What is Idolatry? Peter Rollins explains the structure of idolatry this way; (1) Our lives are marked with a deep sense of anxiety, (2) We believe that our anxiety is the result of something we lack, (3) We then believe that if we can just get what we lack our anxiety will go away.[i]What is an idol? An idol, then, is that thing we think we lack, that when we get it, we believe will make us happy and whole.
This is more than theory. To paraphrase John Calvin, the human heart is an idol factory. [ii] If Calvin is correct that means that we are all adept at creating and pursuing idols. I think he is on to something. If someone asks, “Are you an idolater?” most would say “No! Of course not.” That’s an honest answer. It is sometimes hard to find idols by looking for idols. It is much easier to find idols by looking for the structure of idolatry. What is the source of your anxiety? Where do you perceive the lack in your own life? What do you look for to meet that lack? These are helpful questions when answered soberly.
If you look closely, you will see that the structure of idolatry is the very foundation of consumer culture. During the Christmas season idolatry functions openly and without shame. Again, just look for the pattern. It’s why people fight over cheap televisions on Black Friday. The Santa of American culture – over and against the real Saint Nicholas – may very well be the embodiment of idolatry.
The question for Christians during the season of Advent is this; does Rollins’ pattern of idolatry show up in our expectations of the Messiah, too? Rollins gets at this when he writes, “Today the ‘Good News’ of Christianity operates with much the same logic. It is sold to us as that which can fulfill our desire, rather than as that which evokes a transformation in the way that we desire. Like every other product that promises us fulfillment, Christ becomes yet another object in the world that is offered to us as a way of finding happiness and ultimate satisfaction.” Does Jesus function as an idol – not by his own volition or mission – but by being co-opted by consumer culture with the cooperation of the idol factories of our hearts?
Some people will say that Jesus can never be an idol because He’s Jesus. They say this because they also believe that Jesus came to “fulfill our desire” and offer us a way of “happiness and ultimate satisfaction”. After all, Jesus is the one who said that he came to bring life and life to the full. I agree that he said this, I just don’t think it means what many people think it means. The birth narratives in the gospels say that Jesus is coming to set things right: justice, healing, freedom from oppression, economic leveling, and so on. And when Jesus said he came to bring life and life to the full, he wasn’t talking about material blessings and inner peace, he was also talking about justice, healing, and freedom from everything that steals, kills and destroys.
The difference between idolatry and discipleship is who sets the agenda. If we set the agenda and expect Jesus to fulfill, it is likely idolatry. If He sets the agenda that we faithfully submit to, then it is likely discipleship. This Advent season; consider again the true import of the first coming of Jesus. Do you embrace Jesus as that which can fulfill your desires? Or do you respond to Jesus as one who invites you into his way of life?