Tim Keller continues to impress, not only with his wisdom, but also with his productivity. He has a new book, this time on idols, and as the darling Presbyterian pastor of Christianity Todayâ€™s editors, he answers questions about Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. (Thatâ€™s almost an early modern mouthful of a title.) The interviewer at CT asks Keller, â€œDo Christians have blind spots when it comes to false idols?â€
An idol is something you rely on instead of God for your salvation. One of the religious idols is your moral record: “God accepts me because I’m living a good life.” I’m a Presbyterian, so I’m all for right doctrine. But you can start to feel very superior to everyone else and think, God is pleased with me because I’m so true to the right doctrine. The right doctrine and one’s moral record are forms of power. Another is ministry success, similar to the idol of achievement. There are religious versions of sex, money, and power, and they are pretty subtle.
This is a curious answer. Keller could have opted for a version of an idol that was close to home or one that was easier to give up. For instance, if I were asked this question, I could respond with something about the idolatry of Christian contemporary music and its outlet in P&W worship. That would be no skin off my back, and I could score a point against my liturgical enemies. But if I offered up the Philadelphia Phillies as a form of idolatry, this one would hurt since Iâ€™d hate to abandon for Godâ€™s service what may be the best team in Philadelphia sports history. My answer would then go something like this:
I’m a Philadelphian, so I’m all for Ryan Howard. But you can start to feel very superior to everyone else and think, God is pleased with me because I’m so true to the best slugger in contemporary baseball. Home runs and RBIâ€™s are forms of power. Another is winning the N.L. pennant two years in a row, similar to the idol of achievement. There are sports fan versions of sex, money, and power, and they are pretty subtle.
All of which is to say that the illustration one uses to answer a question about idolatrous blind spots may reveal something about the tenacity with which you cling to earthly and even spiritual goods, and which ones may be let go.
So what does it say that Pete Enns quotes Keller favorably at his blog? If Keller had identified either the Yankees or OT studies or Ancient Near Eastern Studies as possible idols, would Enns have been so ready to quote approvingly?
For that reason, Kellerâ€™s response would have been more impressively costly had he substituted â€œcityâ€ for â€œright doctrineâ€:
I’m a New Yorker, so I’m all for urban ministry. But you can start to feel very superior to everyone else and think, God is pleased with me because I’m so true to the Big Apple. Urban ministry and cultural transformation are forms of power. Another is church planting success, similar to the idol of achievement. There are religious versions of sex, money, and power, and they are pretty subtle.
So here’s a deal: Iâ€™ll consider giving up my potential idols of Machen and confessional Presbyterianism, if Keller is willing to put urban ministry on the altar and Enns is willing to sacrifice Ancient Near Eastern studies.