I Don’t Believe in Idols
A Poem by Mike Garner
An Idol is nothing
Ah but it creates monsters when believed in
An Idol can’t speak
Ah but its voice is the surrender of your freedom
Idols are for primitive people
Primitive people war, practice greed, their tribalism is your nationalism
I don’t believe Idols
Then believe God
The enduring idols of humanity that exist in every civilization are, overall, left unidentified and exist as normative parts of culture. These same idols pass over into religious thought and practice with the ease of a cool breeze. An idol is more than an image it is an ideology. Perennial idols reach across time, across ethnic groups, and defy the borders of nation states. They are constructs for living that are inconsistent with the desire and purposes of God. Perennial idols are a universal aspect of human life that consumes goodness with the assertion that they are inevitable, essential and normative parts of reality.
People surrender to these idols in part because they cannot imagine the world without them. These idols are the compromise of religious ideality without even an attempt to limit their dominance. The book of Deuteronomy identifies these perennial idols as a continual temptation that exists after the primitive idols of images and polytheist worship is defeated. The book of Deuteronomy from chapter 6 – 11 provides commentary (teaching) on the Decalogue in chapter 5. The perennial idols are in opposition to the commandment to have no other gods before the Lord. These idols will survive the cleansing of the land and the ongoing effort to inhabit the land. They are identified in the following verses, not with a singular word but with clarifying injunctions.
If you say to yourself,
“These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?”
The first injunction is set against the temptation to form society around the ideological trappings of depending upon a military force for safety and preservation of Israelite identity as the people of God. Although God would have used locusts to drive out the inhabitants of the land, God cannot stop either the inhabitants of the land or Israel from warring. The identifiable idol that God seeks to limit is a culture of militarism.
Do not say to yourself,
“My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”
This injunction is set against the pride of self-sufficiency, the thought that wealth is a product of personal effort until material gain becomes more important than moral development. It is the idol of materialism, of unrestrained consumption, a system where people are divided off into the rich and the poor.
When the LORD your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself,
“It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you.
This injunction is a warning against the false pride of cultural superiority, of ethnocentrism, nationalism and (supposed) moral correctness. Collective groups of people do not judge their actions in the world with sensitivity to others. It is a people’s history that reveals their view of ‘self’. When history is written by the conquerors it always justifies the actions of the conquerors and demonizes the conquered.
Inevitability and the Reign of God
Idols consume and confine human beings to a reality that claims legitimacy. Because these three perennial idols are universal to all peoples in all times and places, it is evident that they are a reflection of humanity without God. The Christian claim is that God entered history by becoming a human being and that this act is decisive for the entrance of the reign of God over humanity. For this reason, inevitability in relation to these universal perennial idols is subject to the power of Christian faith. This being said, the presence of Christian faith in any given society is indicated by a push against and even an abolishing of these consuming idols. When Christianity becomes the keeper of inevitability, the voice for militarism, materialism and ethnocentrism in society, then Christianity no longer exists.
Christianity is a humanizing power that liberates and provides the power for people to resist the cry of inevitability with an imagination that deconstructs the existing reality. The god of inevitability is a faithless heart. The Lord Jesus’ vision for humanity is one of hope empowered by the Spirit. Hope defies inevitability and opens up all the imaginative power existent in freedom of choice when idolatry has sought to close the door. To surrender to inevitability is idolatry.
It is the reign of God that is inevitable and it has already begun in those who follow Jesus. Further, not only are believers called to resist the perennial idols, but to exist as persons completely free from their influence, people with a heart already in the world to come. To dream with God is to capture a vision for humanity that enters the present and heals the world.
I am thankful for the writing of Dennis T. Olson who identifies the perennial idols of Deuteronomy in his book:
Olson, Dennis T. Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1999.