God expresses itself most often in our hatred for God’s righteous rules. We cannot abide anyone telling us what to do, and God tells us all sorts of things to do (and not do). Idols do not tell us anything. They are wonderful sources of comfort without demanding a thing in return. A sure sign of an idolater is someone wearing the veneer of peace because of some program, trinket, saying, relationship, or book makes them feel at ease. Rid them of their idol and see their response. For many in the previous generation, their idol of a certain way of doing church was revealed by their response to the addition of a drum and guitar to the worship stage. For many younger people, their idols — of selfish frivolities — are revealed when the sermon drones on and they gripe and groan. For every generation, idolatry is most revealed when people are asked to do something by God or godly leaders, something morally right but personally costly, and they refuse. Ask a couple sleeping together to stop. Ask a rich man to cease his greed. Pull people away from their cell phones to focus on Christ. Tell a cheating husband to stop or be cut out of the Church.
See the anger that arises when people are confronted, disagreed with, and rebuked. God’s law reveals this truth in all of us, seen in the words God instructed Jeremiah to tell the nation:
“Tell them all this, but do not expect them to listen. Shout out your warnings, but do not expect them to respond. Say to them, ‘This is the nation whose people will not obey the Lord their God and who refuse to be taught. Truth has vanished from among them; it is no longer heard on their lips.” Idols do not demand obedience. They might require money, yes, and some time, but only enough to make us feel satisfied that we are “doing good.”
They do not demand our lives as God does, so we cast Him by the wayside and take up our nostrums.
The second source of idolatry, our need for immediate satisfaction, appears from the first pages of Scriptures as well. What was Adam’s sin but an infantile desire for what was right in front of his face? He knew the command of God — his knowledge of the coming punishment was manifested by his trying to hide from God after his sin — but, boy, that fruit sure looked good. Same with our idols: we cannot wait for God, cannot see God, cannot handle His apparent absence in our fleshly lives, so we trust in some approximation of God for peace and security.
Our need for immediate satisfaction drives us to find closer solutions for our fears and pain because our connection with the immediate presence of God has been disrupted by our sins. Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden, removed from the place where God would walk in the cool of the day. People know and feel God’s distance: witness the Israelites fashioning a golden calf as soon as God’s chosen leader is absent from them. In Jeremiah, I believe the Israelites could not stand a barren temple with gold lampstands and a closed-off room where only the Priests could enter, so they set up idols throughout the temple for more accessible gods.
The complaint people levy against God seems reasonable: he is invisible, divine, mystical, and distant. Problem is, God has revealed Himself in so many ways through so many means in human history that we are running out of excuses for our idolatry. In the Old Testament, the very people who desecrated the temple in Jeremiah’s day were the same who saw miracles done by the prophets. Their forefathers saw pillars of fire and smoke leading them through a lengthy wilderness. Their ancient ancestors saw seas parted and frogs fall from the sky. In our day, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God,” and “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.” The invisible has been made visible in the most personal way imaginable: God became man and dwelled among us.
A bitter irony resonates among those who complain that Jesus is no longer here telling us that he is who he says he is, performing miracles, teaching us all that we ought to know and believe. “If only Jesus continued to show himself,” the challenge goes, “I would believe in him.” The irony is twofold: first, when we he was here comforting our fears, we killed him; second, the most essential element of human life is death. Death is unavoidable and sure. For Jesus to escape death, he cannot continue being a human on earth. He rose again for a time but then when to his royal throne in heaven. He would no longer be merely a man on earth. He is something more, something next, what we will become when we are done with our own time here on earth.
Fact is, Jesus himself was still too distant for his followers. They wanted immediate relief from their many problems: hunger, disease, frightful storms, oppressive Roman rule. Jesus gave them what they wanted only inasmuch as it proved his power. He did not come, though, to make everyone’s life easier. He desired what was lost in the garden: a right relationship between God and man. That just wasn’t good enough for weak and scared people. They wanted him to fix their problems, not merely be among them as their God. Judas’ plot begins after a disagreement between Jesus and his disciples about how to handle expensive perfume. Jesus was anointed and blessed by a woman who seemed to understand his divinity more than his own disciples. The disciples wanted to meet human needs with the money from the perfume. Jesus was, of course, right: he deserved the blessing, for he did not come to make everyone’s lives better. “You will always have the poor among you,” he said. The disciples hated that answer because it told them one thing: Jesus was not fixing the world. Shortly thereafter, perhaps disgusted by this and all of Jesus’ talk throughout the middle of the Matthew that he would be crucified, Judas betrayed the Son of God. When he was arrested, the disciples scattered, and when he was beaten, they hid their faces in shame. Jesus utterly failed their idolatrous expectations for him: he did not overthrow Rome, end poverty, or change the world in their eyes. He, God made flesh, was not good enough to satisfy their fears. Their natural inclination to hate God rose to the surface, their fleshed burned with hatred for (what they saw was) a failed prophet and false king, and they killed him. God-made-flesh was insufficient for our need for immediate gratification. Mankind killed Christ and went back to their idols, whatever they might be.
Fyodor Dostoevsky pointedly reminds us of our preference for religious idols over Christ himself in the “Grand Inquisitor” scene from The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, the atheist-leaning middle brother, offers this lengthy poem to his novice monk brother. In the poem, Christ comes back to Seville, Spain, during the Spanish Inquisition. He heals people and has a life that mirrors that of the Gospels. While people recognize him and adore him, he is arrested and sentenced to death by burning at the stake.
The Grand Inquisitor explains why Jesus has to die: his life and work are at odds with the missions of the church. Using the three temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness in Matthew 4 (mirroring Mark and Luke), he explains that Jesus rejected food, safety, and power in exchange for true personal and spiritual freedom. The Inquisitor explains that people do not truly desire and cannot handle the freedom they have in Christ. They desire to have their food provided for them under compulsion, their power concentrated in the hands of the few, and their safety provided by the state and the church at any cost. Mel will follow those who feed them and watch over them. The Inquisitor tells Jesus:
“Feed men, and then ask of them virtue! That’s what they’ll write on the banner they’ll raise against Thee and with which they will destroy Thy temple.”
The poem can be read as a screed against the church which ultimately fails when Jesus kisses the Inquisitor instead of answering him and the Inquisitor releases Christ. But given a century and a quarter from when this book was first written, it is striking how often Christian churches adopt a “good news” that is rooted entirely in the beneficial work of the church almost totally devoid of the grace of Christ Himself. “Health-and-wealth” churches are the most egregious and deplorable examples of church idolatry. Their sins are many and obvious.
Church idolatry, however, can slip into any otherwise good church that allows programs or methodologies to reach the level of theology. I’ve seen active members of my church leave because programs became too large for us to find enough volunteers. I’ve seen people run from a service with hands over their ears because the music was too loud or the songs too new. I had a wonderful person weep over discarded old VBS VHS tapes.
“Give people what they want,” the Inquisitor is implying to Jesus, “and they will follow you and feel saved.” Jesus, instead, gives people what they need. So good religious people make up their minds that the church will provide what Jesus seems to lack. Thus, “the Temple of the Lord” will save us, the Israelites cried, even when the God of the Temple was preparing to level his house to the ground. Likewise, we cling to our ministries, our programs, our music, our friends, and our leaders for comfort at the expense of our faith in the all-sufficient goodness of God Himself.
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.
Idols can never solve our fears because they cannot operate in the space of our minds and souls. They are not soul-surgeons; they only work with as much influence as we give them. They are scalpel-less surgeons, unable to penetrate to the innermost parts wherein our deepest fears reside. So to ensure their effectiveness, we must return to them time and again. We must offer constant sacrifice if time and attention to fix our idols in our minds in the place of our fears. We must revisit the presence of our human idols — concerts, books, movies, whatever — and place around ourselves every manner of talisman that reminds us of our idol. Distance from our idols causes despair.
Even when we hold our idols close, we recognize their power is palliative, not curative. They cannot conquer our fear, only make us feel better about ourselves. If we are deeply afraid of failing, enjoying a few hours (or days) of television gives us sufficient distraction to pass time we would otherwise spend worrying. When we fear death or are near to death because of disease or old age, we try to stretch time and drown our fear by attending to our politics or watching faith “healers” on television. Often it is our most infirm who fall prey to the religious liars pimping their religious lies over the airwaves. Too many of our seniors have given away their estates because the preacher man made them feel good. This is a peculiarly awful violence against our elders, but people continue this because the viewers get to pass the time and the preachers get to reap the rewards. But they are never free from their fear of death. Soon enough the TV turns off or the wallet runs dry and they find themselves alone, their glowing gods unable to reach through the LED and remove even one trace of panic from their hearts as death encroaches.
Palliative idols can be highly effective, provided we create bubble-worlds around us filled with people who share our idols and refuse to let us feel afraid. These bubbles demand adherence to unwritten rules created to regulate fear. Go to the richest neighborhoods in America and witness the sudden insecurity of a wayward plant or the crumbling façade of the house down the road. The comforts of wealth on work when wealth is proven to conquer nature and man. When either men or nature interrupt the coiffed lawns of the rich, they simply cannot have it. This will not stand! So HOAs bear the wrath of the gods in order to maintain the semblance of order and gated communities hire off-duty policy to push away undesirables. This is the way of fear-comforting wealth: it must be perfect to be effective.
Most importantly, idols will fail because they do nothing to allay the wrath of God. The most effective idols can never answer prayer, but they can distract us from the One who can. The best prosperity preachers pull us away from the judge, that one who promises that all the Earth will meet him and know his justice. Idols are wicked not because they helps us feel about our fear but because they turn us from the only person truly worthy of fearing. For we will all fear him one day. The fear of God is a surety; the only question is when you will fear God. Will you fear him now above all earthly powers, or will you wait to fear him when you stand in judgment before him?
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.
Unanswered anger intensifies into violence. This happened with Moses at the 12 spies as the people picked up rocks in preparation for stoning Caleb and Joshua. This same scapegoating is a pressure outlet for fascists and racists and extremists of any stripe. Because anger and action seem to mollify our amplified and irrational fears, men and women expand the forms of violence. This violence is usually directed at the group they “blame” for their fears. White racists blamed black people for their poverty in the American south. Nowadays the same vitriol is pointed at Hispanics as well.
When violence is legitimized and systematized by government, you end up with the type of mass atrocities that have marked fear-based regimes since history began.
German educational films shown to Polish school children identified “the Jew” as a carrier of lice and typhus. The governor of the Warsaw district, Ludwig Fischer, reported the distribution of “3,000 large posters, 7,000 smaller posters, and 500,000 pamphlets” to inform the Polish population of the health threat posed by the ghettoized Jews. Such fear-mongering no doubt hindered public aid to Jews in the ghettos of German-occupied Poland.
Nazis blamed Jews for the loss in World War I, the subsequent economic depression, for ruining and running the banking industry, and spreading disease. Other governments turned away Jewish refugees for fear that anarchists or communists would pose as refugees to enter countries and undermine governmental authority. The fear of communism kept Jews in Europe, and the fear of Jews themselves lead to the Holocaust.
Purges like the Holocaust occur in any context wherein a certain group or ideology gets blamed for society’s ills. Whenever “they” are to blame, regardless of who “they” might be, “they” will suffer. Fundamentally, we cannot accept that we are all the problem. We refuse to acknowledge our complicity in the sordid state of the world. We do not admit wrong or sin, so someone or some group must be the issue. So the French Revolution saw the mass extermination of people whose ideas were deemed detrimental to the government. The same kind of cleansing — eliminating the undesirables — has occurred in Russia, China, several countries in the Middle East, and North Korea, to name a few.
If the government is our peace in the face of fear, then we must rely on the government to do our dirty work. So if we fear Jews, we let the government kill the Jews. Hannah Arendt noted how the men who perpetrated the Holocaust were normal and their work was banal. The men would pull this switch here, push those people there, sweep up these corpses here. It was all part of a normal day in the massive governmental machine. Someone’s got to do this dirty work, they thought, and allayed their guilt by recognizing their part in making the country a better place.
Corporate idols create corporate violence. Non-state actors, viewing their religious leaders or violent dogmas as critical for their self-worth, have elevated their public acts of violence to maximize fear and hasten their idol of Armageddon. They worship the end of times and the destruction of all impure people. They claim to fear God, but they know nothing of filial fear. They do not fear him as a father, unless their vision of father is as constant abuser and despotic mass murderer. They do not see his beauty outside of the beauty of a particularly bright-burning fire. They fear his power but feel none of his love. Islamic terrorists make an idol of fear itself, borrowing from their god a vision of total destruction. As a response to 18th and 19th Century colonialism, it represents the exchange of the European god of Mercantilism for the Salafist idol of domination and destruction.
This is what idols do: they breed more idols. The children of greedy parents find other idols to satisfy their fears: drugs, world peace, whatever. They have seen how deeply unsatisfying their parents felt so they go deeper. Or they double down on the idol, seeking to make billions out of their parents’ millions. Many wealthy children make idols of image, seeking to be famous when their parents might have toiled in relative obscurity. The children of poor parents often crave wealth or the appearance of wealth, exchange whatever idol they felt kept their parents poor with a new idol that will make them feel better. The generational divide is often a rejection of the previous generation’s idols. Instead of comfort, the next generation seeks change. Instead of change, the next generation wants pleasures. Idols spawn and change and shift but all have this in common: they will never satisfy, and because they never satisfy, we will always search for the next soul-satisfying idol, until all we have left is our frustration, hurt, and anger.
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.
Money and Jesus. Power and Jesus. These are the two most common forms of syncretism in America today, but they are not the only ones, not at all. Any time we uphold an action, person, thing, or lifestyle that is blatantly anti-God while at the same time claiming to be Christians, we are acting syncretistic. In doing so we are essentially creating a spiritual-looking and religious-seeming reason behind our sinful behaviors. So we had a rash of pastors who considered offending people with foul language to be right because it drew people to their churches or gave attention to their ministries, ignoring the sensitivity about speech called for in Scripture. Or we have “Christians” who support open marriages and every other manner of sexual deviancy. We have “Christians” who are still part of the KKK or neo-nazi movements. These are just American examples. In other nations I have heard of people who engage in family-worship at the same time they claim Jesus, praying to both the Lord and their dead ancestors. I have seen people in India worship Hindu gods while claiming to be Christians, claiming Jesus as just one more of the millions of deities in the Hindu pantheon. Syncretism is not uniquely American.
Syncretism is also not new. Israel was broadly syncretistic throughout its history, adopting the gods from the neighboring nations that were supposed to conquer and cleanse. Nations that conquered Israel would later add Yahweh to their own pantheons, giving us passages like this in 2 Kings 17:
So a message was sent to the king of Assyria: “The people you have sent to live in the towns of Samaria do not know the religious customs of the God of the land. He has sent lions among them to destroy them because they have not worshiped him correctly.”
The king of Assyria then commanded, “Send one of the exiled priests back to Samaria. Let him live there and teach the new residents the religious customs of the God of the land.” So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria returned to Bethel and taught the new residents how to worship the Lord.
But these various groups of foreigners also continued to worship their own gods. In town after town where they lived, they placed their idols at the pagan shrines that the people of Samaria had built. Those from Babylon worshiped idols of their god Succoth-benoth. Those from Cuthah worshiped their god Nergal. And those from Hamath worshiped Ashima. The Avvites worshiped their gods Nibhaz and Tartak. And the people from Sepharvaim even burned their own children as sacrifices to their gods Adrammelech and Anammelech.
(2 Kings 17:26–31)
Co-worship continued through the exile, the return, and the re-establishment of Temple worship during the Roman era. Jesus encounters various forms of syncretism, from the money-changers who manipulated pious men for cash to the crowd that called out “we have no king but Caeser” just before he was crucified. The crowds worshipped their own safety at the same time that they called themselves Jews. Confronted with the King of the Jews, though, safety won.
For you see when push comes to shove, the idol takes precedence over God. Given a choice — choose your idol or choose God, for you cannot have both in the end — people choose their idol. They only retain God as a totem against whatever they fear. In American Christianity, we keep Jesus in our back pocket for hell prevention. In Ancient Israel, people called on Yahweh only when other nations threatened their borders. In years past and in certain countries, being Christian was a necessary element of social participation — a bar to pass, nothing more and nothing less — and when crises came, the Christianity went away. Southern whites holding high their economic safety cast aside Christ for their slavery. Northern liberals have long accepted Christ to assuage their inescapable guilt while holding high whatever populist dogmas or historical-critical systems make them feel most intellectually stimulated. All across the world, Jesus and the television go hand and hand but when faced with shows that any reasonable Christian would realize denigrate the soul and waste our minds and time, we tuck Jesus away for later consideration and turn on the show. We fear being bored, or, to consider our love of television more deeply, we find in TV an escape from whatever grander fears would occupy our thoughts at any given time — fear of failure, of death — and utilize TV as pure escapist time-killing nothingness. Trusting Christ when faced with existential crises or ‘time to waste’ is difficult, so entertainment wins.
Christ said, “you cannot serve God and money,” but we syncretic worshippers sure do try. Or we love God and some other pairing, despite the actual impossibility of loving God and any of these in equal measure: God and sports; God and guns; God and country; God and family; God and cars; God and comfort; God and food; God and politics; God and pets; God and sex; God and comfort; God and cleanliness; God and ourselves; God and my culture; God and my music; so on. The second of these pairings are not problematic alone — money, guns, comfort, pets, family, country are not evil in themselves — but become our greatest problems when worshipped. You cannot love God and love money in the same manner. If you look at the entire quote from Jesus, you see that the problem is not that people have money or use money, but that people serve money as master:
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.
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:
As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.”
He said to another person, “Come, follow me.”
The man agreed, but he said, “Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.”
But Jesus told him, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead!l Your duty is to go and preach about the Kingdom of God.”
Another said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.”
But Jesus told him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.”
A large crowd was following Jesus. He turned around and said to them, “If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison — your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.
“But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it? Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you. They would say, ‘There’s the person who started that building and couldn’t afford to finish it!’
“Or what king would go to war against another king without first sitting down with his counselors to discuss whether his army of 10,000 could defeat the 20,000 soldiers marching against him? And if he can’t, he will send a delegation to discuss terms of peace while the enemy is still far away. So you cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own.”
These kinds of demands ought to disabuse of us of the notion that Jesus is just some warm-and-fuzzy let’s-all-get-along leader. Jesus brooks no rivals for men’s hearts. He does not tolerate syncretism. He is purely exclusivist in his religion. He says “I am the way,” not, “there are many ways.” He says “I am the truth,” not “follow your truth.” He says “I am the light,” not, “follow your inner light.” He does not allow us space to say we believe in him and at the same time live whatever lifestyle we want to live. He leaves no room for idols, even ones that seem to us to be good, like family and burying a father.
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:
Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog — it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil.
Seemingly good activities will trend toward evil because the arc of our lives always ends in the rejection of God without his grace and our faith operating in the Body of Christ. Gaining money is greed unless God gives the bounty and we yield the bounty back to the Church for mutual benefit. Finding a spouse is a stumbling and bumbling process absent the wisdom, prudence, chastity, and modesty given in Scripture and the warm advice of the Christians around us. Having children can be selfish if pursued for self-satisfaction, as can adopting or fostering. Good intentions become the enemy of God if they are not God’s intentions. This was the motivation behind Sarah telling Abraham to sleep with her servant Hagar. “Perhaps I can have children through her,” Sarah thought. (Genesis 16:2) The situation turns sour immediately because Hagar lords her pregnancy over Sarah and Sarah abuses her in return. The Lord turns the entire situation in his favor, but the descendants of Ishmael became enemies of the descendants of Israel in later books. Sarah’s seemingly good intentions ended in disaster for everyone involved.
How many of our human endeavors blow up in our face! Every scientific advancement meant for good becomes corrupted for evil. Every religious effort done without God’s guidance or blessing is simply more idolatry and vanity. Any activity done to “fill a void” or “complete” someone is bound for disaster. Our lives and corporate histories are filled with innumerable examples of failed attempts to address our own fears, pursue our little plans, and conquer our futures. Why do we struggle in vain when the answer is simple? Christ says “my yoke is easy” but we would rather bear our own burdens and pursue our own ends. The Lord says “seek first the kingdom” but we are rather busy with our own little sand castles and petty kingdoms. We posit ourselves as lord instead of the Lord. We are Sennacharib, writing perhaps the most egregious direct affront to God in 2 Kings 19:
10 “This message is for King Hezekiah of Judah. Don’t let your God, in whom you trust, deceive you with promises that Jerusalem will not be captured by the king of Assyria. You know perfectly well what the kings of Assyria have done wherever they have gone. They have completely destroyed everyone who stood in their way! Why should you be any different? Have the gods of other nations rescued them — such nations as Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Tel-assar? My predecessors destroyed them all! What happened to the king of Hamath and the king of Arpad? What happened to the kings of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah?”
After Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it, he went up to the Lord’s Temple and spread it out before the Lord. And Hezekiah prayed this prayer before the Lord: “O Lord, God of Israel, you are enthroned between the mighty cherubim! You alone are God of all the kingdoms of the earth. You alone created the heavens and the earth. Bend down, O Lord, and listen! Open your eyes, O Lord, and see! Listen to Sennacherib’s words of defiance against the living God.
“It is true, Lord, that the kings of Assyria have destroyed all these nations. And they have thrown the gods of these nations into the fire and burned them. But of course the Assyrians could destroy them! They were not gods at all — only idols of wood and stone shaped by human hands. Now, O Lord our God, rescue us from his power; then all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you alone, O Lord, are God.”
So how do we fear God instead of man? We begin by knowing that God is who he is. We accept his introduction to Moses, “I AM,” and explore his nature without putting ourselves in his place. We know that he alone, the Lord, is God. This is the beginning of our fear! Any supposedly “religious” activity that does not generate from his lordship or divinity is simply idolatry.