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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Counterfeit treadmill

Books | How we turn good things into false gods

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

Two books about idolatry-one old, one new-are well worth reading. Herbert Schlossberg's Idols for Destruction (1983) is a scholarly look at the idols many of us worship: money, power, nature, humanitarianism. . . . Tim Keller's Counterfeit Gods (2009) is a pastoral look at the idols many of us worship a quarter-century later: money, power, sex, moral excellence. . . .

Schlossberg concluded that only Christianity could overcome the envious spirit that waters the poisonous plants of secular politics and socialism. Keller concludes that the human heart is an idol factory that takes not only bad stuff but "good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things."

Idols for Destruction, although some of its specific examples are dated, is like a course in macroeconomics that illuminates our society's performance, structure, and behavior. Counterfeit Gods, with examples from the Bible that remain perpetually new, is like a course in microeconomics that shows us how we make decisions to allocate our limited time on this earth-and often make mistakes.

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Keller himself tells his own story of how he fell victim to idolatry by taking something good and making it ultimate, as he tried to become the perfect pastor, bearing all burdens and turning down help: "It wasn't until I began to search my heart with the Biblical category of idolatry that I made the horrendous discovery that all my supposed sacrifices were just a series of selfish actions. I was using people in order to forge my own self-appreciation. I was looking to my sacrificial ministry to give me the sense of 'righteousness before God' that should only come from Jesus Christ."

Keller writes, "We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes." That got me thinking about my two decades of involvement with WORLD and my continued delight in every issue that comes out. In this way only, I identify with William Randolph Hearst, who a century ago would put his newspaper on the floor and with his toes turn pages, doing what one sub-editor called "a tap dance around and between them" as he relished what he saw.

I especially enjoy meeting our terrific subscribers. So many say such kind things, all of which I like to think are true. My self-image is that of humble cracker-barrel philosopher to the nation, genially dispensing Bible-based wisdom. I've been writing in WORLD about my pilgrim's progress from atheism to Christian thinking, one episode at a time, always encouraged to continue by emails and comments, always thinking that the story is about God's mercy and not me.

Then something happened to a quotation thrown into the last issue's episode as an amusing example of a Manhattan-centric attitude: A New York foundation president had told me, "If you go to Texas, no one will hear of you again." To my surprise and chagrin, that quotation appeared in big type taking up a third of a page-and since I haven't vanished, it looked like bragging. I saw the big type after WORLD had already gone to press, and I was nauseated at the thought of having 120,000 copies opened over the coming week with that on a page. What would WORLD subscribers think? It would ruin my image.

Keller realized that he was being self-righteous rather than Christ-dependent. Counterfeit Gods helped me to realize that I was doing the same. Did that big-type shock expose my desire to win praise for humility? Had I turned WORLD and my reputation into idols?

A good book helps us to ask ourselves hard questions. This has been a hard page to write, but if it helps you to ask yourself a hard question-What good things in my life are becoming idols?-it's been worthwhile.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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