That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is really your God. Martin Luther
The drama of Thursday into early Friday of Holy Week is both familiar and inescapable. The Last Supper. The Garden of Gethsemane. Judas’ betrayal. Peter’s denial. All inexorably leading to trial, conviction, and crucifixion. The elements of the story are so familiar to Christians and others that it is tempting to suppose that there are no more fresh takes or new perspectives to consider on this important but well-worn story.
Kate Bowler’s recent book Good Enough, co-written with Jessica Ritchie, includes a chapter called “Shiny Things” that got me to thinking about aspects of this narrative that I thought had nothing new to offer. Bowler is an associate professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, a position that she describes as her dream job.
I have always loved my job. It has always felt like the purest expression of who I am. I find much of my energy and my attention is devoted to a version of my career that, conveniently, suits me perfectly.
I not only understand Kate Bowler’s love of the academic life and the privilege of participating in it—I could have written the above myself. I have expressed my love of my teaching vocation and the academic life many times on this blog; my projected book project for my upcoming fall semester sabbatical will be energized by the love that Kate Bowler and I share for what we do.
With that in mind, it is somewhat of a shock when Bowler ends the above paragraph with this:
I have the kind of life that is perfectly suited to idolatry of the highest order.
That got my attention. I have occasionally described an effective teaching life by drawing the distinction between idols and icons. Idols draw attention to themselves, while icons are intended to be looked through toward a truth or a reality that they point toward. The idol says “Look at me!”, while the icon says “Let me show you this over here.” The effective teacher should seek to be an icon rather than an idol.
Kate Bowler’s treatment of idolatry is somewhat different and connects in interesting ways to the story of Holy Thursday. Her definition of idolatry is not the following of false gods, but rather becoming comfortable with false images of the true God; her subsequent discussion of the distinction between idolatry and true faith reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “cheap” and “costly” grace, where cheap grace is largely a intellectual commitment to a watered-down version of faith, while costly grace is “the treasure in the field” for which a person will give everything, even their life.
Why might a comfortable, successful life in a vocation that one considers identity-defining be “perfectly suited” to idolatry? To illustrate, Kate Bowler looks to the most famous story of idolatry in the Jewish scriptures, the golden calf narrative from the book of Exodus. Moses has been up on the mountain for an unexpectedly long time and the people of Israel are getting antsy. Moses’ brother Aaron—the designated high priest and religious leader—agrees to oversee the fashioning of the golden calf idol, and we all know how well that worked out.
What is most insightful in Bowler’s reading of this story is that neither Aaron nor the children of Israel consider the calf to be a false god—they are not breaking the first commandment to “have no other gods before me.” Rather, they believe that this is an acceptable placeholder for the true god. That they are wrong about that makes them idolaters, even though they have not turned their backs on God in search of other gods. As Bowler describes it, “they did not create an image of a false God. They created a false image of the true God.”
For those of us who live relatively comfortable lives but who also claim to be persons of faith seeking to follow Jesus, the temptation toward idolatry is strong. It is very tempting and easy to turn the radical challenge of the gospel into something that aligns nicely with the commitments and perspectives that are most natural to me and that fit the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed. Costly grace morphs into cheap grace almost without noticing.
We are much more likely to do exactly what the Israelites have done: not to have a false image of a false God, but a false image of the true God. We take great comfort in our own version of God instead. Perhaps one that is composed of bits of things I already know are good and golden, things I melted into a god-like form. Oh, is that an idol? It looked so familiar I hardly would have noticed.
Or to put it more bluntly and to relate these matters to the story of Holy Thursday and Good Friday,
My sense is that we are more likely to be Judas than Peter. Peter denies God. Judas betrays him.
I don’t know about you, but in my religious tradition and upbringing Judas was a traitor and a scoundrel, while Peter was the numero uno disciple who under pressure had a moment of extreme weakness—and who hasn’t been there? But Bowler has a point both insightful and disturbing. As a person steeped in the Christian faith ever since I was born, I am unlikely to deny the reality of God in my life. I am far more likely to adjust my beliefs concerning God into what is most comfortable and what fits my current agendas.
Many dramatic treatments of the passion story speculate that Judas thought he was actually still being a faithful follower of Jesus by forcing Jesus’ hand and putting him in front of the authorities. It all went horribly badly, but perhaps his heart was in the right place. It is much easier and much more naturally human to creatively adjust one’s beliefs to one’s preferences (Judas) than to turn one’s back on one’s beliefs altogether (Peter). As Kate Bowler writes, “We are not apostates. We are idolaters . . . After all, what is idolatry except beautiful things that do not transform us?”
It is so easy to be a person of faith on the cheap, to inhabit cheap rather than costly grace. We are unlikely to commit the more dramatic sins. Rather, we are more likely to live comforting pseudo-lives of faith, replacing the most rigorous demands of faith with the best of what we are already doing. The temptation of Judas is far more attractive than the temptation of Peter.
We fall in love with the things that are almost true. We start taking our gold and pouring it into a cast that we can shape with our own hands, one that inspires us and challenges us, but is not, necessarily, given to us by the one true God.