I teach in one of the great mainline seminaries in the world (if you don’t mind me saying something so gauche), a bastion of American Methodism and a standard-bearer of the Protestant mainline in an era of declining vitality. And I got terribly sick when I was there, and I spent most of my time trying not to die, and they were pious and beautiful and soul-saving in every way.
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. So I have the kind of life that is perfectly suited to idolatry of the highest order.
Let me explain.
One of the defining features of cosmopolitan Protestantism is the sweet little promise — whispered even — that Christianity is not going to ruin your life. You can still love salty language (and I do) and feel justified by holding prevailing opinions (which I do) and have many mild to moderate faults that are not polite for me to mention. Its wonderful accommodation to modernity has liberated the church from a great many sins (Phariseeism, disembodied love, political acquiescence, etc.), but I’m afraid it has laid itself quite open to the glories of idolatry. And let me be clear, idolatry — which is to say, comforting false images of a true God — is the most fun in town.
There’s a wonderful account in our tradition, in the book of Exodus, about our irresistible pull toward worship of the wrong thing. The Israelites have already been rescued from Egypt. They have been miraculously and ceremoniously yanked out of slavery and oppression. They are a people whom the Lord has saved and provided with all the food and water and sustenance they needed, despite much whining on their part.
They have been given a series of laws like “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “You shall not make for yourself a graven image.”
The people had been given two wonderful leaders: Moses, the intercessor, and Aaron, his brother and the high priest. He would tend to the religious needs of the people while Moses was up on the mountain, lingering with God.
Now, in the story, we are about to see Aaron do some spiritual improvisation. Moses is up the mountain receiving the rest of God’s laws on Israel’s behalf. Meanwhile, the people are getting impatient that Moses is “so long in coming down.”
The Israelites say to Aaron, “Come make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses (who brought us up out of Egypt), we don’t know what has happened to him.”
Aaron told the Israelites to surrender their jewelry, then he whipped out an iron cast (I’d love to know where that miraculously came from) and smelted everything into a glorious idol. Later, when Aaron explains this to an irate Moses, he uses the most deliciously shoulder shrugging explanation. He “threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” ( How did that happen?!)
It’s not simply that the Israelites were wildly impatient and prone to epic forgetfulness. It’s not only that they immediately fashioned a golden calf the minute that Moses was “too long in coming down.” It was their defense. They argued that they were still, somehow, not violating the first commandment. After all, they did not create an image of a false God. They created a false image of the true God.
Welcome to your idols, people of Israel.They aren’t idols, I swear. It’s still Yahweh. This is the festival of Yahweh, can’t you tell?
The golden calf brings home the fundamental issue for Christians who are not particularly worried about being apostates. At least not often. We are not unusually haunted by the specter of our salvation or in danger of being entirely unaware of our false pursuits. I work predominantly with pastors, and I have yet to hear any good sermons that come out strongly in favor of any of the exciting sins.
My sense is that we are more likely to be Judas than Peter. Peter denies God. Judas betrays him.
In other words, 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 godlike form. Oh, is that an idol? It looked so familiar I hardly would have noticed.
As Martin Luther famously wrote in his Large Catechism, “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.” An idol is like a flowering weed. It grows and spreads. Its blooms can fill a whole garden, even creeping over the edge and onto the lawn, without any cultivation. You don’t even have to try, and it grows to take up every available nutrient in the soil, lightly choking out other, more tender, species. If it’s lovely to look at, its sprawling tendrils often become too hard to yank out. And why bother? It looks like a garden. It looks JUST. LIKE. A GARDEN.
We are less likely to commit any of the very dramatic sins (murder! arson!). Instead, we are more likely to live comforting half-lives of faithfulness. The substitutions. Where we put in all the effort of declaring to be followers of Yahweh. Until we’re not, as much.
There is a lovely book of advice for writers called Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield, which talks about how much easier it is to pursue a version of something than the real thing. Pressfield says that the biggest obstacle to great writing is the same for great living. It is to substitute a safer, lesser goal for the tough and exciting work you really ought to be doing. He calls this a “shadow career.”
You are a teacher but it’s less about the kids now and mostly about getting to the end of the day. Or you thought you wanted to be a parent and now you dream about being alone most of the time. Or you’re humming other people’s songs when you are too afraid to play your own.
The key, says Pressfield, is to ask yourself what your life is trying to point to. That’s a wonderful and horrible thing to think about.
We are not apostates. We are idolaters. 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.
After all, what is idolatry except beautiful things that do not transform us?
Excerpted from Good Enough by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie. Copyright © 2022 by Kate Bowler. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.