With this year’s exams written and some time to go before exam results are released, I took the opportunity to revisit some of the themes from the first course I did, Introduction to the Old Testament. Old Testament (or the Hebrew Bible) studies can easily take a lifetime of study even if one focuses on a particular subject or theme, but for this post I chose to focus on one of the most central “problems” in the Old Testament, namely the problem of idolatry. If there is one position that really unites Judaism, Christianity and Islam in addition to the insistent belief in One, it is their aversion to and rejection of idolatry.
The Hebrew prophets spoke and fought against idolatry incessantly, one of the most memorable verses on the subject being Isaiah 44:16-17:
Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”
Here the genius of the prophet is to describe the essence of idolatry in such a way that it is impossible but to laugh at the actions of the ancient idolaters, who burn half of the wood to cook a meal and make a “god” from the other half. But what exactly do we mean by idolatry and does it exist in our post-everything western society?
Of course we will not find many people nowadays who bow down and worship an idol they have just made from wood. I do however think we live in a deeply idolatrous society, despite the constant struggle of the Abrahamic traditions to demonstrate the absurdity of idolatry for the last 2,500 years. To try and explain what I mean it’s useful to look at the entry for idolatry in the Oxford English Dictionary:
1. The worship of idols or images ‘made with hands’; more generally, the paying or offering of divine honours to any created object.
2. Immoderate attachment to or veneration for any person or thing; admiration savouring of adoration.
If it is possible to distill and summarise these two definitions in one sentence perhaps it would be “Inappropriate or excessive regard of created things or concepts”, often things we ourselves have created or invented.
So defined it is now clear how easy it is to be an idolater in the 21st century, especially when governments, the business and the media are hard at work peddling their particular “idols”, that may range from laudable ideals such as as democracy and freedom of trade, to physical beauty and individualism, to iPhones and football. Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with any of these in their proper context and purpose; however blow them out of proportion, promote them without regard to other things, make them your primary or only occupation and you have perfect modern (or should we say, post-modern) idols.
Unlike ancient idols, however, the modern concept-idols often live in the minds and hearts of people (often educated and intelligent people) and are not made of wood. The list of the modern idols can be very long indeed, but what describes them is their ultimate futility, relativity and limitations – which is not a problem if you see them for what they are, but becomes a problem when you attach excessive role, significance or adoration to them.
From our society’s obsession with physical appearance at the expense of inner value, to misplaced belief that our understanding of democracy is the right answer to all questions everywhere, we have no shortage of idols we ourselves have created.
The most dangerous idolatry however is our widespread idolatry of ourselves, where “I” has literally taken the central place in our relations with those around us and is seen as the ultimate lawgiver and judge, the alpha and omega. Everyone and everything is seen as ultimately, if implicitly, subservient to the ways and purposes of this “I”, from the way we behave in relationships to the way we like to be governed. If what matters is the short-term satisfaction of the often confused and contradictory desires of “I”, what place is there for long-term government planning or long-term interpersonal relationships?
It seems to me the work of the prophets is not finished but is taking on new meanings; and if ancients had wooden idols to battle, we have our concept-idols and exaggerated selves to fight – but perhaps we can take some lessons and courage from those who were there before us…