Sunday, January 06, 2019

Getting in the Driver’s Seat

“My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles.”

Idolatry is stupid. There, I said it.

It’s hard to imagine that any craftsman who ever put tools to wood, stone or metal really believed his artistic creations had the power to determine outcomes or influence reality. These men could hardly miss the fact that they were manufacturing a commodity. They were marketing a commercial product, not consciously giving worldly form to some arcane power in order to enable its devotees to focus their otherwise-diffuse religious attention. And if idols are indeed merely human constructs, then worshiping them is stupid.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons people do it.

The Futility of Idolatry

Contrary to what we might think, one of these reasons is NOT a generalized lack of awareness that idolatry is a pointless, foolish exercise. At least in Israel, the abject futility of idol worship was repeatedly proclaimed by both prophets and kings:
“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.”
The psalmist’s disdain for people who engage in idolatry is quite apparent in the last line. He says they are as dull and senseless as the “gods” they follow.

Bear in mind those words and their like were penned more than 3,000 years ago, give or take. They were not merely the lost scribblings of lonely men on the fringes of society, but rather psalms sung by multiple generations of men and women practicing mainstream monotheism. This one was probably written by Moses, so we are talking about a plain declaration of truth that was part of the public discourse in Israel for well over a thousand years. Statements like this should remind us that not all the people of antiquity were superstitious primitives. More than a few grasped the absurdity and wretchedness of the rituals and routines in which all too many of their peers engaged.

A Work of Delusion

Jeremiah was one of these:
“Every man is stupid and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols, for his images are false, and there is no breath in them. They are worthless, a work of delusion.”
Likewise, the prophet Habakkuk:
“What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise!”
So idolatry is stupid, and the wiser ancients knew it and declared it. Still, despite endless warnings from God through such men, substantial numbers of those in Israel and Judah blithely continued to worship their idols anyway.

Why the Appeal?

Why, then, does idolatry have such a broad historical appeal, if the gods worshiped are not gods in fact, if the results of worshiping them are not predictable, if the practice itself is not grounded in truth, and if the end result is that the idolater becomes as dull and intellectually unresponsive as the wood and stone he worships?

Well, it’s not all one reason, is it. You don’t have to be particularly astute to recognize that the adherents of any major religion, Christianity included, occupy various places on a spectrum. They have all kinds of reasons for doing what they do. In any group, large or small, there are the genuine believers, but there are also large numbers who maintain the appearance of piety because of inertia, for the sake of tradition or family history, out of desire to please a devout spouse, in order to maintain social or business associations, and for any number of other reasons. In Islamic countries, social pressure drives even thoroughly secularized men and women to make a public show of going along with the pronouncements of their religious leadership and to observe the required routines. In ancient Babylon and ancient Persia, you worshiped whatever the king said to worship, or you died horribly.

One or more of these factors undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of idol worship in Israel notwithstanding the scathing invective of the prophets.

But there were other issues in play as well.

Sex ’n’ Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll

The freedom to cut loose and misbehave in public is a big draw to a certain sort of person. The book of Exodus tells us that the idolatry of the golden calf was connected with this sort of bacchanalia: “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” Feasting, drinking, drug use, wild dancing and all kinds of excess were part and parcel of ancient idol worship. The orderly and comparatively austere worship of Jehovah could not compete in that department.

Then there was the sex. References to qadesh, or cult prostitutes, abound in the Old Testament. They range from Genesis, where it is evident female prostitution was a common feature of Canaanite idol worship, all the way to the latter days of the kingdom of Judah, when Josiah broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were doing business right in the house of the Lord. Idol worship was a license to engage in all kinds of acts that devotees of Jehovah would never have tolerated.

Commerce and Civic Pride

Commerce played a huge part in New Testament idolatry. In Ephesus, Demetrius crafted silver shrines to the goddess Artemis. Luke tells us there was big money involved. Rightly anticipating the danger Christianity posed to his bottom line, Demetrius riled up his fellow tradesmen with exactly this argument: “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth.” In such an environment, whether these tradesmen had any genuine belief in the efficacy of idol worship was wholly irrelevant; it only mattered that a significant sector of their economy was threatened.

There was a second component to idol worship among the Ephesians, and Demetrius appealed to it as icing on the cake: “There is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence.” Civic pride is a big deal to some people. The temple of Artemis to which he referred had taken 120 years to complete and was double the dimensions of the Parthenon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. It was genuinely splendid, and gave Ephesus its identity. It is not unreasonable to suppose that something approaching this level of dedication to their “gods” characterized other communities of idol worshipers as well.

From Bad to Worse

With this deadly cocktail of powerful incentives in play — peer pressure, civic pride, commerce, sex and entertainment — it is not necessary to argue that everyone or anyone in the ancient world actually believed there was a genuine spiritual reality behind the wood, stone and metal “gods” to which they claimed to be devoted. These other attractions were more than sufficient to draw and keep them.

Still, there have always been men and women who saw through the carousing and cash of the false god industry to something even darker and less human beneath. Those people have not gone anywhere over the centuries. The Telegraph reminds us that witchcraft is thriving in the U.S., and that an estimated 1.5 million Americans now identify as witches. In October, Dakota Bracciale of Brooklyn, N.Y. placed a hex on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a ritual that was said to be “well attended by witches, atheists and humanists,” as well as carried live on social media.

Bracciale says:
“The hex centers on the notion that we live in a universe of chaos, entropy, destruction, death, decay, with a final ending of oblivion — scientists are telling us. So the witch does everything for themselves — there is no other help in this universe of decay and chaos. If you don’t get in the driver’s seat things will just get worse.”
Actually, Christians can affirm that if you DO get in the “driver’s seat”, things will definitely get worse. For you, at any rate.

Wanna Go for a Ride?

Men and women like Bracciale are looking for influence in this world. Their plan is to take control of the chaos they experience and “do everything for themselves”. Ironically, the way they do that is by looking to the spirit domain for help.

Now, the Christian recognizes that “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons.” Apart from the one true God, there are no “gods” out there to be appealed to. People like Bracciale have figured that part out, so they are looking to demonic powers and principalities to help them achieve their goals in this world. The part they have not figured out is that this is a truly terrible idea, not least because the demons we see active in scripture are disinclined to obey any human being consistently. They have their own agendas; they do not serve us, but we may certainly choose to serve them.

So you tell me: who is really in the “driver’s seat”.

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