The Beauty of Idolatry

The Beauty of Idolatry July 31, 2019

In short, precisely that which was generally considered piety (religion or eusebeia), reverencing the many gods, was, for early Christians idolatry, impiety of the gravest sort (Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods).

Reverencing the many gods. Reverencing the many gods. The scandal of Christian preaching is precisely this–it names idolatry among the very people who believe they’re practicing the reverse.

It calls us to name idolatry in the very places those practicing it are most convinced they’re doing otherwise.

Notice, for example, the practices that cause the most heat. If you…

  • Take a knee during the singing of the National Anthem.
  • Call into question the need for national security.
  • Interrupt the construction of nuclear weapons, or march against the militarization of everything.
  • Refuse to say the pledge.
  • Extend welfare to those who aren’t working.
  • Defend labor unions and call for just wages.
  • Say #blacklivesmatter.
  • Prioritize baptism or shared humanity over immigration documents.
  • Question whether one should take the Bible literally.
  • Question whether mission trips are really “good works” that benefit others.
  • Argue that wealth should be re-distributed from the rich to those in need…

Guaranteed, most of these positions will meet resistance, because you’re questioning the very things generally considered properly pious–idolatry of nation, idolatry of security, idolatry of work, idolatry of wealth, idolatry of whiteness, idolatry of the Bible (bibliolatry), idolatry of good works.

This is the scandal and problem of Christian preaching. If done well, it will scandalize almost everyone, first of all the preacher. The problem with Christianity is its having situated a scandal at the very center of its message.

Jesus, crucified on a cross, because he scandalized the empire (by acquiescing to being called that which only Caesar could be called–Lord), scandalized the religious leaders (by forgiving sins), scandalized the mob (by refusing to adhere to classic forms of respectability), scandalized his own disciples (by “failing” in his mission rather than arising as the powerful leader and savior).

Preachers are supposed to preach this scandal, bring it into the present moment, apply it to the culture and politics and religion and respectability of our day, and then somehow hold a community together while simultaneously and repeatedly scandalizing them.

No wonder so many of us preachers bail on this fundamental centering on scandal, and instead engage in the idolatry of lukewarm mediocrity. The world offers us the illusion that it is the height of piety to hold an ill-defined group together by leading as a “quivering mass of availability” (Hauerwas).

Everybody loves their leader to scandalize others, until they themselves are scandalized. Leaders themselves love to scandalize until they have to endure the prophetic word turned back on them.

It is both the miracle and the challenge of Christianity that such a scandalous theological center has resulted in a global religious movement. Of course, part of the scandal is that the church in many places has bailed on the scandal, and instead cultivates idolatry posing as Christianity. In fact, the great majority of Christianity, especially in the the United States, is no Christianity at all, but straight up idolatry, aligned as it is with militarism, nationalism, consumerism, racism, sexism, and more.

The central message of Scripture is warning against idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14). Christianity slides into idolatry over and over. It is the task of the preacher to see this, call it out, name it, call the thing what it is, then re-center on God, the God we are to worship beyond all the idols.

This is why, for example, preachers throughout history have sometimes identified prominent religious leaders (the pope) or prominent political leaders (the president) as the anti-Christ. It’s not because they are or aren’t a bad person themselves (although there’s frequently much to worry about in their character and actions). Rather, they are named the anti-Christ because some of the most prominent Christian voices of the period, especially in our day the white evangelical church (the dominant “Christian” voice in our nation), have identified them as a strange kind of savior, perhaps even anointed by God and called to this role.

It is also why, in this moment, I’m so very mindful of the work Martin Luther King Jr. was engaged in at the end of his life. Although he is known as a civil rights leader, he was in Memphis advocating for a labor union, and had become a prominent and outspoken voice against militarism and our war in Vietnam.

Where are the voices against militarism today? The voices speaking up sacrificially on behalf of workers? Idolatry is practiced not just actively, but also through complicity and silence. When we allow 50% of our tax dollars to be spent on American military might, we are complicit in idolatry. When we welcome purchasing cheap products produced by undocumented workers and low-wage workers abroad, we are complicit in idolatry.

The beauty of idolatry is manifest. We like our idols. We love them. We will grasp them in our hands and with our dying breath proclaim our love for them. They are our worship. It takes a Christ, one willing to die for us, to free us from such idolatry. He comes into the world knowing he will die on the mission on which he is sent. He can only free us in this way, satisfying not God’s need to exact vengeance for our sins, but by releasing us from the cycle of violence we implement to maintain our many idolatries.

The alternative to idolatry is in fact ugly. It is a naked Palestinian man crucified on a cross, drawing our attention to our being-towards-death and lovely idolatry. There is nothing beautiful about the cross. Thank God.

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