Readers of this blog know where I stand on N. T. Wright so I’m not going to take the time to qualify this post and I’ll just jump in by saying that last summer I read Wright’s Surprised By Hope (HarperOne, 2008). The book was okay and while I cannot recommend it I can say that at one point Wright makes very important point about how idolatry undermines community.
Wright’s point is that idolatry is more than a mere internal heart problem—idolatry is something each of us project onto others. Idolatry shapes our value (or de-valuation) of others and carries consequences into our families, our communities, and our churches. He writes,
One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch. (p. 182)
That’s a great point. In other words, idolatry—while at root a heart issue—not only affects the sinner but also the community. Idols dehumanize the heart and cause us to act inhumanely towards others.
This idol-projecting point is also made Mark Driscoll’s latest book Doctrine (Crossway, 2010):
If we idolize our gender, we must demonize the other gender. If we idolize our nation, we must demonize other nations. If we idolize our political party, we must demonize other political parties. If we idolize our socioeconomic class, we must demonize other classes. If we idolize our family, we must demonize other families. If we idolize our theological system, we must demonize other theological systems. If we idolize our church, we must demonize other churches. This explains the great polarities and acrimonies that plague every society. If something other than God’s loving grace is the source of our identity and value, we must invariably defend our idol by treating everyone and everything who may call our idol into question as an enemy to be demonized so that we can feel superior to other people and safe with our idol. (350-351)
Wright and Driscoll provide a sobering warning. Personal idols dehumanize us, dehumanize our evaluation of others, and necessarily erode community. Personal idols are not isolated in their consequences. We all have something at stake.