At this point, I can’t remember for certain the first time I came across the idea that idolatry is a sin still alive and well everywhere in the world. Not just in developing or pagan countries. Perhaps it was in seminary when I read in John Calvin’s Institutes that the human heart is an idol factory. In other words, the heart’s main function is producing idols! Really? That sounds provocative, but for me it had the ring of truth. Not just plausibility or possibility, but profoundly true. And not just of my observations of others, but of my own heart too. Indeed, it turns out that Calvin and other theologians of the Reformation era were on to something. And since then many Christians have picked up on the insight and built up the thesis into a biblical theology of idolatry. Author and pastor Tim Keller is one of them. In his small book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (CG), Keller focuses on the “big three” (along with some attention paid to a fourth one: Success) with his trademark urbane and pastoral manner. (For a more comprehensive description of idol categories, see pp. 203-204 where the author defines various idolatries: theological, sexual, magic/ritual, political/economic, racial/national, relational, religious, philosophical, cultural, and “deep” motivational idols.)
Written in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, CG addresses the immediate context of suicides, financial ruin, sexual addiction and burnout that characterized the zeitgeist of American culture during that economic mega-crisis. So many of the illustrations and examples address an era that is now a decade in the rear view mirror (mercifully and thankfully!). However, like the super majority of non-fiction books published to address a cultural moment, CG manages to stay relevant as it deals with a universal human spiritual problem: idolatry. Keller defines idolatry as “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give” (p. xvii). Thus in his terminology, idols are counterfeit gods, which the author explains is “anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living” (p. xviii).
Some of you may be wondering what an ancient book like the Bible can possibly have to say to modern and postmodern people today about a very ancient problem. Isn’t the Bible’s remedy for dealing with idols something akin to smashing statues of Baal or refusing to bow the emperor’s likeness? Not so fast. Continue reading