Idolatry New and Old
A little while ago my friend Ian loaned me the PBS DVD series The Story of India This six-part series, which runs about six hours, simply tells the story of India from ancient times until roughly the time of Indian Independence. It is a good documentary, even if the host’s excessive exuberance toward all things Indian is a little bit hard to take after a while. “Oh, isn’t that wonderful! Fantastic! Remarkable! Unbelievable! Stupendous!”
As one would have to expect for a series focusing on the history and culture of India, this film devoted a good bit of attention to Indian religion. And, as you know, India is a hotbed of religious fervor where Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and nearly every other religion you can imagine coexist, at times peacefully and at times through great bloodshed. As much as the history of India is the history of faiths existing together in peace, it is equally a story of the battle for dominance of one faith or another. The documentary devoted a good bit of attention to the various means of religious expression, from Muslims venerating the tomb of a sufi to Jains pouring out their offerings to a statue of Gomateshwara to Hindus bowing low before their ancient deities. The idolatry, portrayed so vividly in full-color and wide screen is quite shocking. India represents a fascinating collision of the first world with the third world, of the ancient with the modern. Somehow it seems that this form of idolatry should have been left in the past; have we not evolved or developed or matured beyond bowing before gods of wood and bronze? Yet here are countless millions of men and women who are every bit as devoted to their gods as were the enemies of the Israelites of old.
As I watched these people venerate their gods I felt pity for them and I felt gratitude to God for his grace in saving me from such idolatry, such sinful adulation of Satan. I suppose that may sound arrogant; I do not mean it that way. Here were men and women bowing low before gods who were so clearly made in their own image—gods who were not good and righteous and perfect and omnipotent, but gods who are so often petty and perplexed and perverted—gods who are so very human. There is no transcendence here; there is little to distinguish these gods from those who worship them. These people are, in a very real sense, worshiping themselves. They create gods who are very much like themselves and then prostrate themselves before such pathetic deities. Rarely have I seen such a vivid picture of the idolatry that dwells within the human heart.
Yesterday the world memorialized Michael Jackson. The numbers are still being tabulated but there is little doubt that millions, probably hundreds of millions, watched at least a portion of the memorial service. How many did so, as did I, merely out a morbid sense of curiosity, probably cannot be calculated.
Jackson’s service was an representation of just the kind of pluralism that has marked India. Everybody involved wanted to invoke God’s name, as you’re supposed to do when remembering a loved one, but it was clear that most of them invoked a god made in their own image. Even those who spoke of Jesus or who prayed to Jesus did so without any clear reference to the Jesus of the Bible. They spoke of a Jesus who accepts all and even (or perhaps especially) those who had rejected him. Never did Michael Jackson give any evidence of putting his faith in Jesus Christ, yet those who watched were assured, time and again, that he was now safe in the presence of the Lord, waiting there for the rest of us to arrive. Words and phrases invoked God and used the Christian lexicon but without any reference to the gospel, the true gospel, the gospel that saves. Lost men declared to other lost men untruths about the god they wish for, not the God who is.
During the singing of the old song We Are the World, those who watched saw religious symbols from all faiths spinning across a video screen, blurring, blending their lies to the already blind.
All faiths are the same, don’t you know? Why dwell on such petty distinctions? God is whoever you want him (or her or it) to be. We are the world. We are god.
What surprised me more than anything was the genuine grief, the genuine mourning, of those who attended the memorial service. Of course his brothers and sister and daughter were distraught, but so too were many of the fans who so loved him. On the radio I heard an interview with a woman from Toronto who attended a screening of the service. She told how when she heard of Jackson’s death she collapsed and was inconsolable, at least until she could go to a tattoo parlor and have “Gone too soon” tattooed onto her body; that was the beginning of the healing process. She had brought her young son to the memorial service so he could see his mother’s love for this man she so venerated. All across North America, all across the world, there are similar stories of worship. Can we call it anything other than worship? I don’t think this is too strong a word. For many people, Jackson was a god; for many people celebrity is idolatry.
Yesterday we saw idolatry of a whole different order yet idolatry that is so similar to what I saw in The Story of India. There are some who, in their idolatry, bow low before gods of wood and stone and burnished bronze. There are others who, in their idolatry, live vicariously through celebrities and who bow low before the spirit of the age. Michael Jackson’s funeral, where God’s name was invoked and where Jesus’ name was supposedly held high, was as vivid an expression of idolatry as was the footage of hordes of Indian Hindus dancing with joy and veneration before their statues. One is a base idolatry, the other is sophisticated and proper. Both are the same ancient sin, the same ancient rebellion against the one true God.