Is Idolatry Our National Problem?
If the Hebrew prophets toured America this week – Super Bowl week – what would they think and speak? I think their subject would be idolatry. I expect a response of incredulity to my claim. “Idolatry? Did you say idolatry? America is a Christian nation, founded by Christians.”
We are the image culture, the digital age, the people with our faces stuck in our phones, I-pads, and computers. As Aaron took the gold of the people and formed them into a mold, and cast an image of a calf, America’s image makers keep pouring out images like golden calves. The casting of images has become the venue for accomplishing the American dream: getting rich, getting laid, and getting even.
The idea of idolatry sounds foreign to our ears. Shouldn’t I realize that idols are a vestige of the past – large, grotesque statutes made of gold, bronze, wood, and other metals? No one worships idols anymore. We assume we no longer have a problem with idolatry. Pagan temples have been destroyed.
Yet the movable shrine of the National Football League has come to Las Vegas for Super Bowl week. The annual pilgrimage and media coverage will capture the hearts of Americans all week. America has one foot in paganism – a polytheistic land of idols and one foot in the church praising Jesus. What a mess! The Super Bowl serves as primordial metaphor for the idols of America.
America has become a nation of many gods. Idols proliferate. Every television season singers vie to be the next “American idol.” Politicians build fake images that people adore and worship. We are a land of many gods.
Idolatry has to do with the desires of the heart. What we most desire becomes our idol. Idolatry means extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone. Stanley Hauerwas says, “The challenge is discovering the idolatries—the loves not born of the love of God—that possess us so completely we are unable to know that we are violating the First Commandment. Idolatry is first and foremost a matter of desire. What we know is determined by what we desire. What we most desperately want will usually indicate the idolatries that shape our lives.”
Perhaps the idea of idolatry becomes more focused if a more contemporary synonym is used: Image. We are an image-saturated world. Once we claimed a picture was worth a thousand words. Now, we believe the right set of images produces a power that dictates how people think what they buy, and for whom they vote. “The sponsors my friend will sell you all they can.”
Here’s the problem: Images are not real, but now pass for real. Images are not the truth, but now pass for truth. Images drip with affect – emotions and feelings. Across the centuries we have been captured by images – a golden calf, a bronze snake on a stick, pagan gods, the goose that lays golden eggs, and now a giant orange pumpkin in the patch with his followers sitting around waiting for him to appear.
The image is fake. It is a representation of the desires of its supporters.
An image can be redesigned. The Mecca of American idolatry, the modern Athens of America is Las Vegas. Sin City has become the Mecca of American prosperity. Critics claimed the proliferation of legal gambling would be the demise of Vegas. Instead, the city created by organized crime now welcomes the NFL, the NHL, MLB, and the WNBA. The Super Bowl is being played in Las Vegas tonight. Gambling has been washed in the blood, been under the waters of baptism, and washed cleaner than the money that the mob has laundered there for more than a century.
As it turns out, the Bible has a lot to say about images.
The Beast Images
There’s a frightening description in Revelation that portends our image-soaked culture. John saw an image – a ten-horned, seven-headed beast rising from the sea. “The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it.”
Then John saw a second image – a beast with two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. A possible description of the evangelical (lamb), Trump alliance (dragon)?
The beast deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived. For the last three years Trump has cried that he has been wounded and persecuted. He has taken on all the fiery darts of the demonic Democrats, and he has done it for the people. He has dared present himself as the wounded, suffering Messiah.
Then an angel, crying with a loud voice says, “Those who worship the beast and its image receive the brand on their foreheads or on their hands.” Perhaps the mark of the beast is the bright red MAGA cap.
Make no mistake. America has an idolatry problem. Only the first of the Ten Commandments can save us now. No idols. No images.