RealityBites blog

Idolatry, Ideology and Islamic State (part 4)

Bob Goudzwaard, a Dutch Christian economist, wrote a brilliant, short book Idols of our Time back in the 1980s. It really is a superb resource for any thinking Christian.

He begins the book with these words:

We live in a world possessed and we know it.

When we focus upon the recent brutalities of ISIS, these words become poignant, powerful and relevant. Biblical norms of justice, love, mercy and forgiveness have been trampled upon as ISIS pursues its goals with extreme force and cruelty.

Goudzwaard argues that when humans become possessed by a goal, ideology is born. Ideology is the way that idolatry seizes the initiative and enslaves individuals, organisations, social structures, political movements and governments today. Ancient pagan people were enslaved to Molech, Baal or Sobek, the crocodile god, but today ideologies have largely replaced these crude pagan deities. In other words, Molech has had extensive plastic surgery!

Goudzwaard identifies four major goals or ends which occupy people around the world today.

  • The resistance of all exploiting and oppressive powers in order to create a better society. This is the ideology of revolution.
  • The survival of one's people or nation: the preservation of one's cultural identity. This is the ideology of nation.
  • The preservation of one's wealth and the opportunity for continued material prosperity. This is the ideology of material prosperity.
  • Guaranteed security: the protection of oneself, one's children, one’s fellow human beings against any attack from outside. This is the ideology of guaranteed security.

Turn on the TV, listen to the news and you will hear many voices that are enslaved to these four pervasive ideologies. Do we discern the idolatry at work?

Idolatry, Ideology and Islamic State (part 3)

Let's focus for a moment upon a key idea – ideology. Ideology is the way in which idolatry affects people today and this includes the soldiers and supporters of IS.

The term 'ideology' was coined by French intellectuals just before the French Revolution. The word means far more than merely a framework of thought. In its original sense ideology refers to an entire system of values, convictions and norms, which are used as a set of tools for reaching a single, concrete, all-encompassing social goal. For the French revolutionaries the goal of overturning the corrupt old regime was so sweeping and decisive that it legitimised in advance every means for reaching that end.

The famous philosopher Rousseau believed passionately in the intrinsic goodness of human beings. He rejected the biblical teaching that humans are sinful and prone to idolatry. This secular mindset was to influence deeply the notorious mass murderer Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) who led the French revolution into its darkest cruelties by sending thousands of innocent people to the guillotine.

To put it simply, Robespierre believed that the vast majority of the French people were innately good and virtuous. We only need to eliminate the enemies of progress (aristocrats and priests) and – bingo! – a secular paradise would be born.

During the Reign of Terror (1793-94), Paris became a blood bath. People would drink aristocratic blood and pass it around cackling with glee. Children would play with decapitated heads. What the Revolution required was by definition correct. Existing norms and values were emptied, refilled, tainted and warped until they became instruments of the all-embracing goal – "No God and no master".

Anybody who resisted the revolutionary ideology was by definition a traitor.

This redefinition of norms is what characterises ideology. It defines goodness, truth, justice and love as that which serves the end. In its original sense, therefore, ideology has everything to do with religion. It is religion's substitute.

Ideology declares "As God I create my own norms and values. I say what will benefit humanity. And I allow no god above or power below to make any other law". What is the origin of ideology? Ultimately it is demonic.

In the next posting we will unpack different kinds of ideology and begin to connect this to the recent brutalities of IS and how easy it is for IS to recruit people to its cause.

Idolatry, Ideology and Islamic State (part 2)

A key text for understanding idolatry in the New Testament is a passage in the book of Romans.

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.

Romans 1:25, NIV

Here we should notice that idolatry does not merely refer to the worship of idols and images in the sense of the giant bull statue in 'Molech' worship.

Idolatry takes something within God’s good creation and then elevates it above the boundary separating the Creator from creation. It promotes created things to the status of divinity. Jesus helped us to understand this when he made these comments about money:

No-one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

Matthew 6:24, NIV

The New Testament presents a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of idolatry than the Old Testament. When we focus exclusively on the acquisition of money and take no notice of God and His kingdom we are guilty of idolatry. We replace God with something created. We would suggest that infamous celebrity Katie Price epitomises this kind of idolatry when she stated this in an interview:

No one can live without money. Money and religion are the big things, and that's it, and I stay away from religion. We love to earn money, who doesn't? It gets you things and it's security.

In this confession of faith Katie is boldly declaring what she places her trust in!

Paul also attacks this specific idolatry in his letter to the Colossians.

Put to death the sinful earthly things… Don't be greedy… for that is idolatry.

Colossians 3:5

It is also fascinating that Paul shows us how both pleasure (1 Timothy 5:6) and the stomach (Philippians 3:19) can also become idolatrous objects of worship.

Furthermore, as Paul Marshall has observed, idolatry is not simply one more sin, of which pride, envy, lust and so forth are other examples; in fact, "all sin is an expression of the basic sin of idolatry, of putting something else in the place of God".

In the next posting I will connect idolatry to the contemporary world of ideologies. This will help us to understand idolatry in secularist, Christian and and Islamic mindsets.

Idolatry, Ideology and Islamic State (part 1)

In the light of the recent gruesome activities of the Islamic State (IS) it is timely to re-examine biblical teaching about idolatry and connect this to ideologies, secularism and IS. In this first post we will look at idolatry in the Old Testament.

Idol worship is something which no follower of Jesus wants. Christians know deep down that serving idols violates God's covenant (Exodus 20:1-3).

So how did ancient people worship their idols?

First they would sever something from its immediate surroundings, refashion it and erect it on its own feet in a special place. The idol might look like a bull, a frog or a golden calf (Exodus 32).

Second they would ritually consecrate it and prostrate themselves before it, seeing it as an entity which has life in itself. The ancient Egyptians would call down demonic powers so that they would enter the idol.

Third they would bring sacrifices and look to the idol for instruction and guidance. In short they would worship the idol. Worship brings with it a decrease in the power of the idolater. Now the god reveals how they should live and behave.

Fourth they now expect the god to repay their reverence, obedience and sacrifice with health, security, prosperity and happiness. The idol has become their saviour.

Fifth the idol activates fear in the worshippers. Panic and alarm seize hold of idolaters when the god is not placated and appeased in the designated way. Just reflect for a moment upon the ancient worship of the god Molech. The Ammonites would fill a tall, hollow iron image of Molech (the idol) with hot coals and they would gradually 'turn up the heat'. Then the followers of Molech would begin to dance. A pulsating rhythm would be established by the drums and worshippers of the god would work themselves up into a frenzy. Then at the right moment (when the coals have turned white) young children of the tribe would be thrust into the glowing hands of the idol and die a horrible sacrificial death. The cries of the dying infants would be drowned out by the sound of the drums! Molech is a terrifying god. You don't upset him!

Finally after making and worshipping idols, people gradually become transformed into the likeness of their gods. The disciple of Molech becomes ever more cruel and heartless like his god. The Psalms put it like this:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by the hands of men.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes but they cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.

Psalm 135:15-18

In the next post we will explore idolatry in the New Testament.

Talking About Faith – a new course

Why is talking about faith often awkward and filled with clichés? Why do our conversations about faith rarely grip people and intrigue them?

Mark Roques has spent his life tackling this issue and is convinced that our evangelism can be transformed if we 'do an Apostle Paul' and learn to understand and engage with the beliefs that shape our world.

In this course Mark will move us step by step through the world of religious and secular beliefs, equipping us to talk about the Christian faith in a way that is both engaging and insightful.

Secularism, Blockbusters and Soaps (3)

Films seduce and indoctrinate us in the same way as soap operas, but there is greater variety and the opportunity to discern the difference between the real and unreal worlds. Consider this sequence of films:

The films based on CS Lewis's Narnia stories (2005 and ongoing), and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and The Hobbit (2012-2014) based on J R R Tolkien's books. These stories are very skilfully crafted. There is no reference to religion, no priests, prophets or preachers, no creeds or catechisms. Yet the visible world is not all there is. There is an unseen world, there is a universal moral order, there is a clear distinction between good and evil and there is an overarching Big Story with allusions to and echoes of the Biblical Story.

Then there are the eight films based on J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (2001-2011). Again the visible world is not all there is. There is an unseen world, there is a moral order, there is a clear distinction between good and evil. But there is no overarching Big Story, no ultimate grounding for the morality, for the distinction between good and evil.

The Hunger Games (four films, 2012-2015; 2014 release date 21st November) is based on the trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins. In these films there is no unseen world – now the material world is all there is. There is no supernatural, no magic; it is just high technology. The distinction of good from evil remains, but there is no underlying moral order, or overarching Big Story out there, no justification for the morality, or for the distinctions made between good and evil.

The highly acclaimed vampire film Let the Right One In (Swedish, 2008, American version 2010), based on the novel by Swedish author John Lindqvist. Now not only is there no unseen world, but the absence of any Big Story or moral order out there is affirmed and morality becomes a human creation that can be altered at will. So a vampire (murdering) girl becomes 'moral' because she protects and mentors a bullied boy.

We must explain films and all the media and internet offerings to our children. We live in a dangerously indoctrinating society. The great danger of indoctrination in schools and society today is not from religion, but from secularism. In today's environment it is hardly surprising that almost 100% of unbelieving parents successfully pass on their unbelief to their children. That unbelief is affirmed and reinforced by the surrounding culture. But barely 50% of religious parents succeed in passing on their religious faith. Religious faith is ignored and thereby undermined by the culture. Research also shows that many children give up on their faith in their teenage years or as they enter adult life. The loss of active Christian faith during college and university years (50-80%) is especially shocking, but almost certainly roots back to school years.

We desperately need to rediscover and live in the Biblical Big Story and to be a Christian community (church) that visibly does so.

Secularism, Blockbusters and Soaps (2)

Soap operas (soaps for short) are radio or television drama series following people's daily lives. They were so named because they were first sponsored in the US in the 1930s by soap manufacturers.

In the UK, of course, I mean Coronation Street, EastEnders, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks, Doctors, and the Australian-produced Neighbours and Home and Away. And of course the longest-running one of them all, The Archers (on Radio 4 since 1950). Nowadays people can also readily access soaps from other countries, especially, of course, the USA.

What are we experiencing when we watch a soap? We are not just being entertained. Every little (soap) story is also an instance of the underlying Big Story. When we watch, we are entering the world of the Secular Big Story. The soaps set forth life as if God does not exist and faith is irrelevant to everyday life. They insinuate that this is what life is really like, that this is normal. What do you say? When you enter that world when watching TV, does it feel real and normal to you? Is this essentially how everyday life feels to you?

When you enter that world when watching TV, does it feel real and normal to you?

If you are a Christian (or any other religious believer for that matter), surely it shouldn't? You can enjoy a soap as entertainment, but with spiritual discernment. The danger of soaps is not primarily any attacks on religious people or on religious faith (which are rare), nor the affirmation or promotion of beliefs or behaviours unacceptable to many Christians (even though this is increasingly common). No, the real danger is that they portray life as essentially God-less and faith-less – and that this life is normal, this is as it should be. This is a fundamental reason why constant daily immersion in the real Story of the Bible is so important – we need it to counter the Siren voices from our culture’s pagan Story. We mustn't fool ourselves – if we don't immerse ourselves in the Bible Story, we will be seduced by the Secularist Story.

Secularism, Blockbusters and Soaps (1)

We live in an age when the Western world is dominated by secularist worldviews, secularist big stories. The dominant secularist big stories are those of materialism in both senses of that key word: that physical nature is all there is, and that enjoying material possessions is all that matters. However, for this blog post, the precise characteristics of secularist big stories do not matter; it is enough if two points can be accepted.

The first is that there is no neutrality; every aspect of human life and work is embedded in one or another (or some amalgam) of Big Stories. Fundamentally they are religious, or faith stories. They are often called worldview stories to emphasize that every person – even if they claim to be 'non-religious', 'agnostic', or 'atheist' – understands their life in the terms of such a Story. Crucially, commitment to these Big Stories will have consequences – for good or ill – for the individual, community and wider society.

The second point is that what is common to secularist big stories is the affirmation that we should live as if God does not exist and as if faith is irrelevant to everyday life. That simple understanding of secularism is all that is needed for now.

Clearly many (most?) people today are secularist in that basic sense. The question I want to discuss is 'Why?' What are the major influences that have enabled secularism to assume the default position in the lives of so many people? I want to argue that one major influence is the media and, in particular, that of the soaps and blockbuster films.

In the next post we will look at soaps.

'Pick-up' artist Julien Blanc and how we are failing our young people

Men pay upwards of £1000 to listen to the 'wisdom' and 'insight' of 'pick-up' artist Julien Blanc. His worldview boils down to this: objectify women and use them for your pleasure. Videos of Blanc preaching and ranting can be found online under the hashtag #ChokingGirlsAroundtheWorld.

This is, of course, shocking but it is more shocking that churches and schools do not help young people to understand Blanc's aggressive faith. We have so trivialised and infantilised faith and belief that we do not help young people to see that Blanc is living in a worldview story. His lifestyle and preaching is thoroughly materialistic and consumeristic. Here is a quick sketch of this popular faith.

  • There is no God
  • Everything is physical
  • You are a selfish calculating machine
  • People have no intrinsic value
  • Consume other people (vulnerable women) as you would consume a toaster
  • You are completely autonomous in your moral behaviour

US Presidents and Astrology

In my last blog I explored the impact of astrology upon the emperor Tiberius. Consider this contemporary story of a president who followed the stars!

In 1981 the astrologer Joan Quigley made Nancy Reagan a believer in astrology by showing how astrological charts could have foretold and prevented the attempted assassination of her husband US president Ronald Reagan. From then on, Nancy became obsessed with her husband’s safety and she depended upon Quigley for accurate astrological guidance. For the Reagan-Gorbachev Washington summit, Quigley decided that 2pm on 8th December 1987, was the most auspicious moment for them to sign the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. At Nancy's request, the entire summit was built around that hour. Both Nancy and Ronnie had always been superstitious, observing such harmless rituals as knocking on wood and walking around, never under, ladders.

Astrology is part and parcel of a pagan way of life. The stars and the planets must be appeased and placated. For example, the powerful god Mars is associated with the fourth planet from the sun. Pagan people are terrified of the war god and they are desperate to keep him happy. These gods are invariably depicted as egotistical, vain and capricious. They have no interest in important ethical issues  but, like many television celebrities, are preoccupied with trivia. The pagan gods are addicted to protocol and proper ritual. And this must be done at exactly the right time! What is unimportant has become important and vice versa.