Reformation Books: Counterfeit Gods
In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller brings the Bible to life helping his readers to see biblical stories in a completely fresh way. Stories like that of Leah and Jacob, Naaman and Elisha, Jonah and the Ninevites are retold in ways that help the reader comprehend anew God’s mission to rescue human hearts from all the idols they would cling to.
In The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes, ‘that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols’ (1.11.8) and in the Letter to the Ephesians St Paul describes immorality, impurity and greed as idolatrous (5.5). In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller seeks to diagnose the many idols that threaten to enslave and distort our lives. In the introduction he writes,
An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure”.
Over the rest of the book, Keller explores the ways in which love, money, success, power and even religion can act as idols in our lives. In each situation he gives cultural and biblical examples revealing how God’s message of salvation confronts and defeats our idols.
To give you a flavour of this lets consider Keller’s exploration of the idol of success. Mining contemporary cultural commentary he quotes the pop star Madonna, sociologist Peter Berger, professional counsellor Mary Bell, even the film Chariots of Fire. In a particularly revealing reference he quotes Chris Evert, a leading tennis player in the 1970s and 1980s, who looking back on the close of her career observed,
I had no idea who I was, or what I could be away from tennis. I was depressed and afraid because so much of my life had been defined by my being a tennis champion. I was completely lost. Winning made me feel like I was somebody. It made me feel pretty. It was like being hooked on a drug. I needed the wins, the applause, in order to have an identity.
From his analysis of the contemporary seduction of success, Keller leads us to reflect upon one of the most powerful men in the world in his time, Naaman, the Syrian commander. For all his success Naaman remained an outsider inflicted with a terrible skin disease. It is the rumour of a slave girl that sparks his search for healing and acceptance. So using his power and wealth he goes to the king of Israel who surely has the power to heal him, but the king tears his clothes, ‘Am I a God? That I can kill and bring back to life?’ (2 Kings 5.7). He goes from the king to the home of the prophet where he is met by a servant and told to simply to wash seven times and be cleansed. Offended by his reception he turns away angrily, but his servants again convince him to do as the prophet asks. Having been humbled Naaman is now healed. Keller writes,
The biblical story of salvation assaults our worship of success at every point. Naaman, to be cured, had to accept the word of a servant girl, and later through a servant of Elisha, and finally other servants of his own. In those days such people were treated as no more important than a pet or beast of burden by the high and mighty. Yet God sent his message of salvation through them. The answer came not from the palace, but from the slave quarters! The ultimate example of this theme, of course, is Jesus Christ himself.
Finally, in the epilogue Keller grapples with how to discern, identify and replace the idols in our own hearts. He observes that though we think of idols as bad things the opposite is almost always true; idols are almost always good things. He writes,
If we have made idols out of work and family, we do not want to stop loving our work and our family. Rather we want to love Christ so much more that we are not enslaved by our attachments.
To do this we cannot simply figure out our idols intellectually or know the truth of the gospel cerebrally, we have to allow the truth of Christ to capture our hearts. This leads us to the practice of worship but to look at that would be a whole other book!