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?


  1. Love your posts Chris. Always get me thinking.

    From what I learnt from Bruce Winter while studying at QTC, and other reading I’ve done about 1st Century culture, I’m not so sure there’s such a chasm between our wandering through shopping malls and their encounter with idolatry.

    Cultic worship was built into social life. You went to the markets to buy food and there were statues to the emperors right there—the same emperors divinised on your coins and whose divine power were worshiped at the temples (which were immediately adjacent to the markets). The major public events (cf Christmas, Anzac day) reinforced the theology of the society (cf consumerism, ‘familyism’, nationalism). Even the water fountains had statues recording the great victories of the Roman empire (again, particularly the emperor) which was the source of every good in your society, your salvation and your peace.

    I think the whole dilemma of 1 Corinthians 8-10 is the difficulty in delineating what was innocent involvement in society (buying meat at the market place) and what was participating in the idolatry of their community (eating in the temple). And I know plenty of people seeking the same sort of wisdom in how they behave when they head to the shopping centre.

    Interested in your further thoughts.

    1. Hey Russell. Thanks for engaging. I’ve been meaning to respond — but O-Week kind of threw a spanner in the works…

      I’m sure Bruce Winter has lots of light to shed on the way culture and worship were entangled in the first century. And compared to such a great one, I’m certainly no expert! (Although I certainly have a sense of this playing out in its own way in our culture — in especially relation to Anzac Day, etc as you mention.)

      When I get a chance, I’d like to share with you some of my current wrestling with 1 Corinthians 8-10 and how it relates to the diverse phenomena that Brian Rosner groups under the heading of ‘implicit religion’. Because I’d be keen to have you sharpen me up!

  2. Idolatry will take the default position if we are not fully surrendered to God. One way to tell if someone is engaged in idolatry is to ask them to stop doing that activity for a period of time and see how they respond. People violently defend their idols.

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