American Gods (Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part One)

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

[This is my second post on William Stringfellow’s 1965 book, Imposters of God. For my first post, click here.]

When most people think of idolatry, they think of ancient Rome or today’s hunter-gatherers. But this is a mistake, according to William Stringfellow. “After all, is there any essential difference between middle-class people idolizing their children, as they do in America, an heathen venerating their ancestors?”

Today, as in 1965, idolatry is alive and well in America. We have made our new gods, but even the old gods find adherents. “Recalling Hiroshima, or beholding the war in Vietnam, can any of us really believe that Mars has abdicated his throne, or that the cult in which war is the deity, is any less militant here and now than in former times?”

In 48 years, what has changed? Recalling Baghdad  or beholding the war in Afghanistan and the constant drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, is Ares not still worshiped? Do we not pour out blood offerings to him every day?

America has always been polytheistic. We’ve always worshiped liberty, war, money, independence, family, rugged individualism, tradition, and religion.

In the Evangelical Churches especially, we’ve made an idol of marriage and family. What are singles Sunday School classes? Meat markets. What message do students get at Christian colleges? Get a ring by spring.

What do we teach about the call to celibacy, which the apostle Paul holds up as being more useful for the kingdom than marriage? Nothing, or perhaps, that it’s a Catholic thing that turns their priests into perverts.

What are the names of our great political organizations? American Family, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family … think about it, and think about what Jesus said about family (Luke 14:26).

Back to Stringfellow. What is an idol? It is anything, no matter how inherently noble, that a person uses to justify his or her own existence. An idol is “…that which renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile.”

The Christian is justified by God’s faithfulness, especially as show by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. If we lose sight of that and base our worth on anything else:

  • Family
  • Accomplishments
  • Children
  • Physical fitness
  • Political party
  • Reputation
  • Our own moral strength
  • Wealth
  • Patriotism,
  • Our Church and place in it

…. then we have fallen into idolatry.

When we use these idols to justify our existence, we become invested in them, even evangelize them. Stringfellow summed up the generational conflict of the 1960’s in one sentence:

“Americans who have devoutly served the idols of respectability and status all their lives feel threatened in their very being when their children refuse to offer these idols the same worship.”

Next time, I’ll talk about how letting something become an idol damages not only the inadvertent idolater, but also the idol.

But for now, let me offer up this prayer. Father in Heaven, give me eyes to see the idols that I have hidden in my life. Show me all those things I worship that are not you. Give me the wisdom to understand them. Give me the strength to cast them down, like Gideon.

Amen.

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Imposters of God – An Introduction

1932 U.S. Gold Coin, showing an eagle

So first off, why am I doing a blog series on a thin little book from the mid-sixties, written by a man I’d never heard of before this month?

Well, William Stringfellow comes highly recommended. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called Stringfellow “Probably the most creative and disturbing Anglican theologian” of the 20th century … a century that includes C.S. Lewis.  That got my attention. Who is this guy, and why haven’t I heard of him before?

It turns out Stringfellow was a lay theologian, a lawyer by trade. He lived in New York and spent a lot of time practicing law for the benefit of the poor and otherwise unrepresented. He “walked the walk,” as it’s said. So this “most creative and disturbing theologian” wasn’t even seminary-trained? Now you really have my attention.

But where do I start? Dr. Richard Beck (of Abilene Christian University’s Psychology department and the Experimental Theology blog) called Imposters of God the best single-volume survey of William Stringfellow’s theology.  And it’s about modern-day Western idolatry, one of my favorite topics (if by “favorite topics” you mean infuriating things I’m slightly obsessed with).

So obviously I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Imposters of God is only 66 pages long in its current printing. But if the first chapter is any indication, it has more real meat than most 400-page tomes.

In his foreword, Stringfellow gets to the heart of the matter: the jarring disconnect between sanctuary and society, especially in a nominally Christian society.

Six days a week, Christians seem identical to everyone else. One day a week, we enter into various worship ceremonies ranging from the ornate to the causal to the concert-ish.

What does this mean? Is our worship more than a sentimental or superstitious practice?

Is it more than a social club or opportunity to network?

Is it more than a prerequisite for respectability in the Bible Belt?

Why is the most religious of the industrialized nations also the most violent, most calculating, most ambitious, most status-seeking?

Stringfellow proposes an answer: we have been led astray into idolatry. And idolatry is, at its heart, the worship of death.

We’ll explore what this means over the next few weeks. I believe that as Stringfellow pulls back the curtain on our treasured Western Christian American culture, we’re all going to bleed a little.

But that’s a good thing. Sometimes the only way to heal is to cut out the infection. And sometimes the only way to serve God is to tear down your father’s idols, as Gideon learned.

Next time, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry.