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Book Review - "Counterfeit Gods" by Tim Keller
October 20, 2009
Tim Keller knows how to tell a Bible story. Like The Prodigal God before it, his latest book, Counterfeit Gods is built around them. And every time I read one of those stories, I feel like I am hearing it for the first time. I find myself lost in the story, anticipating how it could, how it might, end. In the back of my mind I know exactly how it will turn out, but somehow Keller takes me along for a ride as he tells these stories in such a fresh way. In Counterfeit Gods he tells of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jonah and Zacchaeus. Each one of these characters and the stories of their lives are used to teach the reader about the prevalence of idolatry in the Bible and in the human heart.
“The human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.” Thus anything can be an idol and, really, everything has been an idol to one person or another. The great deception of idols is we are prone to think that idols are only bad things. But evil is far more subtle than this. “We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.”
What then is an idol? “It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” If anything in all the world is more fundamental than God to your happiness, to your meaning in life, then that thing has become an idol. It has supplanted God in your heart and in your affections. You will pursue that thing with an abandon and intensity that should be reserved for God alone.
Having introduced idolatry and its effects in the Introduction and first chapter, Keller uses chapters two through five to discuss idols that have a particularly strong grasp on people today, though perhaps they are idols that have always drawn the hearts of men. He discusses love (and sex), money, success and power (focusing particularly on political power). Having discussed such personal idols, he spends a chapter looking at some cultural and societal idols—ones that tend to be hidden from us because they are so prevalent, so normal. Finally, he looks to “The End of Counterfeit Gods” and here he offers hope for the idolatrous. “Is there any hope? Yes, if we begin to realize that idols cannot simply be removed. They must be replaced. If you try to uproot them, they grow back; but they can be supplanted. By what? By God himself, of course. … What we need is a living encounter with God.” He wraps things up in an Epilogue where he offers words that so helpfully answer the “now what?” questions. The trouble with exposing idols is that we realize that most of our idols really are good things that we’ve allowed to take on undue importance. We do not want to cast away these good things! “If we have made idols of work and family, we do not want to stop loving our work and family. Rather, we want to love Christ so much more that we are not enslaved by our attachments.” The solution is not to love good things less, but to love the best thing more!
As always, Keller is eminently quotable and is a very skilled writer. The book is excellent not only in its big picture, but also in its component parts. More importantly, it turns always to the gospel. It never leaves the reader in despair but instead points him away from his idols and toward the idol-breaker, toward the one who demands and deserves the first place in our hearts. “The way forward, out of despair, is to discern the idols of our hearts and our culture. But that will not be enough. The only way to free ourselves from the destructive influence of counterfeit gods is to turn back to the true one. The living God, who revealed himself both at Mount Sinai and on the Cross, is the only Lord who, if you find him, can truly fulfill you, and, if you fail him, can truly forgive you.”
Truly, the human heart is an idol factory. Counterfeit Gods points to Scripture to help root them out, turns to the Cross to find forgiveness and points to the gospel as the power to find ultimate freedom from them. This is an excellent book and one I hope to read again, perhaps in a group setting. It is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year and I commend it to you.