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Blog / Old Gods, New Names: N.T. Wright on “Idolatry 2.0”

Old Gods, New Names: N.T. Wright on “Idolatry 2.0”

“You shall have no other gods before me.” — Exodus 20:3 (NIV)

Growing up, I attended a church that recited the Ten Commandments every Sunday as part of the worship service. As a child, I would read aloud each of the familiar commandments, starting with “You shall have no other gods before me”—and each time, part of me would wonder why we bothered with the first few commandments. They talk about false gods and idols, temptations which didn’t seem to exist in my middle-class American environment. The later commandments (the ones that talk about greed, lust, and theft) hold obvious modern relevance; but isn’t that first commandment an archaic holdover from ancient times?

A depiction of Mammon worship by Evelyn De Morgan (1909).

A depiction of Mammon worship by Evelyn De Morgan (1909).

As the years went on, I heard sermons exploring the relevance of this seemingly-outdated prohibition on worshiping “other gods.” Like many Christians, I came to understand that the modern equivalent of worshiping idols and gods might be a life dedicated to the pursuit of wealth, sex, political power, or some other impulse taken to an unhealthy extreme.

In my mind I imagined a cackling Ebenezer Scrooge-like billionaire sitting atop a mountain of ill-gotten money. Because I didn’t resemble that caricature of a money-worshiper (or of equally exaggerated worshipers of sex and violence), I figured I was safely in the clear when it came to the First Commandment.

But what if it’s not quite that easy? What if the worship of “other gods” isn’t characterized by a maniacal pursuit of base impulses, but by simple acquiescence to ubiquitous, but spiritually poisonous, assumptions about how life and society work?

In his latest book, Surprised by Scripture, Christian scholar and leader N.T. Wright tackles this and a host of other challenging questions about the Bible’s relevance to contemporary issues. Halfway through his book, in a chapter called “Idolatry 2.0,” Wright argues that idolatry is very much alive and well today—and that all of us must confront and resist it, even if we’re not soulless, mustache-twirling corporate moguls:

These other gods are not strangers. The ancient world knew them well. Just to name the three most obvious: there are Mars, the god of war, Mammon, the god of money, and Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love.

surprisedbyscriptureToday’s Western world hardly needs reminding about the place of Mammon, the worship of money, in our society. Britain, or rather London, has prided itself on being the financial capital of the world, and the major financial scandals and banking crises that have shaken our system over the last decade have done nothing to damage our faith in this ancient and yet very modern god. We still assume that though something has gone wrong, the only thing to do is to shore up the system and get it going again—despite the gross inequities, the countries still suffering from unpayable debt, the rising tide of poverty even in our affluent Western world, and so on. Perhaps it wouldn’t be straining the point to say that many students now hope, rightly or wrongly, that a degree will be a passport to a good job and a good salary, and that is justification enough. You can recognize the worship of Mammon precisely at the point when someone asks you to do a job for which you will be paid considerably less than you are at present. What would you say?

….These ancient and well-known gods have not gone away, have not been banished upstairs, but are present and powerful—all the more so for being unrecognized. In what sense are they divine? The ancients would have no trouble answering that. First, those who worship gods become like them; their characters are formed as they imitate the object of worship and imbibe its inner essence. Second, worshipping them demands sacrifices, and those sacrifices are often human. You hardly need me to spell out the point. How many million children, born or indeed unborn, have been sacrificed on the altar of Aphrodite, denied a secure upbringing because the demands of erotic desire keep one or both parents on the move? How many million lives have been blighted by money, whether by not having it or, worse, by having too much of it? (And if you think you can’t have too much of it, that just shows how deeply Mammon worship has soaked into us.)

And how many are being torn apart, as we speak, by the incessant demands of power, violence, and war? Now, please note: I am not saying sex is evil. I am not saying money is bad in itself. I am not even saying that there is never a place for force in defending the weak against violent evil or unjust tyranny. I am neither a killjoy, a Marxist, nor a pacifist. My point is that our society, claiming to have got rid of God upstairs so that we can live our own lives the way we want, corporately and individually, has in fact fallen back into the clutches of forces and energies that are bigger than ourselves, more powerful than the sum total of people who give them allegiance—forces we might as well recognize as gods.

Perhaps the convulsions we have gone through—the disasters that come from worshiping Mars, Mammon, and Aphrodite—are signs that the theological vacuum caused by separating god from the world is at last imploding. But do we know what to do under such circumstances? Have we got a road map to help us navigate such dangerous and complex territory?

N.T. Wright.

N.T. Wright.

Wright believes that there is such a road map, and that the person and message of Jesus Christ provide it for us. But disentangling ourselves from “gods” we may be “worshiping” without fully realizing it isn’t easy.

If you’re interested in following Wright’s train of thought further, you can do so in Surprised by Scripture. You can read an excerpt from the book here, learn all about Wright’s life and ministry at Wikipedia, and see more of his recent works at his publisher’s website.

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