Identifying Our Ingrained Idolatry
Now imagine it with no monuments, no commemorative plaques, no statues.
There would be no Trafalgar Square, no Nelson’s Column. No Cenotaph ringed with poppies. And that’s just on one street.
There have been plenty of posts on social media recently about the tearing down of statues, many of them cautioning, ‘If they come for the statues, they’ll come for the living next.’
I haven’t known quite what I think about it all though. Of course I don’t think we should put up monuments to really bad people, but where do we draw the line?
A tweet by Hannah Anderson yesterday was the key I needed to unlock the conundrum. ‘Welp,’ she wrote, ‘after last few weeks, I’m never going to read OT phenomenon of “tearing down the high places” the same way again.’
Of course we, enlightened (post-)moderns that we are, don’t build and worship Asherah poles or other tall posts to our false gods like those primitive, superstitious sinners! No, but we do raise men (and sometimes women) up to honour and celebrate them, their achievements and all they have done for us…
It reminded me of my underlying concern about eternity. There’s going to be a new Heaven and a new Earth, right? Naturally I’m going to want to live in the new London. I mean, imagine London filled only with believers! There would be no crime, no vandalism, no graffiti. No need to fear walking home alone at night. No cyclists jumping the lights and whizzing through the pedestrian crossings when you’ve got a green man!
But, utopia though it sounds to me, I’ve been honest enough with myself to realise that many of the things I enjoy – plays, museums, Trafalgar Square – will almost certainly not exist – at least in the form I know them. Will there be theatre in heaven? Happy, heart-warming stories with no sin or conflict would struggle to draw the crowds, I suspect. Museums, galleries, statues, open spaces and blue plaques that celebrate wars, conquests and human achievements will be redundant – we won’t even need all those paintings of the Madonna and Child or the Last Supper (even the ones with more authentic black and brown faces), once we’ve got the risen Lord to gaze upon.
All of which has revealed something ugly that I’d rather not have discovered – I struggle to believe that a city that truly glorifies God could be good, interesting or worth visiting. I feel a visceral reaction at the idea of some of those things being taken away. It turns out I love some of the trappings of sin more than I love God’s glory. Anything I hesitate to give up in favour of God is, by definition, an idol.
I can see the wisdom, now, of the Bible’s prohibition on making ‘graven images’. No one put up statues of Lord Nelson, Florence Nightingale or Winston Churchill with the intention of worshipping them as gods, and yet, it was because we believed that they had won great victories or achieved great things for us and we wanted to give them lasting honour and glory. ‘Here is the One who saved you from the French, who healed your diseases, who defeated your enemies’ (pace Ex. 32:4)!
In case you were wondering, no, I don’t support the criminal destruction of public property (or of private property, for that matter). And I’m not sure where I stand on the removal of statues by the proper authorities. I think there is a case to be made for humbly removing monuments that perpetuate or celebrate division and discrimination. In our current febrile atmosphere that might well lead to every statue being quietly removed. In thinking about the kingdom we long to see ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, that might be no bad thing – though let us be mindful of Jesus’ admonishment, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone’.
Now you may be thinking, as I’ve seen people say on social media many times, ‘But we need our statues and our monuments. We can’t deny our history, even with its flaws. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Yet the descriptive plaques on a statue don’t give the full details - they can’t. And they are not erected to give a full and rounded view of the subject’s character. They are raised solely to glorify and uplift, to say ‘This is a person worthy of honour. His/her flaws were as nothing to his/her greatness’.
Stories passed down by faithful chroniclers are far more effective pointers to history’s errors and evils than statues can ever be.
Pay attention to the things that upset you. Do they fill you with righteous anger because they are an offence to God? Or do they threaten something that you hold dearer than God intends you to? What areas of ingrained idolatry is God pointing out to you in these extraordinary days?
I’ll leave you with an extract from a poem by TS Eliot, brought to my attention in this twitter thread by Elizabeth Oldfield:
Can you keep the City that the LORD keeps not with you? A thousand policemen directing the traffic Cannot tell you why you come or where you go. A colony of cavies or a horde of active marmots Build better than they that build without the LORD. Shall we lift up our feet among perpetual ruins? I have loved the beauty of Thy House, the peace of Thy sanctuary, I have swept the floors and garnished the altars. Where there is no temple there shall be no homes, Though you have shelters and institutions, Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid, Subsiding basements where the rat breeds Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors Or a house a little better than your neighbour’s; When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’ What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together To make money from each other?’ or ‘This is a community?’