Idolatry and the God of History

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
1st March 2013

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I love art. I have to say that because nobody believes I do when I speak on idolatry. It's the same with music. I have to protest my love of music whenever I question something about the use of music in Christian life. My protestations matter little to those who have art or music as their idols. However, I hope that you, dear reader, will not dismiss my criticisms as the mere prejudice of a Philistine. I do love art.

It is right to be suspicious of those whose arguments reach the conclusion of their own importance. Politicians, lawyers, academics, doctors, ministers, artists and musicians – almost anybody - can all provide arguments which demonstrate their own significance and importance. Therefore, I approached the writings of the late Herbert Butterfield with some suspicion when he argued for the importance of history. He was at the time (1950) the Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. Yet, the point he makes in the opening paragraph of his book, Christianity and History, rightly captures the biblical importance of God's covenant with Israel, in which the Ten Commandments were given and idolatry denounced.

"The God who brought his people out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, was to be celebrated in the Old Testament pre-eminently as the God of History. It seems to have been that when the children of Israel lapsed into idolatry – gave themselves over to the worship of Baal, for example – that they turned rather to the God of Nature, glorifying the forces of the physical universe and the fertility of the earth. Nothing could have served better to enhance the preoccupation with history than the fact that Jehovah was bound to His people by a promise, while they themselves were admitted to be under special obligations by the terms of the Covenant that He had made with them. It was necessary to justify Jehovah and to vindicate his fidelity when appearances were against him – or alternatively it was necessary to show where Israel had broken the Covenant – and this helped to give to the religion itself and to the discussion of historical events that ethical bias which was so strong a feature of the Old Testament narrative. The lapses into nature-worship on the other hand, far from promoting any advance in ethical standards, appear to have been accompanied by licentiousness and immorality."

It is not that the discipline of History is important, but that God relates to us by covenant. In so doing, God himself makes history important, for God acted in history making a covenant full of promises and obligations with his people. This gives a basis of relationship quite different to that imagined by the worshippers of the nature gods. Not only is it a relationship that is quite different but also it creates a basis for moral and ethical discourse.

So profoundly has the covenant of Moses, to say nothing of the new covenant of Jesus, affected our culture that we disassociate religion from 'licentious and immorality', and find it hard to understand the Canaanite fertility religions. Yet, new age mysticism, religious experientialism and enthusiasm do not lead to ethical dialogue, while God's covenant promises and our obligations inevitably lead to such considerations.

Idolatry is visual and the visual society of the late 20th and early 21st-century is given to immediacy and sensuality. The visual media, such as TV and movies, cannot help but interpret the world through what can be seen. What constitutes a good news story is that which has "good visuals". A fire, a tornado, a flood, a riot – these are newsworthy. However, in the course of human history they may be insignificant compared to a discussion, the publication of an academic paper, a laboratory discovery or the appointment of a public servant. An adulterous relationship is considerably more newsworthy, for it can be filmed and recorded in a way that 60 years of faithfulness in marriage cannot be seen, though it lies as the foundational building block of several happy and well adjusted generations of people.

In our visual society we idolise ‘the beautiful people’. Their lives might be chaotic and destructive but they photograph well. The things that matter in a visual society are the physical, athletic and sexual. A good-looking sports star is the 'idol' of our age. That his contribution to the welfare of society is minimal, or that he is in fact a bad role model for the next-generation, or that he is ill-prepared and unable to live up to the hype of his promoters is all an irrelevance. Mass media churns through the idols with little concern for the damage we do them or the damage they do us. The constant and overexposed presentation of sexual themes in our society has led to the problems of the sexualisation of children, the body shape anxiety of our teenagers, and the plague of pornography in our community.

It's not that everything auditory is good and everything visual is bad. Music can become an auditory idol as much as art can become a visual one. It is not simply that God spoke to Moses without showing himself visually, for the Lord Jesus Christ was God become man – 'the image of the invisible God'. It is as Prof Butterfield argued: the God who relates by covenant promise creates an ethical conversation about his promises and our obligations; whereas the gods of nature relate on the basis of power, experience, and sensuality. This viewpoint accords with the Old Testament descriptions of idolatry as well as the New. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10:1 to 22 tells us of Israel's disastrous flirtations with idolatry in order to warn us to flee from it, and in Romans 1:18 to 32 he explains the central degeneracy of his age in terms of idolatry. Professor Butterfield was right about the ‘God of History’. It's not that he is an historian or that I don’t like art, it’s just that idolatry is wrong.