Most Christians wouldn’t point to American author David Foster Wallace as a shining example of Christian belief. He had a good handful of problematic spots in his life. In 2005, however, he gave a commencement address at Kenyon College entitled “This Is Water” which contains an exceptionally succinct and insightful treatment of idolatry.
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism,” he argues. “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
While he never uses the word “idol,” Wallace is referring to the sin at the center of Exodus 32: the infamous story of the Golden Calf. The story is a familiar one, laced with irony: Moses is on Mount Sinai communing with God, and receiving the Ten Commandments – which include commands explicitly forbidding idolatry – and while he is gone the Israelites melt down their jewelry to build a solid-gold calf so that they will have something tangible to worship.
This passage is often used to discuss individual idol worship, such as a person’s obsession with their physical appearance, athletic ability, academic achievement, or career. Today, however, I want to ask whether the American church worships an idol: prosperity.
Despite these clear commands, some of the most popular Christian leaders alive today preach own multi-million dollar homes, private jets, and fleets of luxury cars, and preach a self-centered, wealth-seeking version of Christianity that theologians term “The Prosperity Gospel.” At the forefront of this movement is Joel Osteen, a best-selling author and preacher with a net worth of more than $56 million. “God wants us to prosper financially,” Osteen says bluntly, “to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.”
Naturally, prosperity theology benefits its leaders more than its followers; often faith in God’s promise to return donations seven-fold manifests itself as poor, uneducated, and desperate people donating more than they can afford to wealthy ministries in hopes that the “seed money” of their faith will be returned sevenfold. As an ideology that literally puts gold at its center and preys upon vulnerable people, the prosperity gospel has been condemned by Christian leaders across the political spectrum.
Beyond the obvious idolatry of televangelists and those seeking to use God as a vending machine, however, does the church fall prey to the idol of prosperity in subtler ways? Next time you have a chance, take a look at the budget for your local church, conference, or denomination. Where is the money going? To making the church look good, or to serving the people around it? To making those who are already members comfortable and prosperous, or in serving?
Perhaps this may seem extreme. However, consider the difference between the circumstances of Christianity today and in its earliest years. The early church was not only misunderstood, but violently persecuted and often in danger of physical harm or even death. Today, this is still the case of many Christians in the world – but not for most of those in North America. Western Christianity exists with some discomforts and awkwardness, but not with the threat of real, consistent danger.
One of the most popular inspirational Bible verses is Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” These words are beautiful and encouraging, but all too often people quote it while ignoring the fact that it was spoken to an ancient near-eastern people group who had just taken enslaved and taken away from their homeland by a foreign nation, and that this statement was made near the beginning of a 70-year long exile. It was a message of hope and prosperity, but many of the people hearing it would die before it was fulfilled.
Maybe our problem is that we think of God as a genie who serves our needs but doesn’t really want anything from us. It’s easy for us to take scriptures out of context when we live with a framework of moralism and deism. What many Western people seem to believe is that God wants us to be generally polite, that he will answer our prayers when we need help and comfort us in our trials, and that otherwise God doesn’t really have much to do with this world and the lives we live in it. This is a false picture of reality that distorts our perception of God in order to fit more easily into relatively comfortable, sheltered lives.
“Where your treasure is,” Jesus preaches, “there your heart will be also.” Has a golden calf replaced the cross at the heart of the modern church?
• When does something become an idol, as opposed to a priority? Is it possible to maintain free of distractions and truly not worship anything besides God? How do we prevent ourselves from worshiping idols?
• Read Exodus 32 in it’s entirety. The people of Israel had just witnessed how their God – YHWH/The Lord – had just brought them out of Egypt, and yet they quickly turned back to idol worship. Notice how in 32:5, Aaron seems to think that their festival with the Golden Calf will be “to the LORD.” Is it possible to do something totally wrong and believe that you are doing it for God? How do you think this applies to us today?
• Exodus 32:2-4 tells us that the Israelites had enough gold jewelry on them to melt it down and make a large statue. How did a bunch of former slaves acquire so much gold? Where did it come from and how did they get it? Was it wrong for them to have it? Read Exodus 12:31-36 for the answer.
• Read Exodus 32:7-14. What is going on here? Did God really forget his covenant with Abraham? Did Moses really change God’s mind? What does this passage tell us about God? What do Moses’ actions here reveal about the character of God’s servants? Does Moses’ behaviour here teach us about Jesus at all? How does God’s promise to Abraham affect Israel when they sin?
• In the ancient world, many people believed in many gods who controlled nature and the weather. Because so much of life depended on agriculture and farming, these weather gods were extremely important. But they were also seen as unpredictable and wild, just like the weather, and so they would need to be appeased. People offered sacrifices: food, animals, and more to gain favor with these gods and hopefully have a good harvest season. If things kept going wrong, bigger and bigger sacrifices would be offered to prove to the gods how serious the people were – until the point that some would even offer human children as sacrifices.
- Today this may seem extreme, and yet idolatry pervades our culture, but in a literal sense (idol worship still exists in many religions) and in the more symbolic/spiritual sense we are talking about here. Perhaps our reasons today are different Why do you think it’s so easy to fall into idol worship?