Culture At Large

Lightweight Identities Seek Stability in Idolatries

Paul Vander Klay

If identity is the new guilt, then idolatry is the new sin.

Protestants used to claim that Roman Catholics were idolaters because they had statues in their buildings. A couple of years ago an elder from a conservative Protestant denomination explained to me how Vietnamese people more easily came to Roman Catholicism from Buddhism because both religions worshiped idols. A new wave of literature is no longer so facile on this, understanding sin as idolatry is something deeper than carvings of wood and stone. Idolatry is making a publishing comeback. Tim Keller's latest book "Counterfeit Gods" puts in book form many of the themes his sermons have had for years. G.K. Beale, a New Testament scholar recently authored "We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry" where traces these themes through the Bible. Jewish scholars Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit have their own book from Harvard University Press on the subject.

For most today self-definition and determination is seen as a foundational birthright of our existence. Not only does nobody put baby in a corner, but unless baby is defining herself and keeping herself out of a corner, she is failing to live up to her existential mandate. Most self-help remedies for a variety of identity ills prescribe self-definition through self-assertion. I must take control of my life by constructing a preferred identity, living that out maximizing individuality and authenticity.

If one pursues this long enough they begin to realize that this is a incredible amount of work and a tremendous burden. Not only do we have to construct this from the cultural materials available, but the merchants of cool are perpetually infusing every fresh cultural wave with yet more artifacts and options to add or replace what we've already accumulated. We are crushed by the pace of fashion, unable to strip ourselves fast enough of yesterday's dowdy threads and incapable of assimilating quickly enough tomorrow's new authenticity. We stand naked in the whirlwind trying to build a life from the debris blowing around us.

Such desperation drives us to turn good things into ultimate things. We begin to look to our jobs, our familial roles, our attributes, our gender identities, the brands in the market place for permanence and meaning. GK Beale's title is a short cut. We need to become something so locate our selves in the roles we must play or the things we buy or the communities we choose and the daily maintenance of those things becomes our worship even if we don't call it that. Habit and worship unites and we get what we asked for. We asked these things to fill us and now they have and will finally displace us. In CS Lewis' "The Great Divorce" the shadows of hell were once people with attributes, but the identification has gone so far they are merely the attribute.

God is the only safe thing to worship because only God is secure enough, wealthy enough, self-sufficient enough to not need to consume us. See CS Lewis' description of distinction from Screwtape Letters. Idolatries never satisfy and always enslave. Identities are received, not achieved and there is only one ultimate giver of our identity that will not only satisfy us, but fill us without consuming us.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Faith