In the West, idols of stone, wood, and metal are obsolete. Yet their protégé lives. But what are they? What do they look like? Where is idol worship today?
The oft-repeated, contemporary definition of idolatry is anything that comes between God and a person, or, something revered, worshiped, or adored other than God. So, in accord, people warn against or confess idolizing vehicles, houses, businesses, and gadgets—basically, anything. The definition is so broad and abstract that it is of little use. That is dangerous if idolatry is indeed a narrowly defined, specific sin that is being overlooked.
Idolatry today is misrepresented because we see the stone, wood, and metal idols of old as nothing more than objects created from earth’s elements. Consequently, we figure that today’s idols must also be something—anything—tangible. What is missing from modern-day reinterpretations of idolatry is that idols are human depictions (or creatures with human-like attributes). They are “images.”
Idols and images represent human likenesses, that is, idols are actually a mirror of what a culture views as the perfect self. Idols are therefore a reminder and focal point of the ideals for which worshippers should strive to achieve perfection. For example, war gods are commonly worshipped in belligerent cultures (e.g. Thor in ancient Scandinavia, Mars in ancient Rome), while goddesses of love and fertility—“mother goddesses” as they are aggregately known—are common among cultures promoting free relations. These gods represent human views of perfection; Thor and Mars are bold and strong, beyond human comparison, while mother goddesses are matchlessly beautiful.
From whence do idols come? Idols come into existence as a culture’s aspirations for self-improvement deviate from the Lord’s ideals for men. When idolaters call upon their gods, what they are doing is mustering all efforts to realize their god’s standard of perfection, which they believe will provide deliverance. But the god’s standard of perfection is only a human standard. The Lord made man in His image. Man’s state today is fallen from that perfected image. Christ exemplifies the restored perfection of man. Men commit idolatry when they swap out Christ for images of human-derived perfection. Put another way, idolatry is a recasting of God’s perfected image of man into a manmade mold.
In today’s culture, many depictions of manmade perfection exist. The most pervasive is “the celebrity”: gladiators, musicians, actors, politicians, technology innovators, and models, to name a few. And yet, while celebrities themselves worship Western ideals, they are not themselves the idol, not the image. Today’s idol worshippers do not bow before flesh-and-blood humans, but rather what ideals of perfection are depicted in the image (the idol). Models, singers, gladiators, and politicians come and go, but the image remains. What is worshipped, what is emulated, is the perfected humanness depicted in the image. After several evening visits in person with a celebrity, the average fan will likely tire of them, even becoming annoyed (many celebrities can’t stand themselves!). In person, they are just not what they seem to be in the images. But spruced up, smiling, and looking good for the cameras, celebrity idols stand before millions of viewers who sop up ideals of perfected humanness.
Similarly, religions today with statues do not worship the physical statutes themselves—which can be swapped out when needed—but rather the perfected ideals they present. Hindus bow down to statues, but they are adamant that they are not worshipping the physical statue. The Buddhists, who meditate in temples with Buddha statues, concur: they are not worshipping the statues. The worshippers of Bel, Dagon, Diana, and Ashtoreth likely differed little on this point. And yet, these images—like the images of celebrities—are idols because they depict manmade paths to human perfection. Worship of these alternatives, as represented in images, is idolatry.
Although worship of manmade perfection is the ultimate offense of idolatry, the image is a necessity. Images validate ideals of perfection. While yesteryear’s images were statues, today’s appear on screens and paper. Western society has not advanced to the point where portraying ideal human states through images is obsolete. Rather, the medium of imagery has changed, from stone statues to photographs and moving pictures.
The ability for humans to create images has surged exponentially. Analog and now digital technology has inundated the globe with idols. Not only are today’s people bombarded with image after image of human perfection—on highway signs and posters, on screens, and in magazines and papers—humans can now drown themselves in self-manufactured images with new consumer technologies. The far-reaching consequence of the digital camera is that it overcame the limits inherent to film cameras and video recorders: 24 shots per roll, two hours of footage per VHS tape, and film developers who see (and censure) photos. The far-reaching consequence of the cell phone camera is that an image can be sent to anyone, setting images instantly before others’ eyes. No wonder image nudity is reaching unfathomable levels, if anyone can now create and disseminate pictures that have transfixing power over the human psyche.
Just as mere mortals could never attain the perfection of idols past, so are today’s images depicting humans in unrealistic conditions. For example, when one’s picture is being taken, he makes a pose. A pose is a self-portrayal of an ideal state—a moment—that is unattainable beyond that moment, if even then. When the camera snaps, the model wants to radiate perfection to make the image attractive.
Camera setting options, lighting tricks, and computerized editing further enhances the unrealistic perfection of images. Even celebrities are incapable of attaining the ideals of their own mediated image. Graphic designers frequently use Photoshop to alter the photographs of models because the models cannot measure up. Add to this the addictive, mind-transfixing nature of glowing digital images flickering at 100 images a second and you have a more commanding idol image than ever before. These modern images—just as lifeless as an artist’s completed stone idol—are all the more godlike because of how realistically they are portrayed. In spite of this realism, the viewer is still blocked from interrelating with these images, intensifying the longing for achieving its perfection since its flaws are unknown.
Each culture has its own idols of perfection. America has its fair share; many are characteristic of the independents, the loners, the mavericks, the “cool” and rebellious, and, above all else, the self-made man, whose determination brought fortune-and-fame, from rags to riches, who now has the means to live life for fun and pleasure. The idealized American is young, a hero who heads out West to be his own man, hitting the highway alone, or trying his chances in Hollywood or New York City. The maverick is celebrated because he belongs to nobody. He has his own code of conduct and law, not bound by rules and regulations, a disregarder of convention, especially gender conventions, like the cowgirl. With this idol profile, is it any wonder Americans so thoroughly enjoy making images of themselves? The “selfie” (an impromptu picture of oneself), as well as photos of “me and my friends,” “me and my family,” or “me and my pet,” epitomize the idolatry of self-worship, matching America’s self-determination ideal to a tee.
Idolatry involves more than an image indicative of a perfect human state; it also includes paraphernalia and worship activities. In ancient idol worship, followers were said to have followed “the cult of [god].” Today, movies, celebrities, teams, and such are said to have “cult followings.” The actual worship of an ancient or modern god is not much different (though we believe we are more civilized). Followers emulate an idol’s look, temperament, talk, and mannerisms. They surround themselves with the paraphernalia of idol worship: special garments, special foods and diets, chants, romance, incenses, and, of course, multiple replicas of the image. Idolatry involves behaviors and symbols of loyalty.
Thus, when one says he worships a vehicle, house, business, or gadget, what he has identified are worship behaviors and paraphernalia associated with a cult, tools to achieve the image’s perfection. To forsake idolatry, one must indeed lay aside the worship, as it underpins cult activity, but one must also reject the images and the perfected state of humanity they represent to be free.
In summary, idolatry is not the worship of inanimate objects; idolatry is to set before our eyes, fixate upon, and strive toward images that depict an ideal state of human existence at the expense of the perfection of Christ. The similarities between idol worship today and of times past include the worship of the perfected human state, the need for an image to depict this state, and the use of idol-specific behaviors and paraphernalia in worship. The main difference is that modern man’s capacity to fashion images alternative to Christ’s perfection has multiplied and enhanced: print images are pervasive; digital screen images are endless.
In conclusion, idolatry is not the only sin we face, but it does make the difference between a path toward or away from God. No wonder it is the subject of the first two of the Ten Commandments, as well as untold admonishments from the Bible. What is alarming is that the availability of idols and their worship has intensified, has become so common that it has become difficult to recognize idolatry for what it is. With the proliferation of images of America’s idols today—both pictures and motion pictures—plain Anabaptist churches have the day-to-day challenge of routing this unwelcome invasion. Idolatry is a predictable outcome for the one who is a consumer in today’s image-producing industry, which anymore is difficult to escape, let alone choose to reject. Victory comes by (1) curtailing our consumption and production of people pictures and videos, especially the digital, screen-based ones, (2) withdrawing from the cult behaviors of America’s idols, and (3) strengthening the church as it guides members into the pure image of Christ.