You cannot read very far in the Old Testament without encountering idols. Idolatry ranks as far and away the most common topic in the entire Bible. A nagging question haunts the pages of the Old Testament: Why did the Jews keep deserting the God who had delivered them from Egypt for the sake of carved tree trunks and bronze statues? What was the big attraction?

I gained insight into this issue on a visit to India, where idol worship flourishes. The four-star attractions in most Indian cities are temples erected to any of a thousand gods: monkey gods, elephant gods, erotic gods, snake gods—even a smallpox goddess. There, I observed that idolatry tends to produce two contradictory results: magic and triviality. For the devout, idolatry adds a dimension of magic to life. Hindus believe the gods control all events, including such natural disasters as monsoons, floods, diseases, and accidents. These powerful gods must be pleased at all costs. But what pleases a god depends on the god’s character, and gods can be fearsome and violent. Calcutta, India’s largest city, has adopted the murderous goddess Kali, who wears a garland of gruesome heads around her waist. Devotion to such gods can easily lead to a paralyzing fear and virtual slavery to the gods’ whims.

Other Hindus, less devout, take a different approach. They treat their gods as trivialities, almost like good-luck charms. A taxi driver mounts a tiny statue of a monkey god, draped with flowers, on the dashboard of his car. If you ask, he’ll say he prays to the god for safety—but you know about the traffic in India, he adds with a laugh.

Both these modern responses to idolatry illustrate what so alarmed the prophets of Israel. On the one hand, the taxi driver shows how idolatry can trivialize a god. Maybe the god will help you out, maybe not, but why not play along? Some Israelites took that spirit, drifting carelessly from god to god. No attitude could be further from that demanded by the true God. He had chosen the Jews as a kingdom of priests, a peculiar people set apart to him. He mocked the absurdity of carving a god out of a tree, the same tree used to cook a meal (Isa. 44:16–17). He is Lord of the Universe, not a good-luck charm.

Far too often, however, idols in the Middle East took a more sinister form, resembling the evil goddess of Calcutta. Followers worshiped Baal, for example, by having sex in the temple with prostitutes, or even by killing a human baby as a sacrifice. Worship of Baal could not possibly coexist with the worship of God.

Why did Baal and the other idols prove so appealing to the Jews? Like farm boys gawking at big-city life, the Israelites moved from 40 years of wilderness wanderings into a land of superior cultural achievement. When they settled down to a new occupation of farming, they looked to a Canaanite deity, Baal, for help in controlling the weather. In other words, they sought a short cut through magic. Similarly, when a mighty army threatened their borders, they smuggled in a few of that army’s favorite idols, hedging their bets in case their own religion did not bring them military success. Idols became a phantom source of power, an alternative place to invest faith and hope.

Worshiping graven images disappeared from Israel only after God dismantled the nation. But other, more subtle forms of idolatry persisted, and persist to this day. According to the New Testament, idolatry need not involve images of wood or stone. Anything that tempts us away from the true God may function as an idol. In a society dominated by appeals to image and status, idols abound. And, not surprisingly, idolatry produces the same results in us today that it did in the Israelites. Some gods—Mammon, beauty, success—appeal to our thirst for magic. On the human level, they work spectacularly. Success and money give us a kind of magical control over our lives. I worry more, however, about the false gods in my life that escape easy detection. In classical idolatry, a visible symbol expressed the change of loyalty that had gone on inside. Most of our idols today are invisible, not so clearly labeled. What modern idols make God seem trivial? What tends to reduce the surprise, the passion, the vitality of my relationship with God?

Most days, I am not so conscious of choosing between a god and God; the alternatives do not present themselves so clearly. Rather, I find God edged out by a series of small distractions. A car that needs repair, a coming trip, a leaky gutter, a friend’s wedding—these distractions, mere trivialities, may lead to a form of forgetfulness that resembles idolatry in its most dangerous form. The busyness of life, including all its religious busyness, can crowd out God. I confess that some days I meet people, work, make decisions, all without giving God a single thought. A friend of mine was stopped dead in her tracks by a skeptic. After listening to her explain her faith, he said this: “But you don’t act like you believe God is alive.” I try to turn his accusation into a question: Do I act as if God is alive? It is a good question, one that lies at the heart of all idolatry, and one that I must ask myself again every day.

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