The Peripatetic Preacher and 21st Century Idolatry

The Peripatetic Preacher and 21st Century Idolatry January 29, 2020

I hope you looked carefully at the picture that accompanies this article. It is surely worth several close looks and is rife for comment. It appears to me to be a photo that is rich in political and religious idolatry. The idol is, of course, the current occupant of the White House, and the worshippers include any number of self-identified Christian evangelicals, led by the official White House spiritual advisor, Paula White, the head of a large Florida-based ministry organization that is rooted in what has been termed the Prosperity Gospel. That “gospel” is simple: the more money one gives to the ministry, and thus to its lead spokesperson, Ms. White, the more financial resources you will gain in your own life. The more you give, the more you receive. That has long been a significant Christian notion: sacrificial giving leads to rich spiritual rewards. That idea has, however, been loudly connected to actual monetary rewards only in the past few decades of mega church growth. I suppose for centuries church leaders have claimed such a connection, where “cast you bread upon the waters” was understood to mean money given yields money received, but the sheer magnitude of the money expected and promised has far outstripped any would-be prosperity gospellers of the past.

It is hardly surprising that Donald Trump would be most attracted to such an idea of prosperity promised, since his entire life has been lived in the lap of significant wealth. Whether that wealth is smaller or larger than he claims it to be is not important; Donald Trump is a rich man and he highly values wealth and what it can do. Paula White thus represents for him what religion ought to do, namely make people richer. The other persons in this photo may or may not be practitioners of the prosperity gospel, but they are just as seriously connected to Mr. Trump as some sort of God-given president who is willing and able to further the causes they find significant. In that light, previous presidents are clearly not quite so God-given, since they have never quite measured up to Trump’s overt support of “religious freedom,” a term meaning freedom for evangelical Christians to not only have their issues heard but acted upon, as well as the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade and its legal support of abortion rights. Hence, I suggest, the idolatrous photo that we see.

The Bible has much to say about the dangers of idolatry. And with that statement I do not mean only the famous first commandment (or second, depending on one’s particular enumeration of the Ten) that has become justly famous. “There must not be for you other gods over against my face” (my translation). This sentence is directly connected to the opening salvo of the list of the Ten Words, an opening that is not a commandment at all but a crucial statement. “I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” Indeed, that proclamation forms the context for all the other commands; once one accepts that YHWH is the God of freedom and is forever in the business of loosing people from all manner of bondages, no other gods need apply for the position of God; the place has been filled. Many things and people can claim a god-like status or can be granted such a status by others, but these would be godlets are just that—no god at all. I need hardly enumerate those things that have attempted to usurp the place of God in life; wealth, power, sex, beauty, intelligence, and on and on. None of those will do as God, since none of them can offer or create real freedom or genuine release.

The same may be said for any human being who claims or is afforded the role of God. And here is where the Bible is most persuasive and pervasive in its warning against human idolatry. Adam and Eve, the very first couple, ate the forbidden fruit, lied about it directly in the face of YHWH, blamed one another for the problem, and were expelled from the garden of God. Noah, God-chosen savior of the human world, lay naked in his tent, blamed his son for his own drunken nakedness, and destroyed his family. Abram, chosen to be a great nation, to be a blessing to all peoples, lied about his wife, attempting to pass her off as his sister to pharaoh in order to save his own skin. Isaac uttered the same lie about his wife, Rebekah, to Abimelech, king of Gerar, avoiding the consequences only when the king observed the couple acting like what they were, namely husband and wife. Jacob’s very name means “to grab,” and he grabbed through lies and deception all that he could get. Joseph is a tattle-taling twit, abusing his starving brothers after he has gained power in Egypt, and playing the role of God with them and Jacob, their father, to the point that even after the old man’s death, the brothers still do not trust him. “Am I in the place of God?” he desperately asked them, and standing in their place the answer may have been yes.

Samuel is the great prophet of YHWH, but he allows his concern for his wastrel sons to cloud his judgment and force him to reject Saul from the kingship, a kingship Samuel himself created. David may have been “a man after God’s own heart,” but he did break four of the Ten Commandments in one chapter’s work and died old, freezing, and alone. Solomon may be remembered as wise, but his foolish economic plans divided his nation, and left his privileged son as king over a weak and threatened nation of Judah, while a building foreman became the king of the much more powerful northern kingdom of Israel.

Even in the New Testament the theme is displayed that human beings can never be gods. Peter, the supposed rock of Jesus’s disciples, when confronted with the trial and execution of the one he followed, lied about who he, Peter, was, and denied even knowing Jesus at all. No human is worthy of worship, says our Bible again and again, in story after story about even the greatest figures it presents. It warns over and over that we must not try to emulate these figures, as if God were calling us to do so, as if they were persons worthy of emulation; it rather says we ARE like these persons and must turn to the God of freedom if we are to be anything close to how God would like us to be.

Look again at that picture. Look especially at the slight grin on the president’s face, as the rest of the group prays fervently over the one they obviously idolize. Would- be gods, I suppose, grin like that, because they know that the group has fallen for what the idol can do for them. In a kind of terrible reciprocal game, everyone in the picture receives what they want; the worshippers touch their idol in wonder, and the idol receives their unmitigated adulation, along with the votes of thousands of their followers.

This 21st century idolatry is real and pervasive, and though the Bible has warned against it for two thousand years, yet it remains alive and well and living in the USA in 2020. I find that astonishing and dangerous, but I and we have been warned. The November election is coming, and the dangers of idolatry are here. Heading into the voting booth, I plan to carry this picture with me in my mind as I cast my vote; I urge you to do the same.

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