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On Ragnarök and Idols

Embarking Blog

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On Ragnarök and Idols

Tom Elenbaas

So, not sure if this is funny or tragic - or both. If you haven't already heard, this coming Saturday is Ragnarök. This is the Norse end of the world in which gods like Thor and Loki and others battle and natural disasters strike, leading us to "the twilight of the gods" in a tragic apocalyptic ending. Apparently, Ragnarök comes after 3 harsh winters in a row. (I know lots of you have been wishing this winter would end. Way to wish.) Yes, even the old idols are still active.

In any case, last week, I had the opportunity to speak with our college group on the topic of idolatry. It's not a topic we talk about so much these days. I don't go around talking about my personal idols or calling you out for yours. But we have them. Pastor Tim Keller has been helpful to me, particularly through his book Counterfeit Gods. I have also heard him speak on this a number of times, and have found it particularly interesting when he posits that postmoderns (that's us) understand idolatry in a way they will often not consent to sin (interesting). I have also found N.T. Wright to have some helpful thoughts, particularly around dehumanization. Just today, I ran across another idea from Klaus Bockmuehl in his book A Christian Way of Living. Lastly, Gordon Cosby's description of cultural addictions has also helped me to understand how addiction and idolatry live together in mutual destruction. So, here are a few thoughts for your Monday (all derivatively based on ideas from the above thinkers).

  • Idols are any good things (because all good things are created by God and evil is a privation of good, not creative in itself, cf. Cornelius Plantinga in Not the Way It's Supposed To Be) elevated to an ultimate level in our lives.
  • When idols become the focus of our lives, we "exchange" something (cf. Romans 1:15-18). I think we exchange our humanity for a more base existence. We become dehumanized because we begin to "serve" gods who are beneath the real god, and thus beneath us, because we are created in the image of the true God.
  • Creating images of god is a reversing of roles. Instead of God being self-defining, the locus of definition becomes man himself who fashions a god in his own image, rather than being fashioned by a God whose image he bears. This often happens subtly in what Bockmuehl calls "mental touching up" of an image of God we find displeasing or dissatisfying or disturbing. This is literally "cutting God down to our own size."
  • Idols can be of a variety of natures: personal; familial; religious; cultural
  • One of my favorite quotes is this one from Bockmuehl: "An idol leads a man, by necessity, into loneliness, when what man needs is a god with whom he can have a dialogue." [p. 57]
  • Idolatry is often the causa sui of many of our moral, spiritual, familial, cultural, political, economic, and even psychological problems.
  • Biblical idolatry is often referred to in terms of a kind of spiritual adultery (cheating on a God) or in terms of a master-slave relationship (in which we willing enslave ourselves, thus again debasing our humanity.)
Well, I guess that's why John was so clear in the way he ended his first epistle:
Dear children - keep yourselves from idols. -1 John 5:21


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