Book review: Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller

Book review: Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller June 19, 2011

“The living God, who revealed himself both at Mount Sinai and on the Cross, is the only Lord who, if you find him, can truly fulfill you, and, if you fail him, can truly forgive you.” — Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods
This is a first for southerngospelyankee: a book review! I don’t intend to do very many of these, but since someone recommended this particular book to me recently, I thought I would check it out and share my thoughts.

In our world today, there are many things striving to draw our attention away from God. Sometimes they are obvious, sometimes subtle. And often, they are things which may not intrinsically be wrong, but if perverted, they become idols. In this brief book, Tim Keller walks his readers through the various shapes and forms an idol can take in our world today while combining his observations with stories from Scripture. Chapter titles like “Love is Not All You Need” and “The Seduction of Success” make it clear that Keller is prepared to challenge common assumptions of pop culture.
Some of the illustrations Keller chooses for his various points include the story of Zacchaeus (money), the story of Naaman (success and prestige), and the story of Nebuchadnezzar (power). In a number of cases, these work very well. The re-telling of Naaman’s story is particularly well done, as is the closing account of Jacob’s wrestling match with God. However, there are other cases where he strains too hard for the application and ignores surrounding context. One example is the story of Jacob and Leah. Keller looks at the passage where Leah hopes to gain Jacob’s love by bearing sons and concludes that her desire to be loved was an “idol” she let go of only after having Judah. He contrasts her statements after bearing each son before Judah, which all involve her husband in some way, with the statement for Judah: “This time I will praise the Lord.” He concludes that this means God worked a change in Leah’s heart, resulting in a “breakthrough” for her. While that makes a nice, tidy illustration for Keller’s purposes, it is unfortunately not accurate.
For one thing, Keller is either missing or ignoring the fact that the entire passage is a series of word plays on the names of Leah’s sons. One son is named Reuben, which means “see, a son” (as in “Look! I have a son…see?”), when Leah greets his birth by saying, “It is because the Lord has seen my misery.” When Simeon is born, Leah declares, “Because the Lord hath heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” “Simeon” means “hearing.” It goes on and on. When you get to Judah and realize that “Judah” means “praise and thanks,” suddenly it doesn’t stand out so much anymore. But the real killer is that Leah wasn’t “reformed” after having Judah at all. She and Rachael continued to compete with each other, sometimes in very strange and even bizarre ways. Also, Keller misinterprets the part where it says Leah stopped having children to mean that she never had any more, when it’s actually only a temporary pause. She had three more children later.
Keller tends to fare better when he remains in the present time, offering stories from his personal life experience and soberly commenting on the decadence of our surrounding culture. He is spot on with many of the things he says in this context. I found the section where he discusses the idol of success particularly insightful. He observes that many stars crave success because it gives them a feeling of self-worth. But because God alone can fill that void, they find themselves continuously feeling empty, and the cycle starts all over again as they keep pushing for more success to fill themselves up again.
The influence of C. S. Lewis is apparent throughout as Keller quotes generously from Lewis’s writings to support his own points. Keller himself is no Lewis, but Lewis has obviously had a very healthy effect on him, and it gives the book added substance. Keller also makes good use of familiar stories like The Lord of the Rings and Chariots of Fire. I had never really considered the fact that Harold Abrahams is making an idol of his running, but that is exactly what it is. Keller quotes from a scene I had forgotten where Abrahams’ girlfriend asks, “You love running?” and he responds wryly, “I’m more of an addict.” Abrahams runs to prove himself and satisfy his own desire for success. Keller could have gone on to discuss that Eric Liddell provides the natural contrast to this attitude by running for God, but he uses only the Abrahams illustration.
Unfortunately, Keller does make a false step when he tries to talk about “political idols” in the section on power. He takes a good general point (that ideologies can take on the form of an idol as easily as things like money and pleasure), and then tries to imply that conservatives are no different from liberals. With the tone of a chiding parent who tells the children that “they’re really both to blame,” Keller makes vague, relativistic generalizations that no discerning observer of the current political landscape could take seriously. He solemnly warns each side not to “demonize” the other, because it’s not good to view our opponents as “evil.” As a fairly reliable supporter of the pro-life and pro-marriage causes, Keller himself ought to know better. There is indeed much evil in the left, and there are evil people representing it, including our own President. That may not sound comfortable and diplomatic, but the truth is rarely comfortable and diplomatic. Meanwhile, Keller is only nudging the Church in a direction it’s already been taking for years, to its own detriment.
This combined with the book’s various instances of exegetical carelessness is enough to keep it from a perfect score, but  on the whole, it contains enough good, solid insight that I’ll give it 3.5 stars. It’s well-written, accessible to the average reader and capable of generating good conversations about this important topic, one which is too often overlooked in the Church. However, for those who haven’t already read it, I would recommend Lewis’s The Great Divorce as a more imaginative and profound look at the same subject. And I have a feeling Tim Keller probably would too.

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  • I believe Keller is absolutely on the money. Even with the ideologies bit. He clearly is pro-Gospel, meaning the man is not a politician and was right to call out both sides for the sake of the Gospel. Now, that’s NOT diplomatic or popular on a southern gospel blog…but I still say amen.

  • Well we can agree to disagree, but I don’t think this is about the gospel. It’s about being discerning and aware of what is actually going on in America and the world of American politics right now. Conservatives aren’t the ones killing babies, holding pride marches, and threatening to beat up opposite voters at the polls.
    Conservatives aren’t perfect, and I wish they had held the line better on some important issues like stem cell research when they voted for McCain a few years ago. And I personally don’t think the war in Iraq was justified, though I don’t demonize other conservatives for supporting it. And by the way, if Keller wants to talk about “demonizing” the other side, he’s under a misconception if he thinks conservatives need just as much of a talking-to as liberals. One need only compare the average anti-Bush voter with the average anti-Obama voter. I could tell you true stories that would make the hair on the back of your neck stand up about what Bush supporters were facing in those few years. We’re talking on the level of ordinary people nearly being driven off the road for having a bumper sticker.
    Keller has stated elsewhere that he wishes the church would “be less political.” Nowadays, that seems to take the form of being completely silent in the face of evil, which, as we know, prospers when good men do nothing.

  • Great review. I think your analysis of Keller , both theologically and politically, is accurate and articulate. It takes some courage to critique one of the “evangelical” rock stars but it needs to be done. Thanks!

  • Thanks pastor, I really appreciate that encouragement! Thanks for stopping by.

  • Joe

    ahh—politics may be an idol for you. If you can’t respond graciously to probably proper chastising of both parties, it may mean you are getting your identity too much from a particular one. An idol is something that has an undue grip on our lives that we can’t see. The gospel should let us humbly accept any and all chastising, even if it is our political party.

  • I am concerned with the truth, and I am concerned with seeing things for what they really are. I have critiqued Pastor Keller where I see flaws in his thinking, but it is not my intention to be ungracious. Only honest. As I have already stated, I would not claim that the Republican party is perfect either. In fact, I anticipate voting mainly independent in the future. Or just not voting at all.

  • Joe said: “The gospel should let us humbly accept any and all chastising,” So I know he will accept this in the spirit with which I give. We must accept correction, no matter what are political views may be but in this case Keller’s correction is biased and off the mark, so it is not useful. If the blind lead the blind… well thanks for taking this so well 😉