Countering Idolatry: Some Thoughts On Tim Keller’s ‘Counterfeit Gods’

This week I have mostly been reading two books. One of them awaits a future blog post, but the other is Tim Keller‘s Counterfeit Gods, subtitled, ‘When the empty promises of love, money and power let you down’. It manages to be both pastoral and evangelistic, in that Keller diagnoses the affliction of idolatry as infecting both Christian and non-Christian alike.

An idol is for Keller anything – and usually a good thing – that we inflate to absolute good in place of the true God. While covering the usual contemporary suspects such as money, sex, relationships, power and success, he briefly analyses some less common ones. He is well read in contemporary culture and in the analysis of idolatry.

He also distinguishes between ‘surface idols’ and ‘deep idols’. The former are easy to identify, but the latter, the driving forces behind our idolatry, are harder to detect. However, in what may be the strongest section of the book (with the possible exception of the biblical exegesis) he provides a series of ways in which we can diagnose whether something has become an idol. What obsesses our imagination and daydreaming? Are there things on which we spend too much money? For the Christian, do we react with undue anger or despair to unanswered prayer for a particular request? Do our uncontrollable emotions, such as fear, anger or guilt, tell us we are raising something to the level of a necessity in life when it is not? This section falls in the book’s Epilogue, and is priceless.

My one disappointment was with what followed that section. Keller says that it isn’t enough to renounce idols, they need to be replaced by a devotion to Christ and all he has done for us, because in that we will find true satisfaction in life. He tells us this is best developed by the use of spiritual disciplines, but unfortunately then bails out by saying that describing them is beyond the remit of the book. That seemed to be a shame to me, since to describe that would be to outline a major element of the cure. Instead, he simply footnotes books by Kenneth Boa and Edmund Clowney. I am sure Keller is capable of writing lucidly on this subject. It is as if he had run aground against a publisher’s word limit. Perhaps he will offer his own thoughts on this important subject one day.

Despite that one hesitation, this is a book I heartily recommend. It is significant on so many levels. If you are a prophet, its diagnosis of sin in western culture is important: as Keller says, you cannot understand a culture without discerning its idols. If you are an evangelist, it will give deep insight into what holds people captive. The pastor will also appreciate the understanding of the human condition and the tools for discerning idolatry. It is well worth your time and money.

Unless books are your idol, I suppose.

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