Modern Idols

I originally wrote this as a middle section in my last post on Leviticus 26. But I was nearing 3500 words and worried that not many people would read all that, so I decided to make it its own post. It’s really just application on the first point of the basis of our obedience, which is, “You shall not make for yourselves idols.”

In the first of eight open lectures to all undergraduates at Cambridge University in 1940, J. S. Whale responds to a few of the classic answers to the question, “what is man?”

Man is not merely a thinking animal, a laughing animal, a tool-using animal, or a cooking animal.[1] (And to cite a Dædalus article from 2009, man is also not merely a party animal.[2]) Whale then offers the Christian understanding of man: “Man is an animal made in the image of God, which means that he is not an animal at all.”[3] Or, in stylistic continuity with all the other answers, we could simply say: man is a worshipping animal.

Worship sets humans apart from every other species. To worship is the most human thing we can do. Some animals may laugh, use primitive tools, and even have some sort of language, but no animal worships. And despite how things may appear, all humans worship.

Everyone Worships

In his famous 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace, who was by no means a religious person, said:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.[4]

Everybody worships because everybody has a human spirit. Only humans worship because only humans have a spirit. What is our spirit? Peter calls it “the hidden man of the heart” (1 Pet. 3:4). That’s a very powerful image if you think about it. Think about living in a huge, 19th century manor, and deep within the endless mazes of hallways and rooms a man whom you’ve never met before lives in a small chamber behind a locked door. You don’t even know he’s there, but at times you seem to be aware of a vague murmur coming from very far away, and which, by straining your ear in the quietest of moments, can be made out to be something like laughter or weeping or singing or bits of a conversation.[5] The strange realization hits you: all along there’s been another person living inside your own house. Who is he? How did he get there? Wouldn’t you want to search for him, let him out, and find out what he wants? That’s like the hidden man of your heart.

There is a hidden man within every single person, with insuppressible longings. And despite the endless outward variations of culture and personality and fashion, everyone wants the same thing at their core—to worship. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that everyone has a worshipping core. That’s why Augustine began his Confessions by saying, “To praise you is the desire of man… because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[6]

If you listen for it, this worshipping core can be heard in the most unexpected places. In Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, Cruella De Vil says, “I live for fur, I worship fur. After all, is there a woman in all this wretched world who doesn’t?

In a very intriguing remark, Witness Lee notes that, “The spirit is the genuineness of person, the genuine person.”[7] And since it is our spirit that worships, this means that whatever we worship paints a portrait that reveals our genuine likeness and true colors.

But worship not only reveals, it also revamps. Worship is a powerful thing—the more we worship, the more we become what we worship.

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it powerfully when he said:

A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.[8]

If we are worshipping the true and living God, this is the best news ever. But if we are worshipping something other than God, we will repeat OT history—they “went after vanity and became vain” (Jer. 2:5).

Idols in their Hearts

“These men have set up idols in their hearts.” –Ezekiel 14:3

In my mind, this is the best verse to show that an idol is anything that we have internalized that takes the place of God. Idolatry doesn’t only manifest itself in carvings of wood or stone. Idols can be thoughts, affections, and intentions.

I find Paul Tillich’s definition of idolatry helpful here:

Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy. Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted into universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance (the best example is the contemporary idolatry or religious nationalism).[9]

In this light, everyone has a god, even the atheist.

Karl Barth said,

There is no man who does not have his own god or gods as the object of his highest desire and trust, or as the basis of his deepest loyalty and commitment. There is no one who is not to this extent also a theologian… the same truth is valid even for thinkers denying such a divinity, for such a denial would in practice merely consist in transferring an identical dignity and function to another object. Such an alternative object might be ‘nature,’ creativity, or an unconscious and amorphous will to life. It might also be ‘reason,’ progress, or even a redeeming nothingness into which man would be destined to disappear. Even such apparently ‘godless’ ideologies are theologies.[10]

A case in point is the age of imperialism and colonialism. The Western countries looked down on “savages” with their backward cultures and primitive idols. All sorts of horrible things happened as the West imposed its cultural values on “inferior” populations. The sad irony is that the Western nations were merely importing by force their own class of idols, “the three great gods of the modern era—science, technology, and industrialization.”[11]

Modern Idols

“The only choice we get is what to worship.” Choice—Wallace’s insight points to the fact that modern idolatry is linked to a consumerist ethos (the worshipper is always right!). And, as in all market economies, innovation is the key to staying in business.

Idols are quite adept at keeping up with the times, just like the devil himself.

In Brothers Karamazov the devil shows up in Ivan’s nightmare as a “gentleman of agreeable nature”— fashionable and well-read, sincere, self-deprecating, a bit sensitive, and universally misunderstood. In purely literary terms, he is a very likable character. Toward the end of their conversation the devil tells Ivan, “Indeed, you’re angry with me that I have not appeared to you in some sort of red glow, ‘in thunder and lightning,’ with scorched wings, but have presented myself in such a modest form.”[12]

In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles appears dressed as a medieval traveling scholar, which prevents people from recognizing who he is. Later he explains,

Refinement’s making everybody slick,
And so the devil too has been affected;
The Northern phantom’s gone and vanished,
You see I have no horns or tail or claws;
As for the foot I cannot do without,
It would impair my social chances,
And so, like many a young man,
I wear false calves, and long have done so.[13]

Idols too keep up with the times. The idols of the theater in Ancient Greece were eventually exchanged for the idols of the cave. This means that the crude and all too human gods of the poets (e.g. Homer) were replaced by the rational and abstract gods of the philosophers (e.g. Plato). And in our own times, the gods of the philosophers have been exchange for the gods of the people.

Four come to mind:

  1. Possessions
  2. Popularity
  3. Pleasure
  4. Power

Like Tillich said, modern culture has elevated these four concerns to ultimate ends that direct our life.


In our consumerist society, the acquisition of material possessions is a big idol that drives many people. Paul unmasks greed as idolatry in Ephesians 5:5. The Lord said “guard yourself from all covetousness, for no one’s life is in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). There may not be a more modern man in all the gospels, then the rich man who tears down his barns to build bigger ones and then retires early (12:16-20). The Lord follows this section on possessions with a section on service (12:36-46). The master rewards the faithful servant by setting him “over all his possessions.” The connection is clear: if we seek possessions as the ultimate goal in life we will neglect our service in God’s house and miss the reward in the kingdom. Material possessions is a god that robs us of our service to God and co-opts us for another kingdom.


Popularity is another modern idol. Social media is largely responsible for this. According to one study, more than half of 18 to 25 year olds said that to be famous is among their generation’s greatest goals.[14] In the 1950’s when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, topping the charts was “doctor, lawyer, engineer.” Now when asked what they want to be when they grow up, people say “famous”, as if that is a profession. A 2007 study found that, “fame was the number one value communicated to preteens on popular TV.”[15] Of course, the standard example here is the show “American Idol.”

Popularity is a cruel deity—smiling upon her devotees for the briefest of moments before casting them behind her back forever in the thick shadow of obscurity. A few years ago I was at Smoothie King waiting for my order when a 90’s song came on that was huge when I was in high school. I asked three people around me if they had heard the song before and none of them had.

Dante compared fame to the blowing of the wind:

Worldy fame is nothing but a gust of wind,
first bowing from one quarter, then another,
changing name with every new direction.[16]


Pleasure is another modern idol. This usually manifests itself as doing what feels good. This is related to the gospel of self-fulfillment—be whomever or whatever makes you feel good, no matter what anyone says. No external authority has the right to tell me what is right and wrong or how to live. If it feels good, it is good. What steers many people is not duty or morality, but feelings.

The god of pleasure is deceitful. Ecclesiastes chapter 2 is a record of Solomon’s systematic experiments in pleasure. Solomon had it all—wisdom, wealth, power—and he tried it all. He sums up his experiment with an aphorisms: “all rivers run to the sea, yet the sea is not full” (1:7). Taking feelings as our god leads to a life that is never full and satisfied.

Even worse, Paul says that being a lover of pleasure is versus being a lover of God (2 Tim. 3:4). And in Jesus’ parable about the four kinds of heart-soils, the “pleasures of this life” choke the seed of the divine life (Luke 8:14).


Power is also an idol. Political power is obviously so. But what is more subtle is the desire to be in control, to call the shots, to be “master of your own adventure.” Rather than recognizing God’s sovereign authority many people grasp at the reigns of life. This is the sovereign self, the Enlightenment ideal of personal autonomy. We want no constraints on our will. There are alarming manifestations of this in transgender ideology.

David Bentley Hart has a chapter called “The Age of Freedom” that is really helpful on this point. In that chapter he says,

Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgement, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom.[17]

The Source of Freedom

After writing this I realize how easily idols can seduce us. How can we be free from idolatry in its modern forms? We need the sight of peerless worth. We need to see the Triune God of love in His process and consummation, undergone for our unimaginable benefit. And we need to be ravished by Him.

John Donne put it like this:

Except you enthrall me, I never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.[18]

And an old hymn I’ve always loved puts it like this:

What has stripped the seeming beauty
From the idols of the earth?
Not a sense of right or duty,
But the sight of peerless worth.[19]


1. James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson
2. Michael S. Gazzaniga, “Humans: the party animal”, Daedalus, Vol. 138.3 (Summer 2009), 21. Online.
3. J. S. Whale, Christian Doctrine, 11-12
4. David Foster Wallace, This is Water, Online.
5. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, 129. I’m basically describing Bertha from Jane Eyre, but I have in mind someone less scary.
6. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1
7. Witness Lee, The Experience of Life, Ch. 13
8. Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted by Chaim Stern in Gates of Understanding, (vol. I [New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1977], p. 216).
9. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, 13
10. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, 3-4
11. Karl-Josef Kuschel, quoted by David J. Bosch in, Transforming Mission, 336
12. Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, 635-649
13. Goethe, Faust , lines 2495–2502
14. Online.
15. Online.
16. Dante, Purgatory , 11.100-102
17. David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, 21
18. John Donne, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne , 264
19. Ora Rowan, “Hast Thou Heard Him, Seen Him, Known Him?”

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