Tag Archives: idolatry

Yahweh Claus

At this festive time of year, when many of us are celebrating dual Christmases – you know, the one that honors the birth of Christ alongside the one that generates fourth quarter revenue for Citicorp – I think it’s important to make a distinction between the deities governing each.  Because, frankly, I think many of us are thoroughly confused by the difference between Jesus Christ and Santa Claus. 

The currency of our childhood relationship with Santa is good behavior, the assumption being that the more good behavior we produce, the better off we’ll be when Christmas morning rolls around.  The currency of our adult relationship with Santa is a good deal simpler – the currency is, well, currency. 

For many of us, the currency of our adult relationships with God is alarmingly similar to that of our childhood relationships with Santa Claus – I’ll be good, just please make things work out for me.  And when they do, I’ll show you how good I am by thanking you profusely.  And then I’ll pick something else for you to work on for me.

There’s nothing wrong with laying our cares before God and sharing earnest appreciation for our blessings.  But if those are our ONLY topics of conversation with God, we’re in for a very boring relationship.  It turns into this kind of dinner with the ‘rents:

“Dear Mom, will you please pass the salt?”

“Here you go.”

“Bless you and thank you, Mom.”

Munch, munch, munch.

“Dear Dad, will you please pass the peas?”

“Here you go.”

“Bless you and thank you, Dad.”

Munch, munch. 

“Dear Mom, please can we have fried chicken tomorrow night?”

“Only if you have faith.”

“Dear Mom, I believe.  Help me in mine unbelief.  Will you please pass the potatoes?”

And so on. 

I’d love to be able to blame this transaction-orientated attitude toward God on our consumer-driven culture, but the fact is, this is how people of the Judeo-Christian variety have always related to God, way before the invention of Santa Claus.  And over and over again, we’re reminded that this is NOT what God ever had in mind.

Joshua understood the stakes involved in a love relationship with a God so enamored of human beings that God pretty much lost his mind whenever the Israelites cheated on him.  Let me introduce Joshua: he took over leading the Israelites after Moses retired.*  At the end of Joshua’s life, after the Israelites had mopped the proverbial floor with everyone in Canaan, Joshua had a little “come-to-Yahweh” talk with them.  It’s too long to reproduce here, but the gist is as follows:

Joshua:  We’ve been dating God for generations.  Now, it’s time to decide whether or not to get married.  No big deal if you don’t want to (other than making yourselves a bunch of idol-worshipping infidels who’ll get slaughtered in the Book of Judges), but you have to decide now.  Me and my peeps are going to, but you do whatever you want.

Israelites:  We’ll follow God!  God gave us everything we wanted!  God’s totally bitchin’!  We LOVE this guy!

Joshua:  Are you serious?  We’re talking MARRIAGE, here.  You’re not up for that kind of commitment.  And if you try to break up with God, you’re really going to hurt God’s feelings and then you’ll be sorrrrryyyy.

Israelites:  NOT!  We’ll follow God.

Joshua:  Fine, from your lips to…well…God’s ears.

And the rest of the Bible chronicles, in lurid detail, how rocky that marriage has been.

I think Joshua’s point was this:  Getting everything we want from God is not the same thing as being in relationship with God.  And to be in relationship with God, I’m reminded of an old adage of my mother’s, “To have a friend, you have to BE a friend.”  This isn’t really rocket science.  To be a friend, we:

  • Let the other person do some of the talking.  That means we shut up and listen.  Sometimes friends talk very quietly.  Sometimes, they don’t talk at all – they’re just happy we’re there paying attention. 
  • Care about what our friend cares about and if we’re really serious about the friendship, we care with more than lip service.  For example, we know that Jesus cared deeply for the poor.  So what’s our new Xbox got to do with what HE wants this Christmas? 

This is way different from Santa’s expectations of me.  Santa Claus and I are not “in relationship” just because he brought me a set of stainless steel cookware last year.  Heck, Santa doesn’t even care if I can pay for the presents I buy.  Santa will gladly extend credit, which boils my responsibility down to paying my minimum balance for the next forty years.  And I’ve never given one second’s worth of thought to what Santa might want in return; the arrangement doesn’t require that.  Santa exists to reward or punish our behavior – he sees us when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake, he knows if we’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake…so we’ll get presents. 

When we think of God as a cosmic Claus, we hamstring our relational capacity because we only experience God transactionally – when we want something or, more rarely, when we get or give something. 

God just wants us.

* Not insignificantly, Joshua was portrayed in The Ten Commandments by a bronzed and glossy John Derek:


© Marian the Seminarian, 2011


Damnin’ mammon

But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “You dumbasses.  I didn’t say it was impossible.  Did I say it was impossible?”  (Mark 10:24-27, 21st Century Gen-X Paraphrase edition)

In the wake of the Occupy phenomenon and having read Newt Gingrich’s, er, “analysis” of the plight of the poor this morning, I decided it was time to share some thoughts on one of the New Testament’s trickiest passages (see above.)

Mark 10:24-27 is echoed in Luke 16:13 (“You cannot love God and money”) and in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, where he famously says, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” (I Timothy 6:10)  Even the author of Ecclesiastes weighs in with, “Whoever loves money never has enough.  Whoever loves wealth is never satisfied.  This too is meaningless.”  (Ecclesiastes 5:10)

Many people look at these sentiments as indictments of rich people.  Others take the message to mean that rich people aren’t the problem; rather, wealth is the problem.  I say, you can’t have rich people without wealth, so the latter argument never made much sense to me.   I also can’t get behind the first argument.  Jesus and Paul had wealthy friends and disciples.  And by popular tradition, the author of Ecclesiastes was none other than King Solomon.  They don’t get any richer than that.

IMHO, Jesus, Paul, and Mister Whoever-He-Was author of Ecclesiastes aren’t talking about wealth at all, at least not literally.  Paul never said that money is the root of all evil.  He said, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”  Biblical thinkers didn’t bash wealth – they bashed the misplaced priorities of some wealthy people.   What they’re talking about is idolatry. 

Wealth is just a thing.  Its value is reckoned by human beings, which means it bears no intrinsic moral currency of its own.  It’s a wooden statue overlain with gold.  It’s lifeless, without breath.  What gives it “life” is how we respond to it. 

If the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, what does that say about its mirror image: contempt for the moneyless?  Same thing, I’m guessing.  If Jesus didn’t love the poor, we’d be hard-pressed to say he loved anyone.  Do we ever see him getting angry or even impatient with a poor person, a sick person, a suffering person?  I’m no Biblical scholar, but the only people I can remember him flipping out on are scribes and Pharisees (over the disconnect between their espoused moral superiority and their crappy treatment of other people) and the moneychangers in the temple (for turning Judaism into a profit-making enterprise.)  Poor people – prostitutes, adulterers, tax-collectors, demoniacs, the sick and injured, and yes, Mr. Gingrich, the working poor like farmers, carpenters, and fishermen  –  were never on Jesus’ s**t list.

So, what does this mean for people of means?  First of all, the two commandments Jesus cited as most important were all about cultivating loving relationships: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, and all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  We need to actively apply ourselves to practicing these; and they are hard standards to live by because they don’t come naturally to us.  The first is a challenge because, let’s face it, God’s hard to love.  (I’ll be blogging on this very topic next week.)  And loving our neighbor?  Most of us can barely stand our friends and families, let alone the guy across the street who fires up his weed-eater at 7:00 on Sunday mornings.  And if we can’t love the people we know, how are we supposed to love people we a) know nothing about (common ignorance spectacularly modeled by Pat Robertson last week) or b) think we know something about, and whatever it is we think we know, it’s BAD (venomous ignorance spectacularly modeled by our former Speak of the House earlier this week.)

I think this means acknowledging that, spiritually speaking, EVERYBODY is our neighbor and day-by-day doing our doggonedest unto them as we’d have them do unto us.

Second, I think we need to stop thinking of ourselves as the 99%.  Taken from a global point of view, I’d be willing to wager that most of the people reading this blog – just like the one writing it – are part of the 1%.  If we can rely on potable, running water; if there’s reliable trash pickup in our neighborhood; if the lights generally come on when we flip a switch; and we’re not digging through dumpsters for whatever the squirrels rejected for dinner, we are among the people Jesus addressed with his “camel-through-a-needle” spiel.

But there’s hope.  Because although these things may be impossible for mere mortals, God works in mysterious ways and not all of them involve supernatural miracles.   I think a camel CAN go through the eye of a needle if any one of the following three conditions is met: 

  1. The camel is very small 
  2. The needle is hella big
  3. The camel is liquefied in a blender and fed through the eye of the needle with a very small syringe

Maybe, though, we should also pray for some miracles.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2011

Golden boy…or golden calf?

When the people saw that Elway was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Reebok and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.  As for this fellow Elway who brought us up out of San Diego…then, the next year, out of Miami…we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Reebok answered them, “Go thee to NFL.com and click on ‘Shop Now.’  There shalt thou see the Denver Broncos link.  Link, therefore, and makest thou a customizable jersey inscribed with the name of thy god and his most sacred number: 15.   And, lo, if thusly thou shalt act, even now shalt thou be blest with 15% off…and free shipping.”  (Exodus 32:1-2, ESPN Paraphrase Edition)

I’m not much of a pro sports fan, but I’ve been intrigued by Tebow Mania.  For you non-sports fans, allow me to bring you up to speed:

  • Tim Tebow is a second-year NFL quarterback who played for Florida State and was the first sophomore – and first home-schooled athlete – to win the Heisman trophy
  • He’s the son of Baptist missionaries and was the subject of a pro-life Focus on the Family commercial broadcast during Super Bowl XLIV
  • In 2011, the NCAA instituted a rule banning written messages in players’ eye black because  a few players, including Tebow, had been writing Bible verses on their cheeks

At first, devotion (and vilification) of this QB seemed like your normal, run-of-the-mill hero worship (and hero stomping.)  Kind of a hazing ritual, Denver’s way of welcoming you to the team.  Then, more and more people started tuning in to Broncos’ post game shows – because you can always count on Tebow to give a brief witness whenever the Broncos win.  His official website features a verse of the day (although, Tebow fans, if you’re reading this, please drop The Tebe a line and ask him to hyperlink the verses to www.biblegateway.com so I don’t have to look them up myself.)  Then, of course, the Tebowing started.  (You know you’re popular when they turn your name into a verb.) 

Still, I thought all of this was just an interesting sociological study until this morning when I learned that Tebow fans all over the country are spending $96 on official NFL fan jerseys featuring Tebow’s number…and the name of Jesus.*

After getting the initial “WTF??” reaction out of my system, I got to thinking about what the Tebow phenomenon says about Christians.  And I came up with three things.

First, it’s hard to be in relationship with a jealous deity who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  The human brain can’t get around all that; consequently, God can seem a little, well, abstract.  The Israelites experienced this disconnect from God as something intolerable.  I think that’s why they begged Aaron to make them something – anything – that they could see and touch and experience as divine.  I can’t speak to the psychology of ancient people, but did they really think the calf WAS God or did they just need a tangible reminder OF God?

Today, our discomfort with God’s abstraction more popularly expresses itself as atheism, agnosticism, or frostily intellectual forms of Christianity that don’t allow passion to stir discontent.  But some Christians experience that discontent as the Israelites did – hence the Tim Tebows of the world.  He’s here, he’s now, he’s in our living rooms every Sunday, for heaven’s sake.  And he speaks a language that resonates with the converted – he reminds us that God is still out there.

The problem is that our idols keep God “out there.”  That’s why the prophets and apostles spent so much time pulling their hair and pointing their fingers and shrieking at the top of their lungs about the things we use as understudies for God.  Let’s be serious, here.  God doesn’t care if you have a statue of Pele on your mantle any more than God cares if you have a miniature replica of the Lombardi trophy in your china hutch.  What God cares about is whether or not your interest in that item keeps you from fully experiencing a relationship with God in a daily and direct way.

Secondly, it’s hard to wait for the kingdom.  Now, Christians aren’t exactly in agreement about what “kingdom of God” means.  Some of us believe it’s a heavenly reward for a life well-lived, whereas some of us believe it’s our God-given charge to work toward peace, justice, and stewardship in this life.  Either way, we’ve all got a long wait before we reach it.  And as any child counting the days off until Christmas will tell you with grave authority, waiting sucks.

The Tebows of the world don’t make us wait.  The outcome of this week’s ball game is, at most, seven days away…except during the off-season.  I think that’s why some of us keep subordinate idols in reserve until our actual idols get back to training camp.  (For example, Colorado Rockies boy-of-summer Troy Tulowitzki can stand in for Tim Tebow!)

Thirdly, I think a lot of us, not just Christians, are sick to death of the excesses and perversions of celebrity (even as we greedily scan the tabloids for the latest scoops on Jennifer Aniston and Newt Gingrich**).  We’re tired of watching millionaires and billionaires in sports and Hollywood duke it out over huge pieces of the collective pie.  We’re tired of the temper tantrums, the sex scandals, the domestic violence, the drug abuse, and society’s apparent disinterest in holding anyone with wealth and fame accountable.  (Forgetting, that we ourselves are the society that should be doing that very thing.)  We’re tired and we’re jaded.  Then here comes this fresh-faced, likeable, morally upright football player.  He’s such a breath of fresh air in a suffocating landscape of greed, violence, and decadence, we can’t help but sit up and take notice.

I have to admit to being a bit wearied by Tebow’s evangelizing during every locker room interview and his frequent, public descents to one knee.  But in the interest of science, I did check out a website listing all the verses he’d so infamously scrawled on his cheeks for college football games.  Here’s a sampling:

  •  “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  •  “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” (Colossians 3:23)

Nothing threatening or damning here, but some of the finest examples of the universality of the Christian message and, in its purest form, our hope for the world.  Maybe the kid’s on to something.

I don’t know anything about Tebow and will take his cue when he recently said that it’s beyond us to know the inner workings of someone else’s heart.  But I will say that fame and spectacular wealth are corrosive – they cushion people from the raw realities of life and numb us to each other and to God.  So, a word of caution to those who act like they’re worshiping at Tebow’s altar – you’re feeding the flame that topples saints.  Don’t make a golden calf of this quarterback.

I mean, it’s not like he’s Elway.  He doesn’t even have a golden arm.

* I can’t make this stuff up.  Check it out:  http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/blog/shutdown_corner/post/Tim-Tebow-may-be-OK-with-8216-Jesus-8217-jer?urn=nfl-wp12021

** Not to imply that they’re a couple…although I confess that if a tabloid ever breaks that story, I’ll be the first in line to read it.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2011

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