Review by Marlon Hollis
Idolatry is perhaps the central human malady. It is both the root and the fruit of spiritual death. At first glance, it would be tempting to think of the biblical conception of idolatry to be rather simplistic; to be one of superstitious folk worshiping wooden trinkets, or the natural elements. According to Timothy Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, the biblical concept of idols is “extremely sophisticated” (xix) . We must not look down on biblical peoples by criticizing them for worshiping the things of their hands. If we expand the concept of idolatry to its fullest and widest meaning–that is, placing anything or anyone in a space in our lives that rightfully belongs to God–then we are all idolaters. As John Calvin once said, we are idol factories.
If there is one problem with Counterfeit Gods, is that it is only 177 pages and does not provide the in-depth analysis of each manifestation of idolatry. Each one would perhaps require its own book fully to explore. However, what he does cover within the four corners of his book are invaluable reminders of the ways we “are prone to wander.” He covers topics such as love of success, material possessions, relationships and love, money, and power. The fixation upon any of these things, while none may be wrong intrinsically, can form a type of slavery.
Two prominent examples Keller describes are love and politics. In his second chapter, “Love is Not All You Need,” he insists our culture has magnified love and romance to “an astonishing degree” (22). Through our ideas of romance, we look to others “for the kind of affirmation and acceptance that only God can provide” (23). Our sex-soaked culture is hoping to find in ever darker works of depravity, connection with each other and affirmation of worth. He expands this thought further to include all forms of love and relationship between people, wherein we hope to receive our ultimate identity and acceptance. For example, he describes an adulterous older man who leaves his wife for a younger woman. This man’s affair is a desperate effort to hide that he is aging (33).
In chapter five, “The Power and The Glory,” Keller touches upon political power as an idol. History is replete with noble ideas being used to tyrannical and murderous effect. For example, love for one’s people is not necessarily wrong, but “when love for one’s people becomes absolute, it turns into racism.” Thus, any neutral or good thing made into an absolute thing is an idol. Keller writes, “It is the settled tendency of human societies to turn good political causes into counterfeit gods” (98). According to Keller, one sign that something is functioning as an idol is, “that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life” (98). If our counterfeit god is threatened in anyway, we panic. Keller muses that “this may be a reason why so many people now respond to U.S. political trends in such an extreme way” (99). We become devastated when a politician of the opposing party wins an election, and are certain doomsday is right around the corner. We view our opponents as not simply being mistaken, but as being evil. We have “put the kind of hope in our political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel” (99). This view of the world “identifies something else besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy” (100).
In chapter 6, “The Hidden Idols in Our Lives,” Keller quickly runs through a collection of idols, one of which is idolatry in our religion. It can “function widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god” (131). Simply put, people may rely more on “the rightness of their doctrine for their standing with God than on God himself and his grace” (131). It can also function, according to Keller, when religious communities turn “spiritual gifts and ministry success into a counterfeit god” (131). There are many other brief treatments of various other idols in this chapter, wherein he does little more than recognize they exist.
Counterfeit Gods deserves a space in every Christian’s library, if only as a primer for more in-depth works on idolatry. It is a potent reminder of how easily we can stray.