“The ivory gods,
And the ebony gods,
And the gods of diamond and jade,
Sit silently on their temple shelves
While the people
Yet the ivory gods,
And the ebony gods,
And the gods of diamond-jade,
Are only silly puppet gods
That the people themselves
We never really lose control, we only lose the illusion that we were ever in control in the first place.” – Barbara Brown Taylor
A few years ago I was reading a book on idolatry that was pretty eye-opening for me. Most of us think of idolatry as kind of a bizarre, primitive ritual that people in 3rd world countries used to struggle with. And even then we don’t understand what we don’t understand.
We make some huge assumptions that people today are smarter than people back then. But I don’t think that’s true. People knew back then that they were worshipping something made of wood and stone, they understood that they were making something and then praising it. But they just understood the universe a bit differently.
Richard Keyes points out that the Sumerian-Mesoptamian culture featured two levels of gods. They had this idea that gods come in pairs. So you’ve got your nearby idol, and your far away god. So idols were so popular because they offer humans a sense of well-being, the feeling that they can control their everyday lives. They relate to how to control this world.. the idols worked because they were thought to get the gods to aid people in the everyday realms of sexuality, relationships, finances and health.
So The Sumerians/Mesopotamian culture had as its close gods the Marduks and Baals, but it also had the faraway god El, who had created the world…he was a good God, but if you wanted to get the girl, or to get rich quick, you needed to buy an idol.
Have you ever noticed how rough the book of Leviticus is? For most of us, Leviticus is the graveyard that “reading through the Bible in a year plans” come to die. But if you pay attention, Leviticus is fascinating! It’s like a B-Grade Slasher film without a plot.
But the thing about this that we have just read over in the past…This is the first time that we know of that any god ever told anybody how to be at peace with them. Because that was the thing about the gods, you never knew where you stand with them.
And if you didn’t know where you stood, you would either try to offer them some kind of arbitrary sacrifice, or you would use magic to control them.
But that’s not just a problem those primitive people had, We moderns, with all our technology, still can’t help but feel a sense of out-of-controlness. I’ve been to several third world countries, I’ve seen people all over the place treat their religion as a kind of good-luck charm. They view God, as an impersonal force that controls fate. When I was in India, we saw people try and appease the gods with animal sacrifices.
Or what about Christians? We often treat prayer or church or our religious rituals the same way.
We have this sense that if I do my duty, then God ‘owes me.’ If I go to church or take communion or get baptized or whatever, then now God is somehow obligated to act accordingly. And it’s easy to see in other people, we recognize that when the batter at the plate does the sign of the cross, that’s not going to help improve his statistics.
But then we tell God we will go to church if he helps us get that date.
Because what we do is religion, what other people is “superstition.”
So we Worship as a kind of transaction: I’ve given God something, so it’s God’s turn to reciprocate. Or more common today, God’s people.
But don’t worry, we’re not the first Christians to do this.
In Latin, the words “Hoc Es Corpus” is This is the Body
And so we started using the language that they would use in Communion to manipulate the world in front of them.
But they got the words wrong, they started saying “Hocus Pocus”
That’s where we got that statement, not from the world of wizards and fairies, but from religious people who misunderstood God.
And we’ve been misunderstanding him ever since.
Jesus take the Wheel…Seriously.
A few weeks ago, I preached with Randy Harris at Highland, and Randy made the point that people who are afraid of Flying aren’t afriad of driving. Even though these same people know the statistics about driving fatalities being much more common than flying. These people aren’t stupid. They know they have a better chance of dying in a car than on a plane.
But in the car, at least they are the one with their hand on the wheel.
At least they are in control.
Magic and Legalism are just different symptoms of the same system.
Magic and Consumeristic approaches to Faith are too.
Underneath both is this idea that God can’t be trusted, that’s he’s capricious or fickle.
That His Church should look like and revolve around me.
Idolatry sounds like it’s ancient and primitive, but the way we approach church or God often is just the exact same system with a new face on it. It’s a desire to placate and please a God who says you can do anything to make me love you more. You can’t earn or buy his love or belonging.
The reason that God is so hard on magic in the Bible isn’t because he’s anti-Harry Potter. It’s because He knows what is really at the heart of magic.
It’s not just mystery and child games.
It’s a desire to bargain with the gods.
It’s an attempt to get him to control others around you.
And in the end it’s a Religion…that is an idol.