Tim Keller knows how to tell a Bible story. Like The Prodigal God before it, his latest book, Counterfeit Gods is built around them. And every time I read one of those stories, I feel like I am hearing it for the first time. I find myself lost in the story, anticipating how it could, how it might, end. In the back of my mind I know exactly how it will turn out, but somehow Keller takes me along for a ride as he tells these stories in such a fresh way. In Counterfeit Gods he tells of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jonah and Zacchaeus. Each one of these characters and the stories of their lives are used to teach the reader about the prevalence of idolatry in the Bible and in the human heart.
"The human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them." Thus anything can be an idol and, really, everything has been an idol to one person or another. The great deception of idols is we are prone to think that idols are only bad things. But evil is far more subtle than this. "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. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life."
What then is an idol? "It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give." If anything in all the world is more fundamental than God to your happiness, to your meaning in life, then that thing has become an idol. It has supplanted God in your heart and in your affections. You will pursue that thing with an abandon and intensity that should be reserved for God alone.
Having introduced idolatry and its effects in the Introduction and first chapter, Keller uses chapters two through five to discuss idols that have a particularly strong grasp on people today, though perhaps they are idols that have always drawn the hearts of men. He discusses love (and sex), money, success and power (focusing particularly on political power). Having discussed such personal idols, he spends a chapter looking at some cultural and societal idols--ones that tend to be hidden from us because they are so prevalent, so normal. Finally, he looks to "The End of Counterfeit Gods" and here he offers hope for the idolatrous. "Is there any hope? Yes, if we begin to realize that idols cannot simply be removed. They must be replaced. If you try to uproot them, they grow back; but they can be supplanted. By what? By God himself, of course. ... What we need is a living encounter with God." He wraps things up in an Epilogue where he offers words that so helpfully answer the "now what?" questions. The trouble with exposing idols is that we realize that most of our idols really are good things that we've allowed to take on undue importance. We do not want to cast away these good things! "If we have made idols of work and family, we do not want to stop loving our work and family. Rather, we want to love Christ so much more that we are not enslaved by our attachments." The solution is not to love good things less, but to love the best thing more!
As always, Keller is eminently quotable and is a very skilled writer. The book is excellent not only in its big picture, but also in its component parts. More importantly, it turns always go the gospel. It never leaves the reader in despair but instead points him away from his idols and toward the idol-breaker, toward the one who demands and deserves the first place in our hearts. "The way forward, out of despair, is to discern the idols of our hearts and our culture. But that will not be enough. The only way to free ourselves from the destructive influence of counterfeit gods is to turn back to the true one. The living God, who revealed himself both at Mount Sinai and on the Cross, is the only Lord who, if you find him, can truly fulfill you, and, if you fail him, can truly forgive you."
Truly, the human heart is an idol factory. Counterfeit Gods points to Scripture to help root them out, turns to the Cross to find forgiveness and points to the gospel as the power to find ultimate freedom from them. This is an excellent book and one I hope to read again, perhaps in a group setting. It is easily one of the best books I've read this year and I commend it to you.
on October 21, 2009
I was a big fan of Tim Keller's first 2 books, The Reason for God, and The Prodigal God. Speaking largely as an apologist in the former and a pastor in the latter, Keller demonstrated his immense intellect and knack for offering keen observations of culture as it relates to the gospel of Jesus Christ. These strengths are applied directly to his latest work, Counterfeit Gods. This is Tim Keller at his finest as he subtly, yet powerfully, points out the things people, and particularly Americans, tend to turn into idols that take the place of God in our lives.
Taking on various arenas of life, Keller explains how even good things become bad things when they turn into God things. His working definition of an idol is simply anything that ascends to the place that only God should occupy in our lives, and he shows how career, money, sex, and even family can become idols in our lives, taking the place of God but lacking the ability to live up to the positions where we place them.
For example, when a parent places their kids in the place of God and wraps their entire identity in a child, an enormous amount of pressure is placed on the child, a pressure they will inevitably fail to live up to. This causes disappointment for the parent and disillusionment for the child. This is because the child isn't God. He or she isn't ever-faithful, ever-loving, all-powerful, and perfect. Only God is. It's unfair to children and damaging to the parents when these situations occur.
This idolatry can show up anywhere. I especially found Keller's chapter on power particularly helpful. When power is made into a God, it manifests itself in many places such as careers, parenting, and relationships; today, it mostly shows up in the political arena. People turn political parties, politicians, and ideologies into gods; subsequently, when their party loses, they are devastated. Their god has let them down, and now they do the only thing they can think of...they mock, ridicule, and blame the false political god that arose in its place. They lament the end of everything or complain about the status quo. The problem, of course, is that neither conservativism nor liberalism live up to god-status. Neither is perfect, but many convince themselves otherwise, believing that everything would be perfect if they could just elect the right person who embodies their values.
Keller has chapter after chapter that points out these idols in our culture, applying his Paul-like style of reasoning. All of this would be for naught, however, if people are not pointed to the true God. It's not enough to remove idols. People have to be pointed to God as fully-revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Keller does not back down from this one bit. He continually pulls our idol-fashioned foundations from underneath us, but he quickly replaces it with the true foundation, the Rock, Jesus Christ.
This book should be required reading for all western Christians. Other cultures have their idols, but we in the West have truly made it an art form. The roots of this idolatry cannot be removed overnight, but this book is a powerful tool for attacking those roots and unashamedly and repeatedly reminding us what needs to exist in its place.
The First Commandment: Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me
"Thus you can easily understand what and how much this commandment requires, namely, that man's entire heart and all his confidence be placed in God alone, and in no one else. For to have God, you can easily perceive, is not to lay hold of Him with our hands or to put Him in a bag [as money], or to lock Him in a chest [as silver vessels]. But to apprehend Him means when the heart lays hold of Him and clings to Him. But to cling to Him with the heart is nothing else than to trust in Him entirely. For this reason He wishes to turn us away from everything else that exists outside of Him, and to draw us to Himself, namely, because He is the only eternal good. As though He would say; Whatever you have heretofore sought of the saints, or for whatever [things] you have trusted in Mammon or anything else, expect it all of Me, and regard Me as the one who will help you and pour out upon you richly all good things."
The words above from Martin Luther's Large Catechism serve as a sobering reminder that idols are not made out of brick, wood, and stone alone - often, they are found in our heart. In Timothy Keller's new book, Counterfeit Gods, he lays out a case for idolatry in our current time that should pierce every Christian to the core. As Keller says in the beginning of his book, perhaps there is no better time to be reminded of the idols in our own hearts then in a time of uncertainty. The current economic crisis has stripped away our masks of religiosity and exposed idols that we did not know existed.
In Keller's second chapter, he focuses on love and sex. He specifically shows how our love for other human beings becomes an idol if we place our love for them above our love for God. Following that, Keller expands on the lust for money that is pervasive in our culture. Personally, I was especially convicted of the sin of greed when reading this part of the book. Greed is a subtle, deadly sin. It enters our lives unannounced and, if allowed to grow unchecked, is undetectable by those in its grasp.
After focusing on love and money as idols, Keller turns to politics. This book is worth the price for this chapter alone. It lays bare the misguided hopes and trust that Christians place in human government and brings one of the Enemy's most potent secrets to light. The warring factions in politics, especially among Christians, can reveal who are trust is really placed in. Individual Freedoms? Our Nation's Sovereignty? The Ability to Choose? Education for All? Healthcare for All? Or the Holy One, the Living God, Our Father in Heaven. Just as Nebuchadnezzar saw the statue built of human achievement crumble under God's power, Keller smashes the political idols in our own lives swiftly, painfully, convincingly.
No other Christian writer of our generation is on par with Keller's work right now. His ability to popularize Biblical truths without sacrificing any of their depth is unmatched. He has been called the C.S. Lewis of our time and it is an apt description. Though The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith is still his best work, Counterfeit Gods is a close second. You will not find a more enlightening, convicting book - it is must read for every Christian who desires to put to death the earthly idols that consume us.
on December 15, 2009
So, we've heard it: idols are everywhere on the rise. Pastors preach about the rise of greed, how Jesus preached against the greed for money. These sermons have become stock Sunday service material, beating the same trite, dead horse. Tim Keller, in his latest book Counterfeit Gods, reinvigorates the message of turning away from idols to serving the one and only true God.
Refreshingly, Keller avoids the usual course of fire and brimstone, by allowing the reader to think through a list counterfeit gods. The idols of society are found in romantic love, financial prosperity, need for success, and desire for political power. The present reality is this: Self-worth and esteem are often sought in relationships. When fortunes were lost in the market crisis of 2008-2009, prominent figures on Wall Street committed suicide-a semblance of the crash in the 1930s. There is an endless need for money. Only 2% of Americans consider themselves wealthy; the rest are upwardly driven as members of the middle class. Keller provides a candid assessment of the kind of thinking that prevails in our culture. The problem is idolatry, which admittedly is an inevitable part of the human condition.
The idols cannot be just expelled; it must be replaced. Keller writes: "The human heart's desire for a particular valuable object may be conquered, but its need to have some such object is unconquerable." Christ's sufficiency replaces the need to worship the idol of success and the idols of the world: "Only when we see that Jesus, our great Suffering Servant, has done for us will we finally understand God's salvation does not require us to do 'some great thing.'" This is the point, which Keller drives home.
I was particularly drawn to his discussion of the idol of power and glory. Niebuhr's case study on Nebuchadnezzar, was very revealing. Keller quotes Niebuhr's final assessment: "man is insecure, and... he seeks to overcome his insecurity by a will-to-power... He pretends he is not limited." Man has a deep fear of being powerless. Nebuchadnezzar completely ignored the all-powerful God, who ruled over him and held him accountable.
More penetrating was the second part of the discussion: that we are in control is only an illusion. I absolutely loved reading about Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers, which showed that success was largely a product of our environment. It gave an example of a group of Jewish New York City lawyers, who were extremely successful. All born in the 1930s, they happened to attend a school with a small student-teacher ratio, which gave them significant advantage in their development. They later attended quality inexpensive colleges, and then received training in law. They then practiced law in highly specialized proxy fights, which were avoided by experienced lawyers then, but experience in these proxy fights worked to their advantage in the seventies and eighties, making these lawyers extremely wealthy. Gladwell's book made the case that our innate ability cannot account for our successes. Keller then ascribes the hand of God to where we are today.
I'll be honest, I picked up this book thinking that I would pass it on to someone who would needed to hear a good message on false idols. Keller's message, however, cut right into my heart into a state of brokenness. I was particularly struck by the section on power and glory. How foolish was I to think that I can take credit for each subsequent steps in my life? Who am I to think that my abilities have taken me where I am today? And why should I be in despair with the disappointments I face? It then occurred to me that I am exactly where I need to be-in God's hands. I cannot escape from the hand of God leading me every step of the way.
Keller's book brought me to a place where I couldn't help but reflect on God's tender mercies, while my heart overflowed with thanksgiving.
on November 26, 2009
This is the Tim Keller book I've been waiting for. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (Penguin, 2009) is an incisive treatment of modern-day idolatry. Building upon his address at the 2009 Gospel Coalition conference, Keller peers into the inner recesses of the heart to expose the hidden idolatries that hold us captive.
Keller's book stands out among other books on idolatry because of the way he goes beyond superficial expressions of idolatry to the root issues of the heart. Our hearts are idol-making factories that make good gifts from God ultimate in our lives, thereby replacing God in our affections. He writes:
"What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give." (xvii)
How can you identify these insidious idols? How can you tell if you are worshipping a counterfeit God? Keller says:
"A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living." (xviii)
Counterfeit Gods includes the obvious idols of money, sex and power. But Keller spends time treating idols that most Christians would fail to discern: doctrinal accuracy, religious communities, political activism, and even traditional family values.
Keller not only exposes our dependence upon these idols; he exposes the failure of idols to bring lasting satisfcation. All idols ultimately disappoint us. All idols ultimately enslave us. The results of idolatry are ironic:
"...When human beings try to become more than human being, to be as gods, they fall to become lower than human beings." (121)
Over and over again, as I made my way through this book, I found myself nodding my head in agreement at Keller's analysis. But my desire to "amen" the thoughts in this book could only come after multiple prayers of "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!" Counterfeit Gods convicted me of hidden idolatries in my own life.
Just when you think you have gotten rid of the idols in your life, Keller brings up additional places where idolatries lurk, places you would have never thought to look. The church is one such place. He writes:
"Idolatry functions widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god....their trust in the rightness of their views makes them feel superior." (131)
Churches sometimes turn spiritual gifts and ministry success into a counterfeit god:
"Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ." (132)
No wonder we so often fail in our Great Commission efforts. Sometimes, the results we label "success" are the very idols eating away at our hearts.
Counterfeit Gods is a terrific book that leads the reader to desperation and then to the cross. This book would lead to despair if not for Keller's constant drawing us back to the gospel - what Christ has accomplished for us idolaters.
The good news is that there is good news. The counterfeit gods are mere parodies of the one true God who has come to conquer our idols and restore us to himself.
on March 7, 2012
In general, I have benefited from Tim Keller's teaching, and I appreciate his point of view as a nice contrast to that of many other large church pastors. He is very thorough in applying his convictions -- a very good and rare thing, indeed.
I am disappointed in his approach in Counterfeit Gods. Keller takes famous biblical stories (of Abraham and Jacob, for instance) and simply fills them in as fictional narratives, supplying details of motivation and attitude that cannot be known from the text alone. All this to make particular points about sins he sees in current American society. And I think he is correct, in general, about the presence of the sins, but his pulling the Scriptures into psychological shapes that support his points does not prove or even support those points. In fact, it encourages all sorts of crazy theological that can be based on similar "filling in."
I would suggest that the problems Keller raises in the book are solved by a wise balance between equally valid moral principles in tension. For example, I have a responsibility to help provide for my family; I need to be generous to the poor. Wisdom figures out how to do both. Keller implies that it is "idolatry" to put my family in the place of God, just as it is to practice guilty, compulsive giving to the poor. He could say more about how to be both responsible and generous -- more than just "God comes first."
I recommend the book for group discussion, but the discussion leader needs to keep the focus on wise balance and, especially, on thankfulness.
on October 21, 2009
To tell you the truth, when I first heard about the subject of the book, I sort of yawned, since I thought I knew enough about this subject already. But because of Tim's reputation as an effective church planter and his ability to relate to cultured New Yorkers, I knew it was probably worth reading. Well, let me control myself from gushing, but I want to say that it is simply one of the best books for a general readership that I have ever read! I already am planning a short series on the subject of idolatry for my Sojourners flock because of this book. Over and over he nails his point so effectively that I realized that I was underlining so many sentences and paragraphs that the underlining ceased to fulfill its purpose of emphasizing his most important points! Every sentence was important!
Tim Keller's Counterfeit Gods is without doubt one of the most powerful books I have ever read. I think it should be carefully read by every professing Christian. I recommend its consideration for group Bible studies where it's effective implications can be considered and discussed. Pastors will find much grist for their sermon mills in these scholarly yet pastorally sensitive chapters.
Keller is a culture critic of the first rank. His familiarity with literature of diverse genres as well as more popular cultural icons like movies will connect with readers weary of sincere but culturally irrelevant preachers. In a cursory review I found references to 75 different books about subjects from OT culture to modern sociology and Biblical commentary as well as references to dozens of articles, popular and scholarly. (Not to mention hundreds of scripture references). Keller understands popular culture as well with many illustrations from literature and film. These references are not done to impress but to connect. He writes, "There is no way to challenge idols without doing cultural criticism, and there is no way to do cultural criticism without discerning and challenging cultural idols" (167).
But it is when Keller opens the Word and carefully analyzes and applies that Word that he also shines. Under his skillful handling, the familiar characters of Abraham, Leah, Jacob, Naaman, Nebuchadnezzar, Jonah, and Zacchaeus leap off the pages and stab us in the heart. He expounds and applies the lessons from those characters without allegory or facile moralizing. And Jesus is always held up but not forced onto the text.
There are so many quotable statements in this book that I hesitate to isolate only a few. "The human heart is an idol factory" (a few places). "An idol is a good thing turned into an absolute value" (128). "Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to arrogance and self righteousness and oppression of those who differ" (132). Ouch!
One of the things I have appreciated about Keller's preaching and writing is that he understands popular culture so well and is able to effectively apply the Word in a away that speaks to the culture without surrendering to it. For example, when Tim is applying the Pauline text that "greed is idolatry" (Col. 3:5), he alludes to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and the plot revolving around the "ring of power" that corrupts its wearer. This corrupting influence can be seen in the evil Sauron and the pitiable Gollum or even in "good" characters like Bilbo and others who greedily desire its power when they wear it. At times it almost destroys the only one who can carry it to its destruction, Frodo. Thus greed can actually destroy us as we commit this act of idolatry.
Keller continually develops this danger of idolatry with fresh examinations of Biblical texts. He helped me to see that Abraham's crisis of offering Isaac was to deal with the danger of idolatrizing (is that a word?) his own beloved son. He shows how idolatry takes good things and make them objects of worship. Even children can become idols when they replace the true God as the object of our affections. The problem is not that we "love our children too much, but rather we love God too little in relationship to them" (3).
Greg Beale has gone over this material in his massive We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, but only scholars will read his book! Keller's ability is to take deep concepts and apply them effectively to postmodern New Yorkers and then to all of us! This is a hard hitting book. Don't read it if all you want is another feel good experience. I have already been convicted of the idolatry that lurks deep within my own heart.
"Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21).
on April 19, 2011
A fellow pastor recommended Tim Keller's Counterfeit Gods (New York: Dutton, 2009) to me after I had stated that the Bible teaches that the fundamental human problem is idolatry. I highly recommend it and here's why.
Keller has a broad understanding of an idol as "... anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give" (xvvii). Such an understanding allows him to explain how success, power, sex, money, and even religion can be idols. Furthermore, Keller demonstrates that idolatry is not only a personal but also a cultural phenomenon that possesses nations, classes and eras.
As a pastor, Keller is very effective in using biblical stories to demonstrate the problem of idolatry and then points to the work of Jesus Christ that frees us from it. For me his commentary on Leah as the woman who desperately wanted the love of her husband Jacob and finally decided to turn to the praise of God was compelling. That she gives birth to Judah, the heir to the messianic promises and ancestor of Jesus Christ, is a wonderful picture of how God blesses those who look to him even though they don't possess what society values.
The implications for Christian spirituality are an important theme developed by Keller. Since we relate to idols by loving, trusting and obeying them, idolatry both stems from and results in psychological and emotional problems. The false idols that we love, such as success, are revealed in our daydreams in which we fancy that they have made us valued and significant. We trust in idols to save us from what we fear most and give us a sense of security. Whatever controls us or what must we have if our life is to have meaning is the idol that we serve (xxi-xxiii). On the other hand, Keller points out that we can only experience our true worth, be healed, and freed by loving, trusting, and serving the true God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Now for the caveat. The danger of psychological explanations of sin is not just that they tend to explain away or excuse sin--an error that Keller does not commit. The problem is also that psychological as well as socio-economic explanations falsely make sin to appear reasonable. I think Keller's treatment of Jacob as always seeking the love that his father Isaac never gave him errs in this regard. From birth Jacob was grasping his brother's heel. This description points to the depth of human sin in the heart. Sin is not explained, for it is a perverse mystery. Our inexplicable rebellion against God is an irrational and inexplicable act. In all of us there is the fool who says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1).
Nevertheless, this is a fine book, which is well-researched and clearly and engagingly written. It is heartening to see that such incisive and insightful preaching still finds an audience in American churches.
on November 13, 2009
This book is quintessential Keller. The theme of idolatry (expecting from anything other than God what only God in Jesus Christ can give) is a frequent one in his preaching - and powerful. I am a Protestant pastor, and I believe the great value of this book is in helping modern American Christians understand that idolatry is a great trap for us all. In the simplest and clearest terms, Timothy Keller demonstrates how modern "gods" such as success, money and sex dethrone God and set themselves up in his place.
The book has great merit in that it recontextualizes idolatry. That is, it takes something from the ancient world of the Bible - namely idols of wood and stone - and shows how the idols of today have the same power. So while we may not be bowing down to idols depicting gods, we can easily be giving our lives over to things which take God's place.
This is a clear and powerful book, easy to read, that is convincing in its central theme.