Month: February 2013

rethinking idolatry

I feel like I’m only just catching on, but idolatry’s kind of a big deal right now. It’s the new black when it comes to thinking about evangelism and Christian cultural engagement.

Everyone wants to identify and expose the idols of our hearts and culture.

And there’s a lot going for this approach. Not only is idolatry a major theme in the Bible but as Tim Keller points out, it can have real traction in raising the topic of sin with postmodern people:

Instead of telling [people] they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their careers and romances to save them, to give them everything that they should be looking for in God. This idolatry leads to drivenness, addictions, severe anxiety, obsessiveness, envy of others, and resentment.

That’ll certainly preach!

But I’m starting to wonder about what it means to identify contemporary Western idols. And what our method is for doing that. (I’d like to claim this as why I never finished my series of reflections on consumerism — but the real reason is that I got caught in the holiday whirlpool of consuming!)

What’s prompted my rethink is the repeated pairing of ‘eating meat sacrificed to idols’ and ‘sexual immorality’ in Revelation 2-3.

We were chewing over this in my church Bible study group last week. And I think we came to the conclusion that applying this to us might be a little more straightforward than Keller (and the Biblical Counselling Movement among others) may have us believe.

We began by questioning the typical method of ‘translation’ from one culture to another.

I’m sure you know how it goes. First we identify the deep spiritual/emotional needs first century pagans were (supposedly) looking to meet through their idol worship — e.g., a sense of security, acceptance, control, or power.

Such idol worship is idolatrous, we suggest, in so far as it involves treating good things as ‘God things’ — relying on them for the satisfaction or salvation that God alone is meant to provide.

Then we pick out our own culture’s array of illegitimate means of meeting these same deep needs. And voila — our contemporary idols!

The problem is that when it comes to something like consumerism or materialism in our own culture, it’s not immediately clear that these things really are ‘idolatrous’ in the sense described above (although the biblical equation of greed with idolatry may indicate that they’re idolatrous in some other sense).

As one member of our Bible study group pointed out, I could find myself at a shopping mall not because I’m deeply involved in some religious devotion to finding satisfaction and ‘life’ in the stuff I buy, but simply because I need some new work clothes.

Does this mean I’m swept up in idolatry by default? I’m not so sure.

It hardly parallels the situation in most ancient idol temples — where it seems fairly unlikely that you’d find yourself accidentally swept up in worshipping another god when you’d actually just turned up for some other more mundane reason (making due allowance for the dark objectivity of idolatrous practice — where ‘mental reservations’ don’t get you off the hook).

Of course, my capitulation in the dynamics of consumerism at the shopping mall may still compromise my confession of faith. After all, Jesus did talk about the impossibility of serving both God and Mammon.

The energy and concern I invest in clothing myself may well put the lie to one key way I’m meant to be different from people who don’t trust Jesus — just as taking part in eating idol meat and sexual immorality would have put the lie to one key way the recipients of Revelation 2-3 were supposed to be marked off from their non-Christian contemporaries.

These things do run against the grain of our identity in Christ. But I’m no longer convinced it’s true or helpful to characterise them as idolatry.

What do you reckon? Has this got legs?

Christian readiness


I’ve been meditating on the readiness the Apostle Peter summons Christians to in these famous words from 1 Peter 3.13-16:

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.

It’s breaking with the received wisdom on apologetics, but I seriously doubt that what Peter is after when he tells us to ‘always be ready to make a defence’ and give ‘an account of the hope that is in us’ is either dropping into exam-mode or playing amateur detective.

You’re probably familiar with exam-mode apologetics. They’re the conversational equivalent of the pat answers my Theological College study group and I used to memorise and trot out in exams — no doubt totally boring our markers with our blandly uniform responses and shared errors of fact.

You know you’re in the presence of exam-mode apologetics when statistics, incisive quotes (David Foster Wallace on worship is a favourite), and whole trains of thought get rehearsed with mechanical efficiency — and mechanical soullessness.

The amateur detective thing, by contrast, is the stock-in-trade of an apologetics that majors more on method than matter. Here it’s the sequence of incisive responses and well-chosen questions slowly but surely leading your conversation partner to the point of exposing their logical incoherence that give the game away.

Either way, I’m starting to chafe against any kind of ‘conversation on rails’ approach to apologetics. What you end up with hardly seems worthy to be called a conversation.

I’m increasingly convinced that genuine conversations that nevertheless display the readiness Peter calls for will be marked by the sort of ‘relaxed insistence’ of a parent recounting their child’s exploits.

That is to say, such conversations will ooze love with a kind of unsystematic combination of relaxed expansiveness (as a parent I’m well aware of my tendency to go on and on about my infant son) and thematic concentration and insistence (I’ll often return to the same territory over and over again, relating the stories that seem best to capture my son’s emerging character and personality).

We struggle to do this on the one hand because the Christian apologetics industry keeps promising — and the New Atheists et al seem to keep demanding — something more effective.

The hope here is for a neat apologetic equation. One we can plug every conversation into. Crank the handle. And watch a proof for God’s existence pop out.

This hope is vain because even the best equations keep either generating a puzzling remainder — like the troublesome persistence of gratuitous suffering in the world — or requiring us to supply some annoying and arbitrary-feeling ‘constant’ — a metaphysical fudge factor like the conflation of existence and essence in Anselm’s infamous ontological argument.

But the other — and perhaps deeper — reason we struggle to embrace the ‘relaxed insistence’ of a parent (or lover) is because it leaves us on the sidelines. Merely spectating. Like a parent watching their kids play sport.

There’s a confrontation to be sure. The imminence of an outcome can’t be doubted. Someone will win and someone lose.

But Christian readiness requires us to admit we aren’t competing. And be OK with that. Because we’re not players in this game. We’re not even fans — wielding our God like some talisman.

We’re just witnesses.

how prayer can liberate you from judgement and anxiety

As I continue to pray “Lord – teach us to pray” this year, all sorts of experiences and things I’m reading are ricocheting off one another, and occasionally showering me with glimmering sparks of insight.

Oliver O’Donovan’s paper on ‘Prayer and Morality in the Sermon on the Mount’ (Studies in Christian Ethics 22.1 [2000]: 21-33) did this to me yesterday. And, with my mind’s eye, I can still see the dazzling sparks settling around me.

I doubt I can reproduce this effect for you — it’s a bit like trying to advertise a 3D TV on normal 2D television. But this brief comment on the structure of Matthew 6.25-7.12 is one moment that could stand for many (pages 28-29):

We might have expected the command to ask be set directly beside the command not to be anxious. But by placing these two teachings one on either side of the command not to judge, Matthew has allowed us to see what judging has in common with anxiety. Judging, like worrying, is a false way of disposing of our power to care; it focuses care on the wrong of the past, just as worrying focuses it on the peril of the immediate future. Judging, like worrying, is unable to see through the bewildering complexity of meaning with which the world confronts us; it is tangled up in the twists and turns of its own narrative. It cannot revert to the simple and consistent goal towards which all things tend, the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness.

To my mind, this is a brilliant diagnosis of the shared pathology behind what can appear as opposing sets of symptoms — proudly sitting in judgement on others, and anxiously judging yourself. Pride, someone has said, is just anxiety in drag. (Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, there’s truth there…)

Better still, it points the way to the liberating power of prayer — the asking, seeking, and knocking Jesus goads us to.

Only prayer can set us free from both judgement and anxiety. Because only a prayerful focus on the holy reputation, kingdom, and will of our Father in heaven has the power to draw our eyes and hearts away from ourselves — and our own little kingdoms.

Ultimately, only a living knowledge of God as our Father can give us the confidence to draw near to him with our needs. Rather than leaving us feeling like we have to steal what we need — as though either our needs are met or God’s kingdom agenda is advanced. An either/or that’s a sure recipe for judgement or anxiety…

enjoyment is only the tip of the iceberg

I think I was dimly aware that an entire theology of creation (and a theological anthropology as part of that) was lurking beneath the surface of my previous post.

But — a bit like rubbing detergent or saliva on the inside of your snorkelling mask — it took this dazzling gem from the Church Dogmatics III/4 to bring things into sharp focus for me:

[God] takes man so seriously in his vocation to be in covenant with Him that He calls him to freedom in fellowship, i.e., to freedom in fellowship with others. He calls him to find himself by affirming the other, to know joy by comforting the other, and self-expression by honouring the other. (Section 54.1, pages 116-117)

I find this so helpful. For one thing, it traces the same arc I’ve launched myself upon in beginning to flesh out a properly biblical notion of enjoyment (e.g., wrapping it up with other-regarding behaviour like giving and sharing — or, as Barth specifies it here, with affirming, honouring, and comforting).

But it’s the location of this claim within the sweep of the Church Dogmatics that really excites me.

You see, in Sections 52-56 Barth is busy drawing out the ethical implications of the theology of creation he has developed in Book III — which might be better labelled a Christology of creation.

This is exciting because it doesn’t only confirm my hunch that enjoyment is the tip of a much larger iceberg. It also suggests the kind of shape that this submerged theology needs to have in order to yield a distinctively Christian alternative to the reigning ‘ethics of otherness’.

In the ethics of otherness trailblazed by the likes of Immanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, difference is absolute. All we can (ethically) do is tremble before the claim of the other as other — in a kind of mirror image reversal of the revulsion supposedly characterising the sort of ethics Levinas et al rail against. The tyranny of the self — and people like me — is replaced by the tyranny of the other.

What Barth invites us to imagine by contrast is a way of placing the other beside the self.

It is only in doing so that we will find the conceptual freedom to forge well-differentiated connections between ourselves and others. Perhaps even allowing for the full range of ethically justifiable responses to otherness — between the extremes of knee-jerk exclusion and indiscriminate embrace…