Would you preach on Australian idols?

It's that time of year again. I am trying to lock down the preaching series for 2011. And I'm feeling conflicted. Should I do a series on idolatory?

Since Tim Keller came out with Counterfeit Gods I've been thinking about doing a sermon series on Australian idols.

Keller, following Calvin, says the human heart is an 'idol factory' taking good things and making them into the things that drive us. Idolatory is not one sin among many found only among primitive people, but is instead the essence of unbelief and the root cause of all sin. Idolatory is a false faith that finds salvation in things other than God.

But Counterfeit Gods left me a little uneasy. Had Keller overplayed his hand? There would seem to be plenty of passages that speak about sin without reference to idolatory. Also key texts like Romans 1 don't set up idolatory as the pattern of all subsequent sin.

In addition to this, did seeing idols 'in the heart' fall short of the dominant biblical theme of physical idols made by human hands? Part of Paul's attack on idols in Romans 1 is the way they are created in the image of man and birds and animals and reptiles and therefore an unsuitable way to worship the unseen creator. In this he echoes Isaiah.

In most of the west we no longer live in a world of physical idols. I once wandered through the ruins of the Forum in Rome and was struck by how many idols and temples there were. Where Christianity has grown idols have died. To speak too quickly of idols in our culture might be to miss this profound shift.

Nonetheless, the Bible does speak of greed as idolatory. Here is an example of a non-literal idolatory. Could there be others? Perhaps pride? Would it be right to analyse the culture and the human heart to find other idols?

As I was thinking through this I realised I couldn't in good consicence lift a sermon series from the argument Counterfeit Gods. With suitable translation to Australian idols it would make for a neat series. But I wasn't yet convinced.

Imagine my suprise then to see the current edition of The Monthly. (september 2010) Peter Conrad's cover article Gods and Monsters tells the story of our worship of celebrity by telling the story of Kylie and Danii Minogue. He writes:

Following God is precisely what Kylie does. In place of the doddering Ancient of Days, whose death was long ago announced by Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, we now have a sky full of the twinkling airborne creatures we call celebrities - temporary deities who are up there on sufferance and can be tugged down to Earth whenever we tire of them. (p52)

Her stylist, who studied theology of the University of London describes how he dressed her to evoke iconography of the Virgin Mary and as a modern Venus. Conrad's conclusion is sobering:

"...I felt suddenly sorry for this ageing waif, and also for the rest of us, so credulously fascinated by Danii and Danyl, Jacko and Joackie O, J-Lo and SuBo, Posh and Paris. While God was alive, I certainly disliked him. Now that he has been replaced by our own inadequate inventions, I think it might be time to invite him back." (p58)

Why is it the people of the world can be so much wiser than the people of the light? There might be a sermon series here yet.

What do you think? Would you preach on Australian idols? Should I? What are our idols?

The Rev Michael Kellahan has experienced the highs and lows of church planting. He also understands ministering in a less well-resourced context, and is currently rector of St Barnabas, Roseville East in Sydney's north.

Comments (40)

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  • Sandy Grant
    September 14, 10 - 10:40pm
    Someone recently reminded me of the claim that Jesus never mentioned idols or idolatry once in his recorded earthly ministry. A quick word search seems to confirm this observation.

    And yet to say he did not address the concept because he did not use the word is a bit silly. What were the two of the biggest blockages to people following Jesus in the Gospels: money and family.

    Still two of the biggest Aussie idols today, I reckon! (And we know Paul made the link explicit for one in Col 3:5.)
  • Chris Little
    September 14, 10 - 11:57pm
    And it's worth pondering the end of 1 John. 'Little children, keep yourself from idols' seems a sudden & unexpected warning to end with.

    It feels out of place. But perhaps that's our problem. I think this verse invites us to reflect on the reality that idolatry may be the underlying threat John warns about.
  • Phil Nicholson
    September 14, 10 - 11:58pm
    Living in a society dominated by the worship of real, physical idols, I can't help but feel there is something different about this compared with "idols of the heart". I think there is scriptural backing for this in the disdain and disgust towards idolatry expressed in many places. And literal idol worship seems to rank highly in lists of evil.

    So while I think it is legitimate to extend the concept of idolatry to other values & things which functionally take the place of God, I don't think they are the same. e.g. it seems there is something substantially different between Canaanite worship of Baal & Aussie worship of Kylie or money. I am not sure what it is but maybe just that we don't really believe that functional idols have god-like powers and are worthy of worship. We maybe subconsciously act like they do but do not consciously give them this degree of trust.

    In this case of "real" idols, this is exactly what people are doing - deliberately putting idols in place of God.

    So I think we overstate the case when everything sinful is termed "idolatry".
  • Mark Williamson
    September 15, 10 - 1:25am
    I am with you in your caution Michael.
    In the various lists of vices/sins in the New Testament, Paul is willing to explicitly call 'greed' idolatry, but refrains from similarly identifying other sins such as cowardice, sexual immorality etc as such
  • Stephen Yeo
    September 15, 10 - 3:38am
    I think the case for caution is overstated. Doesn't Jesus speak about idolatry when he says "No one can serve two masters... You cannot serve God and wealth"? The fact that Paul names greed as idolatry does not necessarily mean he denies the reality of other hidden idols. And in Deuteronomy 6 the prohibition of serving other gods follows the command to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. That is, bowing down to physical idols is symptomatic of the heart that does not so love the God who has saved his people. And whilst the temptations that confront the modern believer may be different, and the symptoms of idolatry be well hidden, surely the human heart is the same! In my opinion there is a great need for preaching which exposes modern manifestations of this ancient sin, and calls God's own back to filial love and obedience.
  • Phil Nicholson
    September 15, 10 - 3:56am
    @Stephen. I would agree with all you have written. However, at the same time I think we miss something if we simply say heart idolatry is identical to literal idol worship. I don't think we have either biblical or practical basis for conflating the two.

    Idolatry is sin. But I don't think we can say all sin is idolatry.
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    September 15, 10 - 5:58am
    Random thought: does fuzziness around the definition of 'idolatry' also help mask real idolatrous (or syncretistic) practices potentially slipping into our churches. I note that the golden calf episode with Moses wasn't merely about worshipping false gods but about worshipping the true God by false means. See what Aaron does:

    When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD." 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

    Or have I got that wrong?
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 15, 10 - 6:24am
    I think you have Exodus right.
    Do you have practices in mind?
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 15, 10 - 6:27am
    @Phil can you flesh out a bit what idolatory looks like in your context? You say the society is dominated by real physical idols - how does that affect the way Christians read the Bible's injunctions on idolatory? Is it something we're blind to in the west?
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 15, 10 - 6:30am
    @Stephen - if you had to pick 3 modern manifestations of idolatory in Sydney what would they be?
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 15, 10 - 6:32am
    @Chris - yes, the 'keep yourself from idols' does seem odd at the end of 1 John, especially when there is so much discussion of sin without reference to idolatory. Are lovelessness and the denial of Christ's incarnation linked to idolatory????
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 15, 10 - 6:35am
    @ Sandy - you might also add, as Steve does no one can serve 2 masters + Matt 4.11 quote of Deut 6. Mind you, I don't think you need to find something on the lips of Jesus to make it Christian;-)
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    September 15, 10 - 6:43am
    Do you have practices in mind?

    Taking greed for example as it was mentioned previously.

    Perhaps say prosperity doctrine is idolatry in a way that merely being greedy by not sharing completely generously with my neighbour is not.
  • Phil Nicholson
    September 15, 10 - 6:45am
    Taiwan is an animistic society. Most people here are actively involved in worshiping idols, at home, in temples, at shrines. They pray to them, seek guidance through divination, offer sacrifices and truly believe that these idols represent spiritual beings with power to intervene and cause good or harm.

    They are not one for one replacements of God since everyone recognises the gods represented have limited powers and sphere of influence. Nevertheless they are treated in many respects the way we are to treat God.

    People look to the idols (and the gods behind them) to protect them, provide for their needs, give direction, etc.

    At the same time they are still prone to what we would call idolatry of the heart. i.e. they look to money, possessions, love, etc to make them feel good, happy, valuable, etc. So what they are looking for from the physical idols is not actually the same as what people like Keller & Driscoll would say we look for in our functional saviours/idols. In fact their emotional response to the idols is often one of fear or detachment, not love.

    They tend to read the passages of idolatry literally since there is a one to one correlation between the biblical context and their own context. And there is a real temptation for even Christians to rely on idols, charms, divination when live gets rough.

    As I mentioned, I am not opposed to use idolatry as a useful way of looking at our sins, but at the same time it strikes me that these are not identical….
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 15, 10 - 6:51am
    @ Phil - so would Christian households be without idols as a distinctive marker? Do churches without idols seem strange to people used to temples with idols?
  • Phil Nicholson
    September 15, 10 - 6:54am

    There is something particularly distressing about seeing people bowing down to idols and this is confirmed in the Bible. Idol filled places like Taiwan also seem spiritually very dark. And I don't think this is just our Western sensibilities or cultural prejudice. We are no less sinful in Australia but when a people are given over to full fledged idolatry I think there is something degrading and enslaving that we in the Western have been spared from for many generations (but are now returning to).

    I suspect some of difference is that idolatry takes place where there is an animistic worldview and Westerners still are mostly operating out of a biblical worldview (albeit rather distorted).

    I am still trying to work this through theologically, and would love to see something written on it. At the moment it is more of a gut reaction, but I think there is biblical warrant to put idol worship at the top of the list of sins.

    So when we start to label everything idolatry I wonder if we are in danger of missing something that the Bible takes pains to emphasis as particularly evil.
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 15, 10 - 6:57am
    @Phil - sorry for interupting - didn't see the cont'd... coming

    will ponder what you've said.
  • Phil Nicholson
    September 15, 10 - 6:59am
    @Michael One of the first things done when a household repents is to rip down the idol shelf. It is quite a celebration. Christians tend to replace this with cross or more often with hanging scrolls with scripture on them.

    People know we don't worship idols so they don't find it odd, in fact doing things they find taboo can be a powerful witness to the fact that Christians have all they need in Christ.

    If anything, people like the atmosphere of churches and the freedom Christians have. But fear is often a barrier that stops them believing.
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 15, 10 - 7:09am
    @Phil - Wow! I love that image of ripping down an idol shelf.

    Your description is making me think of idols of the heart though. What might it look like in Australia to rip down the idol shelf of greed, celebrity, power, education etc? I wonder if we lack a powerful witness where we don't stand against the idols of our age - if we trust in education, money etc like everyone else then we have nothing to say...
  • Phil Nicholson
    September 15, 10 - 9:20am
    Yes, I think that is something significant to consider. What does repentance (turning away from idols to serve God) look like in our context?
  • Mark Williamson
    September 15, 10 - 1:45pm
    I think the case for caution is overstated. Doesn't Jesus speak about idolatry when he says "No one can serve two masters... You cannot serve God and wealth"? The fact that Paul names greed as idolatry does not necessarily mean he denies the reality of other hidden idols.
    At the risk of being pedantic - isn't Jesus just talking about greed again, like Paul? I would think that this reinforces the point being made for caution.
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    September 15, 10 - 10:25pm
    The more I think about it, the more I think labeling 'greed' an idol is unhelpful.

    On the one hand it distances Christians from the sin of having an ungenerous spirit and on the other misunderstands the real driver of materialism in our culture.

    Even the Gordon Geckos of this world don't really worship money.

    I am beginning to wince when I hear people say things about money that might downgrade wise stewardship. There is a place for thrift in faithful Christianity. An overly carefree (even careless?) attitude can actually be driven by the sin of hubris. We are the only generation that matters.

    It was interesting to read Phil's comments about the power of idols in taiwan.

    Perhaps a more profound question is to ask Australians where they seek guidance or determine what is right/wrong behaviour.
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 15, 10 - 11:00pm
    except Jeremy, that the NT does identify greed as idolatory 4 times Col 3.5, Eph 5.5, Matt 6.24, Luke 16.14
    This pdf Themelios article by Brian Rosner 'The Concept if Idolatry' is helpful http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/idolatry_rosner.pdf
  • Michael Wells
    September 16, 10 - 12:20am
    Yes, but those NT verses were spoken into a culture with plenty of idol worship, and so the metaphor meant something. But on the whole, when we say 'greed is idolatry', we have to explain idolatry first for it to have any meaning. A great deal of the gospel preaching to gentiles in the NT was a call to turn from idols. most of our preaching isn't, partly because our culture is different. I wonder is we would have greater impact on christians if we said greed was unbelief, or turning your back on the cross of Jesus
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 16, 10 - 12:29am
    Michael - if that's what Jeremy meant then we'd have no harder problem than we do with cross, sacrifice, priest etc
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    September 16, 10 - 12:45am
    Thanks - I'll read Brian Rosner's piece. I did have communication mostly in mind, but it was a half formed thought.
    I was aware of some of those reference but haven't thought about it systematically.
    Understanding what the NT means by idolatry is the right starting place.
  • Phil Nicholson
    September 16, 10 - 12:49am
    @ M. Wells I think that is a very helpful comment. Saying greed is idolatry is a metaphor they would have understood. It conveys how serious greed is & incompatible with the Christian faith.

    I wonder if we perhaps err in two ways when we read this today. 1) We extrapolate without warrant as we seek to label all sorts of sin as idolatry and end up losing a part of the original point being made. i.e. how bad greed is.

    2) Since we are not familiar with idol worship we miss the point of the metaphor and read into it other meanings. i.e. an idol is anything you look to for security & significance, a "functional saviour".

    I can see how greed/love of money is idolatry as people place their trust in it (! Tim 6:17), but perhaps we stretch the analogy too much (and reduce its power) when we start applying this indiscriminately.
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 16, 10 - 12:55am
    If you want the most robust case made for 'idols of the heart' stuff then look for David Powlinson who wrote an article (somewhere? the only links I could find to it have been pulled down) called 'Vanity Fair - idols of the heart' Can anyone help us with a better reference to this or know if it is in one of his books?
  • Allan Patterson
    September 16, 10 - 3:35am

    Just google "idols of the heart and vanity fair" and it will come up.

  • David Ball
    September 16, 10 - 5:01am
    Jeremy @7 - that reading of Exodus 32 seems pretty hard to sustain. The verse immediately before the passage you've quoted makes it clear that they are worshiping other Gods instead. It seems to me that Aaron's announcement of a "festival to the Lord" is really just an excuse to gather the people together.
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    September 16, 10 - 5:10am
    your reading seems odd to me.

    But I don't claim to be at OT scholar :)

    It seems to me the people wanted an idol god. Aaron seems to think it will be OK to go along with people's wishes if he uses it to serve the Lord.

    That seems to make more sense of what he says later to Moses.
  • Michael Kellahan
    September 16, 10 - 5:25am
  • Michael Wells
    September 16, 10 - 11:30am
    Augustine was pretty forceful with his account of desire too.
    J K A Smith has a book out using Augustine to speak about worship/idolatry and secular 'liturgies', that might be worth checking out too. I cant remember the name 'desire and...hmm something'.
    If you do go down the idolatry line (and I have before), make sure you include plenty of positive and concrete ways these things may be used to worship our triune God. I find little point in trying sweep the house clean of demons if you can't show people how to live with the Spirit.
  • Stephen Yeo
    September 19, 10 - 10:38pm
    @Michael #10. Three modern manifestations of idolatry in Sydney? Some preliminary thoughts:

    1) Living for security (dismissing the perfect security found in God alone). It may be in bricks and mortar (or even ‘bigger barns’), the impressive investment portfolio, a fitness regime, a relationship, etc. My attention was drawn to these verses recently:

    The name of the LORD is a strong tower;
    the righteous man runs into it and is safe.
    A rich man’s wealth is his strong city,
    and like a high wall in his imagination.
    (Prov 18:10-11)

    2) Living for pleasure (but not the pleasure of knowing and serving God). It may be aspiring to the harbourside mansion or the boat to cruise the harbour. It may be living for the weekend golf game or shopping experience. It may be cramming into life the 101 travel experiences we are told we must tick off before we die. It may be enjoying a gourmet picnic in a park, but failing to give thanks for God’s kindness and provision (cf. Rom 1:21; 2:4).

    3) Living for significance (but not the significance of Jesus, given the name above every name, and in whom we are given a ‘new name’). Do I regard my CV as just a tool to get work, or a list of achievements in which to glory and the measure of self-worth? Is life a striving for the applause of others – whether in a job, or in the reflected glory of successful kids, or in ministry, or in writing a pithy blog, or in having the best manicured lawn in the suburb?

  • Stephen Yeo
    September 19, 10 - 10:40pm
    I wonder if we Sydney-siders are inhibited in our ability to detect the idols in our midst? Sometimes it takes an overseas guest or returning missionary to clearly perceive what we are partly blinded to. Also, because each of us battles different idols, there is value in posing Powlison’s question: ‘Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight?’

    David Williams wrote an article for CMS on this theme (http://www.landscape.cms.org.au/landscape001/australianidol.html) and identified four Australian idols: 1) money and possessions; 2) leisure and holidays; 3) family and children; and 4) health and long life. He prepared four corresponding short prayers to help transform us by the renewing of our minds. 1) Don’t let me be rich. 2) Don’t let me be content except in Jesus. 3) Help me to love Jesus more than I love my children. 4) Help me to keep believing that I’d be better off dead (after Phil 1:23). Amen.

  • Stephen Yeo
    September 19, 10 - 10:43pm
    Some other miscellaneous (and undoubtedly half-formed) comments:

    1) Key texts like Romans 1 don’t set up idolatry as the pattern of all subsequent sin (MK).
    Hmmn, yes, but Romans 1 does seem to present idolatry as a (or the?) root sin (Moo). Noel Due (Created for Worship) makes a compelling case for viewing the Fall as a battle for worship. And the error described in Romans 1 is similarly not the neglect of worship (and nor as far as I can see the manner of worship) but the exchange of worship from the Creator to created things (Due).

    2) ‘Heart idolatry’ is present in the OT (as well as in the NT). Powlison draws attention to Ezekiel 14:1-8. I also notice chapter 33:31, where the LORD says to Ezekiel, ‘With their mouths [my people] express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain’. Rosner (Beyond Greed) observes how Israel’s treaty-making activities are in Jeremiah and Ezekiel described in idolatrous terms and understood as a failure to trust God.

  • Stephen Yeo
    September 19, 10 - 10:45pm
    3) It seems that much of the comment to this post has sought to define idolatry Biblically. Whatever your sermon series is entitled, Michael, I think there is value in unpacking Scripture and culture to open eyes to the things that would steal our devotion to Christ, to convict hearts of unrecognised idolatry, to grow an appreciation for the work of the One True Worshipper, and to call for repentance and holy living in the power of the Spirit. Could you have a series on worship, and address idolatry (as misdirected worship) in that context? I found Noel Due’s Biblical theology of worship formative in my understanding. His concluding chapter contains a section on idolatry. Interestingly, it seems he has no qualms with a fairly broad (and very uncomfortable) application (p.230):

    ‘The drive for fame, power, wealth, position and prestige are just some of idolatry’s manifestations, and these will lead men and women to sacrifice the lives of their children no less than the ancient gods of the Canaanites caused the kings of Israel to pass their children through the fire’.

  • Jeremy Halcrow
    September 20, 10 - 1:49am
    Living for pleasure (but not the pleasure of knowing and serving God).

    Maybe I'm just being pedantic, but after reading Rosner's article I'm not yet convinced we should say 'living for pleasure' or 'living for significance' is idolatry.

    This debate is about not being overly glib about implying the term 'idolatry' to things that may be sinful (or moreso misguided in the case of celebrity fandom), because it waters down our focus on the truly powerful enslaving idols in our culture.

    Do people seek their hope and security in pleasure (instead of God), which seems to be a big problem with wealth-worship according to the texts? (Wealth-worship also enslaves the broader community via social injustice)

    The NT writers would has been aware of hedonism, after all the first hedonists were ancient Greeks.

    So why dosn't the Bible specifically say 'living for pleasure' is an idol like it does regarding greed?

    Clearly idolatry is about about love, devotion and service to a rival god. So is it implicitly more than mere self-worship?
  • Ernest Burgess
    September 20, 10 - 5:22am
    Hi Michael, if you are going to preach on this subject may I suggest you read Gerald G May's book on Addiction&Grace; often we think of addictions as hard drugs but in actual reality it is everything we depend and cannot do without outside of God for example how often are we sitting at a computer or looking up our mobile phone or checking in on facebook. The most valuable position we have is our time our usage of it shows where the modern idols are.
  • Phil Nicholson
    September 21, 10 - 12:49am
    A friend who also serves in Taiwan picked up on the discussion here & identified what I think is probably the key difference between idol worship & heart idolatry. From his blog () he says "I think the issue of demonic involvement in idol worship is a major distinction between "heart" idols and literal physical idols and altars." Paul states as much in 1 Cor 4 & I think the fact this has not previously been mentioned here is maybe due to the fact we all tend to operate in a rational, materialistic framework.

    There is an evil demonic presence active in the worship of idols that is not necessarily present in what we call idolatry.

    He also comments that: "From what I have seen, people feel the same way about their gods and spirits they worship as a small businessman might feel about organized crime and an extortion racket where if you don't pay the "protection money" then the mafia will cause you trouble and ruin your business."