Review: Counterfeit Gods image

Review: Counterfeit Gods

Somebody told me recently that many of Tim Keller’s books are basically his sermon series(es?) padded out and packaged up for resale. I don’t know if Counterfeit Gods is one of those, but it certainly reads like it. Imagine chicken nuggets with the breading peeled off, stuck together with some filler materials and breaded again to look like an escalope; all the same nutritional value is there (!) but the end product somehow feels a bit odd and bitty.

Don’t get me wrong, all the nuggets of truth are good, but bits of the book felt fairly repetitious in a way that they probably wouldn’t have if you were starting from scratch, with a whole chicken, as it were.

It’s a stylistic issue, but the content is worth chewing over (OK, enough of the foody metaphor!). Each chapter focuses on a different idol (love, money, power, success) and uses a Biblical story to illustrate it (one of the clues that these are re-packaged sermons!). I loved the depth of exposition in some of these – such as the explanation in the Abraham and Isaac section of why the command for Abraham to sacrifice his son would not be so bizarre to Abraham as it is to us:

The Bible repeatedly states that, because of the Israelites’ sinfulness, the lives of their firstborn are automatically forfeit, though they might be redeemed through regular sacrifice (Exodus 22:29, 34:20) or through service at the tabernacle among the Levites (Numbers 3:40-41) or through a ransom payment to the tabernacle and priests (Numbers 3:46-48). … Why? The firstborn son was the family. So when God told the Israelites that the firstborn’s life belonged to him unless ransomed, he was saying in the most vivid way possible in those cultures that every family on earth owed a debt to eternal justice – the debt of sin. … [In asking Abraham to make Isaac a burnt offering, God] was calling in Abraham’s debt. His son was going to die for the sins of the family.

Some of the other interpretations seemed a little weaker, though, like extrapolating Laban’s idolatry from the few brief mentions we have of his actions, or Leah’s breakthrough into worshipping God not her husband and children from the names she gave them – they’re possible – perhaps even probable – interpretations, but they’re the sort of thing you can get away with speculating in a sermon, but putting them down in black and white leaves more time for the reader to think ‘Really?’ I’m no scholar of ancient Middle Eastern naming culture, so maybe all the evidence really is there, but it left me with a ‘Hmm…’ rather than an ‘Ah-ha!’

For me, the real strength of the book was in Keller’s pointers to how to identify your own and your culture’s idols (I’d have loved more on the latter, especially as I was reading the book along with my church ‘Connect group’, and some deep discussion about how to identify – and thus start to counter – cultural idols would have been really valuable).

What do we fear the most? What, if we lost it, would make life not worth living? (p. xxii)

If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There’s no hope!” (p. 99)

The true god of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there’s nothing else demanding your attention…What do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart? (p. 168)

What is your real, daily functional salvation? … A good way to discern this is how you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes. … When you pray and work for something and you don’t get it and you respond with explosive anger or deep despair, then you may have found your real god. (p. 169)

A final test works for everyone. Look at your most uncontrollable emotions… Look for your idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong. Ask “Is there something here too important to me, something I must have at all costs?” … “Am I so scared because something in my life is being threatened that I think is a necessity when it is not? Am I so down on myself because I have lost or failed at something I think is a necessity when it is not?” (pp. 169-170)

These questions are really helpful, and have led me to a lot of soul-searching over the past couple of weeks, which I think is a healthy exercise once in a while, not least because of I Corinthians 10:12 (“if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”)!

So overall, it’s a short book with some interesting insights and helpful questions, and is worth a read. I think it’s probably most effective as a tool for pastors/counsellors (and anyone interacting with people day to day, and seeking to speak into their lives) to help them identify the roots of issues in the lives of people they are working with (there’s a very helpful little section on surface idols and deep idols, too). I think if you were really deeply enslaved to one of the idols listed it would probably take more than one of these chapters to help you even admit it to yourself and begin to seek to replace it with the true God. But maybe I’m just too cynical.

I’ll leave you with one final nugget, which could be used to spark a discussion on cultural idols (coming, as it does, in a section talking about how Americans tend to idolise their political parties, such that when the opposition gets in it is a disaster, the country is ruined and the leader is considered the embodiment of evil (viz George W Bush/Barack Obama)).

Dutch-Canadian philosopher Al Wolters taught that in the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. (p. 100)

Would you like fries with that?

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