Christian Book Review: Counterfeit Gods by Timothy J. Keller
A pastor in Manhattan, New York, and a prolific writer, Keller writes with incredible clarity on the biblical concept of idolatry in his book Counterfeit Gods. This book promises to engage the non-believing seeker and to convict the believer, identifying the pattern of idolatry in the bible and modern culture, and drawing an uncanny parallel.
This book is relatively old, but the wisdom Keller unpacks within it is far from archaic. From the very beginning of the book, he gently exposes the idolatry of the human heart, both from a 10,000 ft. altitude and on the ground; He tackles idolatry on a cultural level and on a personal level.
Our Modern Idolatry
So, what is idolatry?
Idolatry, Keller writes, is taking anything — relationships, power, success, money — and making it an ultimate thing. Idolatry is prioritizing anything over God, and frankly, anything can serve as an idol. Idolatry is a counterfeit god. This may seem puzzling to the average person, as the mention of idolatry usually conjures a picture of statues and prostrated bodies. Yet, the bible writes that idols are actually in the heart. And the catch? They’re not bad things.
Idols are usually good things. Great things, even. In fact, “the greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.” But when good things are valued in an inordinate fashion, they enslave the heart. They destroy the heart.
What I appreciate about Keller is his ability to take complex concepts and then present them in a clear way. This is seen in how he categorizes idols — personal, cultural, and intellectual. So whether it’s at an individual level, or a national level, there is no escaping our gravity towards worshiping a counterfeit god.
The Four Idols
The book then begins to address four of the most common idols: Love, Money, Success, and Power.
Each of the following chapters is devoted to these four things (good things) that very often consume and destroy people and even nations. Keller does this by first highlighting each case with a biblical narrative that reflects each idolatry. He explores the broken relationships between Jacob, Leah, and Rachel to demonstrate the idolatry of love, he writes about Zacchaeus and his worship of money, he uses Naaman as an example of the idolatry of success, and takes the King Nebuchadnezzar to depict the love of power.
What impressed me the most was Keller’s skillful usage of many contemporary authors and thinkers, both Christian and non-Christian, weaving them effortlessly in each chapter to further build his point. Keller’s keen awareness of culture helps Christians like me understand biblical concepts like idolatry with a full, comprehensive worldview.
What was most helpful to me, however, was his distinction between surface idols and deep idols. I began reading this book with a familiarity of idolatry already; I knew anything could be an idol, be it a girl, a hobby, a dream, etc. However, what was new to me was the fact that underneath these visible “surface” idols were deep idols. “Each deep idol — power, approval, comfort, or control — generates a different set of fears and a different set of hopes.”
Keller ends the book by arguing that the only way to remove idols was the replace it. The only way to eliminate the idols of our hearts was to replace it, not with other idols, but with God Himself. “They go back to the beginning of the world, to our alienation from God, and to our frantic efforts to compensate for our feelings of cosmic nakedness and powerlessness. The only way to deal with all these kinds of things is to heal our relationship with God.”
A life of idolatry is ultimately a life out of step with the Gospel. Peter’s idolatry led him to racism and Jonah’s idolatry led him to nationalism. But only the Gospel, as Keller puts forth, has the power to melt our hearts when we fix our eyes on the God who meets every need that our hearts are truly looking for.
“Every human being must live for something. Something must capture our imaginations, our heart’s most fundamental allegiance and hope. But, the Bible tells us, without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, that object will never be God himself.” (p. 3)
“If, however, God becomes the center of your life, that dethrones and demotes money. If your identity and security is in God, it can’t control you through worry and desire.” (p. 57)
“When you see Him dying to make you his treasure, that will make Him yours.” (p. 67)
“To be your own God and live for your own glory and power leads to the most bestial and cruel kind of behavior. Pride makes you a predator, not a person.” (p. 121)
“But Jesus shows us another way. By giving up his power and serving, he became the most influential man who ever lived.” (p. 125)