I often read the Bible with an air of arrogance. Sometimes I elevate myself above the foolish Israelites who, even after seeing God part the red sea or deliver them from empire, still choose to rebel against this omnipotent and benevolent God. At other times I am appalled at the Ancient Near East’s barbaric practices like that of sacrificing their own children to the gods. Clearly, I am so much better than they are. But perhaps there is no greater area in which my pride is pandered than when reading about ancient peoples and idolatry. How is it that people could be so ignorant and foolish as to attempt to house their gods in inanimate blocks of wood or stone?
A few weeks ago, I read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Towards the end of the piece Orwell said something which slapped me in the face, as he revealed to me that I, in a way, am an idolater no better than those ignorant ancients depicted in the Bible. Orwell said,
“When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meanings as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterwards one can choose – not simply accept – the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impression one’s words are likely to make on another person. “
If Orwell is right about how humans think and how words function, then words can, like wood or stone, be crafted and hewn to house the gods. Sure, words can provide explosive expressions which break out and color the world in accurate descriptions, but they can also take people, ideas, and gods captive. This is particularly true about a God who is Spirit and abstract in many ways. Orwell shows us how words can control and confine just as easily, and perhaps more easily, than they can express and describe. In being described, a thing often becomes circumscribed. When we’re talking about circumscribing a finite thing, that may not be all too problematic. But when we attempt to circumscribe the God of gods, what have we become but idolaters who craft a home for our house deity so that we may control him in the comfort of our understanding?
Perhaps another angle may help to elucidate my argument. Voltairine de Cleyre made a similar point to Orwell when discussing the topic of legislation. De Cleyre said, “Make no laws whatever concerning speech, and speech will be free; so soon as you make a declaration on paper that speech shall be free, you will have a hundred lawyers proving that ‘freedom does not mean abuse, nor liberty license’; and they will define and define freedom out of existence.” To name a thing is either to declare equality with, or power and dominion over that thing. This is something we see in the Garden of Eden where Adam names Eve, his equal, and also names the animals. We also see the idea of naming in the Old Testament where God declares in Exodus 23 that “my name is in him,” referring to the angel of the Lord, presumably a theophany. Naming, defining, and legislating are all forms of equality, dominion, control, identity, or authority. There is extreme power in circumscription, whether that’s a circumscription in a physical object or in verbal and written words.
Despite the potential for the idolatry of words, most of us our stuck with a rigid definition of what idolatry means. In my denomination there are quite a number of individuals who believe that depicting Jesus in images is idolatrous, regardless of the intent behind those images. It doesn’t matter if the purpose of our images is to teach, rather than to worship as the Ancient Near East did with their house idols. To depict Jesus in the form of an image is to circumscribe God in an attempt to finitize the infinite. Yet isn’t an image worth a thousand words? How is it that an image is any more confining than locking God into being depicted by words? How is it that describing God in strict terms is not doing exactly what Orwell and de Cleyre warned us against? Didn’t the Pharisees take the Lex Talionis with all biblical seriousness and at face value? And didn’t Jesus subsequently overturn their understanding? Didn’t all of Israel take the words of a vengeful Messiah slaughtering the Gentiles seriously and therefore seek a savior who would destroy others while uplifting us, the righteous ones? Yet didn’t the suffering servant alter this understanding of the prophecies – prophecies which were seemingly so clearly expressed and defined in the very inanimate words of God? As we read and contemplate the New Testament, we don’t find God warring against the physical idols of the Ancient Near East as he did for much of the Old Testament. Yet we find that idolatry hasn’t disappeared at all. What we see is that what God wars against in the New Testament is no less an idolatry – it’s rather an idolatry of words. God will not be imprisoned and entombed in any form we seek to use to contain and constrain Him.
Of course what I am arguing here has some serious implications for what we Protestants hold so dearly – the words of God as contained in Scripture. My goal here is not at all to argue against inerrancy or the importance of words. My goal is rather to make us aware of how we moderns can fall into idolatry just like the Ancient Near East or like the religious leaders of Jesus’s day. There are forms of inerrancy and religion which are clearly idolatrous and circumscribe God into a confined box which can be controlled by those who wield the definitions. I want to expose such circumscription to avoid the bibliolatry which is common today. To do this, I’ll briefly lay out four indicators which point towards the worshipping of a god idolized in words.
- Reducing the Spirit: The Bible was written over thousands of years by tens of authors in three major languages. Even if one adheres to inerrancy, that inerrancy only applies to the original manuscript and the original language. As words and meanings change over time, and as words are translated into different languages, there is no possible way that the words we have today describe God to the same extent that they did originally. If one’s hope is in circumscribing God in words, recognizing this dissonance between the original expression and current translation can feel scary or devastating because our certainty of ideas and our control of God is lost. However, if one recognizes the centrality of the Spirit to the Christian life, particularly in regard to discernment and abiding in Christ, then one recognizes that the power of God may often be brought through the words of God, but they are only effectual when brought and illuminated by the Spirit of God. This means that the power and meaning of words are living when they are breathed by the Spirit. Any form of Christianity which minimizes the Spirit is likely flirting with idolatry, as “the Spirit blows wherever it wills,” and denouncing the Spirit is a quick way to ensure we don’t have to deal with that which is out of our control.
- Underrating Narrative: People commonly conflate description with prescription when it comes to the Bible. There is a lot which is described in the Bible which is not meant to be prescribed. I think much of this misunderstanding lies in a common notion that the Bible is a manual of sorts for our lives. Sure, there are significant parts of the Bible which are illuminating and convicting, but there is also much of the Bible – the majority of the Bible, really – which is narrative. It depicts stories. In fact, when we see God refer to Himself, He often refers to a narrative grounding of Himself as a grounding for faith. “I am the God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt!” God less frequently points directly to any ambiguous and abstract attributes whose definition we can fenagle. Rather, God points us to what he has done in the lives of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. There may be important textbook-like sections of the Bible, but any view which downplays the importance and prevalence of narrative in the Bible, heavily favoring prescription over description, is likely courting idolatry.
- Denying Mystery: I don’t know that there are any Christian denominations which fully deny mystery, as the Trinity and Incarnation are often viewed as mysteries. However, that’s where the mystery ends for many Protestants. God is described, and therefore circumscribed, in most other places. This is one place where I think the Eastern Orthodox church can provide some significant help, as they are much more comfortable with mystery. They recognize the problem with trying to define God and place him in a box, and therefore they have developed what they call “apophaticism,” or “negative theology.” Apophaticism, rather than seek to define God by declaring what he is, instead identifies what he is not. By discussing what God is not we get a clearer image of who God is, yet in a way which doesn’t make us feel as though we have conquered an infinite God by defining him in a finite way. Any view which feels the need to describe God and avoid mystery is one which has married itself to idolatry.
- Denying Development: There are a lot of Christians who seem to think that the way God worked or revealed Himself in the past has to be the same way He reveals Himself through all history. They think that because God doesn’t change, neither do His actions. Yet these people fail to recognize that while God doesn’t change, he works with those who do. God’s changing methodology in no way indicates that God is a changing God, but rather that God is merciful and gracious to stoop and incarnate to where His people are. We could point to a multitude of ways in which God’s revelation has changed in regard to practice (circumcision vs. baptism) or expectations (polygamy and divorce allowance to being more strict on both). While God’s moral standards and requirements don’t change, His grace and allowances do change in regard to the revelation he has given and the people to whom he is interacting. We recognize this in the individual sphere and call it “sanctification.” Ten years into our Christian walk we look back and praise God that he didn’t judge us then for something we have only now come to fully realize the gravity of. A flat reading of the Bible which requires the denial of development is one which has almost assuredly steeped itself in an idolatry which seeks control.
The people of old enshrined their gods in statues and images. Today, we enshrine God in words. When we view the Bible as the end of God’s speech rather than a tool through which the Spirit continues to speak, we have become idolaters. The small “w” word of God is intended to point us to the true Word, which is not a word, but an image – the perfect image of God painted for us in a 33 year long narrative. The ultimate power of Jesus Christ lies not the words he left with us, but in the Spirit which he died and interceded for on our behalf, that we might be partakers of Him as well, and multiply the narrative of the Kingdom of God in communities of dependence and interdependence. This community living in dependence upon and growth in the Spirit is the antithesis of idolatry. Whereas idolatry seeks power and control, yet is lifeless, true Christianity connects itself to the living vine and becomes life-filled hands and feet to the world in need. We become not the dead children of a God circumscribed in a tomb of words, but rather children of the God of gods resurrected as the Living Word.