So, this past week was Black Friday. People lined up in a frenzy to get good deals on electronics and clothes and whatever else. Some go under the pretense of selflessness: that they are just trying to save a buck or two on Christmas shopping. Of those, I wonder what is the actual percentage of items bought for others and items bought for oneself.
While most are fairly decent about walking through the busy malls, this obsession with Black Friday has had darker moments. Since 2006, there has been a 98 reported injuries due to the craze of Black Friday shopping: everything from people fighting, rioting (in which cops had to deploy pepper spray), etc.
To date, there has been 11 reported fatalities: An old man was pushed and collapsed, getting trampled; people have gotten hit in the busy caring lots; others have gotten stabbed in the back as they ran ahead of someone for a sale; still others, have fallen asleep at the wheel, exhausted from shopping, crashing to their deaths.
The stabbings and trampling a helpless elderly man are what really get me. When I think of what would propel someone to enact violence of that nature, you have to care about your money, having things, in such a way that you have placed it way to high up your priority list in life.
You might just say that these people have a screw loose, but the truth is scarier.
If you have inflicted violence on another human being over a sale, this is not an emotional problem. It is a spiritual problem. You have invested a spiritual level of energy in it. You have invested your soul in it. You in essence worship it. I derived ultimate meaning from it. It for you is an idol.
I for one think secularism is a bit of a farce sometimes. Everyone is spiritual. Everyone worships. Everyone has a religion. Everyone has a god of sorts.
It is just that in the downfall of Christendom and the collapsing of modern ideals of political progress and enlightenment, the only thing left is the religion of consumerism.
Go to the mall, and you are bombarded with religious messages; Messages on how to find the “true you;” products purporting to change your life with overly salvific tones; advertising attempting to proselytize you to a certain brand name.
I know a lot of people that don’t believe in “organized religion” because it is full of narrow-minded, repressive, shallow people that just want you money. Yet, no one I know who holds such things is consistent and gives up shopping. Whatever authoritarianism, demagoguery and fideism religion can be accused off, consumerism is even worse.
Consumerism is a religion. Its products are idols. And they are not even that good.
Idols always disappoint us. Christ will not. That is why we need to smash them.
What Is An Idol?
Wikipedia gave a good definition, which I will add to: An idol is an image or other material object representing a deity to which religious worship is addressed or any person or thing regarded with admiration, adoration, or devotion.
My own definition is this: Anything we trust more than God is an idol, AND anything you care about more than what God wills for us to is an idol. The second part is often missed. We can turn some of the best things in life into idols by caring about them more than what we should (I’ll explain how to discern this shortly).
There are important examples of idolatry in the Bible.
Right from Genesis 1, we see a notion that God is transcendent from creation. Nothing in creation deserves our worship. The only image he has is humanity, and that means that only worship that is acceptable is one that respects God’s transcendence, and God’s love for people.
Our typological parents fell because they choose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in essence, claiming that they could be their own god. The result of that, however, was alienation from each other and God, spiritual death.
Abraham is told to “leave his father’s household” and this implies leaving his father’s religion of idols.
The Exodus is essentially a battle narrative between God and Pharaoh. The ten plagues show God is in control of all the things the Egyptians revered as god: the sun, sky, river, animals, etc. The most striking example is the hardening of Pharoah’s heart. Pharaoh claimed to be god, and yet, in the narrative, God has control over his very will! That passages sometimes gets turn into a double predestinationist theology, but what this is trying to say is that those that claim to be god are not. Such self-assertion against God is futile.
Of course, as soon as the Israelites leave Egypt, they commit idolatry. While Moses is up on the mountain, the Israelites compel Aaron to give them an image to worship. John Calvin once said that the human heart is a “factory of idols.” Here we see that at work. The people did not want to worship another god, they wanted a representation of YHWH to worship. They felt like they needed an image. They could not conceptualize a fully transcendent God – the “I am who I am.” When God brings this to Moses’ attention, God then threatens to disown his people and restart with Moses. Moses begs God to punish him instead, and because of Moses’ intercession and atonement, God “changes his mind.” God reveals that he is the God, who “has mercy on whomever I have mercy.” Here the transcendence of God manifests itself not in sublime terror, but in the surprising, unpredictable mercy that only a living God can offer. No idol could do that.
The war with idolatry is throughout Israel’s history. It is either the perpetual temptation of kings or their greatest concern to eliminate. The kings of Judah and the Northern Kingdom are assessed in 1 and 2 Chronicles according to whether they tear down the Asherah poles or offer them praise. Sadly many turn to idolatry, and for that the people are sent into exile.
In the narrative there are powerful confrontations between the Prophets and the false-prophets of idols. Elijah demonstrated that the Baal was lifeless, unable to cause flame to his altar as his prophets prayed to the point of cutting themselves in devotion. Elijah, on the other hand, drenched his altar with water, prayed, and it went ablaze. Similarly, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar, and for that, were thrown into a furnace only to be protected by angels. The biblical narrative attests to this constant struggle with idols, and the constant superiority of God over these lifeless, finite things.
Idolatry is a concept that gets expanded in the Bible. Isaiah and Micah turned to their own religion and saw any ritual that caused apathy to be detestable. Habakkuk looked at the empires of his day and saw trust in military power to be idolatry: “their might is there god” (Hab. 1:11). The prophets were truly brilliant people. They are the greatest social critics history has ever produced. They were capable of scrutinizing their beliefs in faith in a way that no secular atheist could do to their own. Why? Because they know that God was beyond all of it.
In the New Testament, idolatry gets applied to sin. Anytime we prioritize our sinful desires, we are placing ourselves before others and God. This is what I mean by idolatry as “anything you care about more than what God wills for us to is an idol.” Colossian 3:5 reads: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
Why Are Idols So Harmful?
(1) Any god except God will disappoint us.
We have a thirst for transcendence. According to anthropologists and theologoans, humans are the only species that has refused to settle into a habitat. We are not at home in the world. We, as a species, always want something more (see discussion in Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 130-131).
This thirst can be ignored, however. This thirst can be quenched by illegitimate things. There are commercials that have been designed to stimulate the religious centers of the brain, fabricating spiritual experiences. Why? Companies want people to be that attached to their products. Kind of messed up isn’t it?
The things of this word only satisfies us so far. Nothing but the forgiveness and love of the true God satisfies this. Why? Because only the perfect love of God casts out fear.
Will our houses always keep us safe? No.
Will our computers, Facebook, cell phones, really produce authentic relationships? No.
Will our clothes and cars gives our lives vocation and purpose? No.
Will our IPods safe us from the fear of death? No.
Can our possessions forgive our worse failures? No.
Nothing we are, have, do, nothing can satisfy us, protect us, forgive us, save us in the way God can.
Unless you know that God will do these things, that fear will always be there. That fear will drive you to destroy yourself within and destroy others.
We see the most deadly example of this in Scripture: the worshipers of the detestable god, Molech. Molech was hated by the Prophets because he demanded your first born son to be offered in the flames. One of the earliest metaphors for hell in the Prophets comes from the followers of Molech burning their children, and the Prophets warning that idol worshipers will have that done back to them. If they did not stop, Jerusalem will burn like the poor children they are sacrificing.
What drives a person to sacrifice their own children? It seems so distant to us. However, if you live in an agrarian society were fertility was life or death, the fear of whether God was on your side was an all consuming terror. People would do anything to know that God was one their side. To prove that, naturally, came the notion of the altar, offering something to show the gods gratitude in order for them to bless you. Of course, in desperation, knowing that one’s whole family might starve, feeling like one’s mistakes could be the cause of a drought – that fear could drive a person to make the calculated choice to sacrifice one of their children.
People were so afraid of the gods. Their worry and guilt and need for control drove them to murder their own children.
We might look at these people and consider them primitive, but we do the same.
In order to preserve our idol of self-importance, we will sacrifice our marriages, family and friendships.
In order to preserve our idol of safety, we sacrifice the lives of innocent Arabs as we drop bombs on them.
In order to preserve our idol of comfort, we sacrifice Syrian refugees.
We don’t want to pay more taxes, so the poor don’t get the programs they need.
In order to preserve our idol of consumption, we sacrifice our planet.
In order to preserve our idol of standards of living, we sacrifice our time working too much.
In order to preserve the idols of our own privacy, we avoid religious gatherings, even our own family and friends.
In order to preserve our religious idols of certainty, we shut out all other opinions and perspectives. We will shun those that remind us of how fragile our faith can be.
(2) We become what we worship.
We become what we worship, and if we worship the lifeless things of this world, we will become lifeless as well. David Foster Wallace, a college literature professor and one of the greatest novelists of our time, wrote this graduation speech. We wrote it shortly before he committed suicide from a loosing battle with severe clinical depression.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but 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 the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable 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 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 grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
The Scriptures know this well. Psalm 135:15-18 reads,
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
In this regard anything can become an idol. Our possessions can become idols. Our jobs, our longing for recognition can become an idol. Our sexual gratification, when outside of God’s loving intent, can become an idol. Drug addiction, with how much the addict invests there life into their addiction, is an idol. Sports, when that euphoria and thrill of victory can lead to, for instance, rioting like the 2011 riots in Vancouver (where over 800 charges of violence were laid), can become an idol. The military, trusting in war to keep peace, is an idol, especially in the United States where its war spending is now three quarters of a trillion dollars and are now locked into perpetual war.
Even things like our marriages, family, and children can become idols. Our desire for comfort and provision for our families can cause us to be morally apathetic. Yet, my children need to know that there are certain matters of integrity that are fundamental.
Atheism can become an idol. While there are atheists who are more moral than Christians, the idea that reality is all there is, my life is all I have, can lead to a dangerous sense of self-concern.
On the other side, our religion can become an idol. When ever we use the Bible in an unloving manner, we violate the principles it gives us to use it appropriately. There is a big difference between believing the right things and believing in the right way.
If your “biblical beliefs” lead you to open fire on an abortion clinic. You religion is an idol.
If your “biblical beliefs” lead you to hate gay people, and exclude them from church. Your religion is an idol.
If your “biblical beliefs” lead you to demonize Muslims and fuel the longing for war. Your religion is an idol.
If your “biblical beliefs” lead you to hold any of your convictions in a way that causes hate, anger, disgust, condemnation, etc. towards others. Your religion is an idol.
So How Do We Smash Our Idols?
So, if we know these things will harm us and leave us unsatisfied, in fact, will even destroy us, how do we smash these idols? Smashing idols is the work of discipleship in a community. The church, a place of instruction and encouragement, is any believer’s best resource for learning what is an idol and working to bring all aspects of our lives into its proper place under Christ.
Stay open minded. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that, “He who cannot listen to his brother will soon find himself unable to hear the Word of God also.” When we can make the Bible and our interpretations into idols, listening in open-mindedness, humility, and fallibility to others will expose our own religious idols.
Test everything against the law of love. The Bible does not want you to read it in a shallow manner. The most pervasive test for any interpretation or prophecy or application in the New Testament is the law of love. If a biblical law is not loving, the biblical thing to do is to understand it as non-applicable today, to think about a better application, or to revise it.
Finally, draw close to Jesus. The crucifixion was a scandal to the Jews. Why? The pharisees made the law into an idol, and the cross smashed the arrogance of their legalism. God showed his only try representation, his incarnate self. At the cross, God became forsaken. God was found in the other, dying for others. God gave himself up for his very murderers. An idol, in so far as it appeals to our need for self-assertion over others and fear of the other, cannot stand when submitted to the test of cruciformity, dying to self. In the cross’ perfect way of love, every idol will break.