Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Idolatry of Our Age - Part I: Blessings and Fulfillment

The Bible is full of things that are very ancient - ancient history, ancient laws, ancient stories.  Sometimes it's hard to understand how these things apply to our modern world, full of technology and scientific knowledge.  One of the ideas that may be hard to apply is the concept of idolatry.  In the "Ten Commandments", the second commandment has to do with idolatry - the Israelites are instructed not to make an image of anything in heaven or earth and bow down to it (see Exodus 20:4-6).  But what does this mean for us today?  I don't often see people bowing down to a this mean we're safe?  We've got this one covered?

Illustration from a Moravian haggadah of 1737, based on the printed Amsterdam haggadah of 1712.
Maybe not.  There is a Jewish collection of literature known as "Rabbah", which was a collection of commentaries by Jewish rabbi.  In the Genesis Rabbah, there is a story where a young Abraham is working in an idol shop.  The owner of the shop, named Terah, went on a trip and left Abraham in charge.  A man walked into the shop and asked to buy an idol.  Abraham asked him how old he was, and when he replied that he was fifty, Abraham said "you are fifty years old and would worship a day old statue?"  The man walked away in shame.  Later on, in the story, Abraham takes a stick and smashes all the idols but one, and then puts the stick in that idol's hands.  When Terah returns to the shop, he asks what happened to all his idols.  So Abraham tells him that woman walked in and wanted to make an offering to the idols, and then all the idols started fighting over who should get to eat the offering, and the biggest one took a stick and smashed all the others (I like the way Abraham thinks - brilliant prank!).  But Terah says that these idols are merely statues and have no knowledge!  So Abraham asks "then why do you bow down to them?"

The reason I bring this story up - besides the fact that it's a pretty funny story to begin with - is that I think it helps us to understand that the issue of idolatry is deeper than merely making a statue and bowing down in front of it.  Because if you realize that even the people back in this time understood that an idol was just a statue, then what was this all about?

I think that this story helps us to understand that the ancient cultures did not necessarily believe that the statues themselves were gods - what they more likely believed is that they were paying respects to the real gods whom these statues resembled, that these gods would see them doing this and would be pleased, and that these gods would bless them in return.  When we understand this, it makes it much easier to see how the principle still applies to today.

Blessings and Fulfillment

One of the things we ought to understand about ancient idolatry is that the idolater saw the worship of their idol as a means to an end.  They believed that by showing respect to these gods through their idol worship, the gods would then bless them.  It was like a cosmic bribe, of sorts.  But the problem was that this had a tendency to become a vicious cycle - when

you find out that bowing down to your idol did not result in all your dreams being fulfilled, well then maybe you should bow down one hundred times a day!  When that doesn't work?  Sacrifice something - put some of your possessions in front of the idol as a gift!  Well, the gods are "up in heaven", right?  So they can't take these things...hmm, what are we going to do...oh, I know!  Burn something in front of the idol - then the god you are worshiping will smell the nice scent up in heaven and will be pleased!  And then, surely, the gods will fulfill my dreams and bless me!  That didn't work?  Sacrifice something bigger - maybe something alive this time!  We'll kill an animal and burn it in front of the statue and maybe that will please the gods and they will bless me and all my desires will be fulfilled.  That didn't work?  Well, maybe we should sacrifice a person!

Yes, ancient cultures would even go so far as to sacrifice living human beings to their idols, all as part of a vicious cycle of trying to earn approval from the gods and win their affections so that we might be blessed and find fulfillment.  And as you can see, there's this vicious cycle that results.  Even if you get the things you want, and decide that they must have come from your idol, then what about next time?  What happens when you want or need more?  Or what if you actually end up getting more than you asked for?  Well, you should make a sacrifice to your idol to show your thanks!  You don't want to anger the gods by not being thankful, do you?

God is not a cosmic genie
The sad thing is that many modern forms of Christianity are really no different.  When churches preach about how "accepting Jesus into your heart" will bring you fulfillment, it is no different.  And then when your life feels no more full than it did before, the vicious cycle starts - well, you need to attend church more, or you need to tithe more, or you need to pray more often, or you need to read your Bible more often.  It's the same pattern of bribing an idol, which is presumed to be the source of all blessings and fulfillment.

This kind of thinking just reduces God to a product - just like that fancy car, or a big house, or a better job, if you could just acquire God, you'd be fulfilled!  If this is the way you think about God, then all you're doing is mimicking every other form of idolatry out there.

Peter Rollins writes in “The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction”:

For instead of God being that which fills the gap at the core of our being, we shall soon discover something much more amazing and liberating: namely that the God testified to in Christianity exposes the gap for what it is, obliterates it, and invites us to participate in an utterly different form of life, one that brings us beyond slavery to the Idol.
In the next post, I will explore how concepts of God can become like figures of stone which we bow down to.

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