Facing the Idol Factory: A Review Article

A. Craig Troxel

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, by Tim Keller. New York: Dutton, 2009, xxiv + 210 pages, $19.95.

Tim Keller, the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, is the rising star among conservative Presbyterian ministers. His achievements are much deserved, especially given his spiritual gifts, his fine theological training at Gordon-Conwell and Westminster seminaries, his immersion into the treasury of Puritan wisdom, and his ability to communicate with skill and clarity. The success and acclaim showered upon his recent books, The Reason for God and The Prodigal God, testify amply to his growing reputation.

One naturally expects a spectrum of responses to Pastor Keller's growing popularity. However, two polar views have come to expression that actually help to segue into the main theme of Pastor Keller's new book, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. The first reaction has been evident in the well-intended but astonishing praise that I can only assume embarrasses Pastor Keller. (I am thinking of the comparisons to C. S. Lewis.) Tim Keller is a fine writer and an extremely gifted communicator. But the suggestion that he bears likeness to Lewis actually does a disservice to Pastor Keller. Such touting will only cause people to hear him in the way that he undoubtedly least wants to be heard—as a celebrity; rather than as a pastor who wants to speak to his flock and readership, and in such a way that he might decrease and Christ increase. In short, perhaps some have idolized Pastor Keller.

The other reaction to Pastor Keller's recent fame has a different quality, namely that of jealousy—which of course is an idolatrous desire. Some may disagree with Pastor Keller at some points in philosophy of ministry. But it is interesting how many critiques of larger churches come from pastors of smaller churches. (I pastor a smaller church.) But some comments may be rooted in sheer envy. There was a time when I thought I would never have such thoughts towards a fellow minister. As I grow in my self-understanding, I have learned differently. And I am still learning. Maybe you do not struggle with such motives. But then again, maybe you do. That's what Counterfeit Gods is all about.

Tim Keller is right to debunk our false conception that an idol is a small figurine in your living room to which you pray and burn incense. Poet John Milton recognized that idols are truly mobile, as he states in Book 1 of Paradise Lost:

Of Baälim and Ashtaroth—those male,
These feminine. For spirits, when they please,
Can either sex assume, or both; so oft
And uncompounded is their essence pure,
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose,
Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
Can execute their airy purposes,
And works of love or enmity fulfil.

No, an idol 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). Or as a "counterfeit god" it is "anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living" (xviii). Following the work of Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit, Keller exposes a common misconception that an idol can only be something to which we ascribe divine attributes and refer to as our "god." In reality, an idol is whatever demands our full devotion or ultimate commitment and to which we grant ultimate value. Just because you do not address something as your deity, doesn't mean that it may not function as your god. Just like the idols of old, these contemporary idols are "bloodthirsty and hard to appease" (xiii). Akin to their pagan predecessors, modern idolaters are still willing to sacrifice their children, marriage, health, purity, job, and personal safety in order to satisfy their "god."

Biblically speaking, an idol is what we wrongly love (so as to commit spiritual adultery), or what we wrongly trust (and so make sacrifices to satisfy them), or what we obey (so as to be wrongly enslaved and controlled). Anything, even the most noble of pursuits, can end up functioning as an idol: "family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving 'face' and social standing ... a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry" (xviii). As such a list suggests, idols can be personal, cultural, and intellectual. But in the end, it is our hearts that "fashion these desires into idols" (3).

The counterfeit gods that Keller particularly highlights are love (sex), money, success, and power. Throughout the main section of the book Keller mines the biblical accounts of the patriarchs (especially Abraham, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah), Zaccheus, Nebuchadnezzar, Jonah, and Naaman in order to fortify his case. In the final chapters Keller concludes by focusing more upon diagnosing the origin of idols. For instance, in chapter 6, Keller uses the Jonah narrative to tackle the "hidden idols" that lurk in our hearts and lives. Keller concludes each chapter by encouraging us to consider how Christ either fulfills or answers each of the needs or dilemmas that these idols represent. Anyone who loves the gospel will appreciate Keller's emphasis upon Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord at the conclusion of each chapter. His transitions into these sections on the Gospel are not always made as smoothly as I would have expected, but I think that this is explained by the evangelist in Keller anxiously pressing towards the true hope of the gospel in order to show unbelieving readers the remedy to their spiritual poverty.

I was delighted to see that our author had been gleaning in the fields of others with whom some of us may be previously acquainted; more specifically, Os Guinness, Dick Keyes, Rick Lints, and Greg Beale. Let me highlight just one particular insight that yields considerable pastoral mileage. Dick Keyes has discussed the twin ideas of "nearby idols" and "faraway idols" in his chapter on idols ("The Idol Factory") in No God, But God, edited by Os Guinness and John Seel.[1] Keyes contends that, since an idol seeks to mimic the true God, it seeks to replicate both God's transcendence and his immanence. Thus, the various idols in our lives represent a higher, wider, and greater conceptual ideal that we serve (what Keyes calls "far" idols), and they simultaneously represent a more personal desire that we can control and manipulate (what Keyes calls "near" idols). Keller makes use of this idea by discussing the relationship between "deep idols" and "surface idols" (his terms for Keyes' "far" and "near" idols). For example, money can be a "surface idol," that serves a variety of "deep idols"—power/control, self-indulgence, approval, worldliness, miserliness, etc. The problem with money may not be a straightforward struggle with avarice or materialism. It may be something else. Similarly, anyone who has dealt with a friend who is struggling with an eating disorder has discovered that it really is not about the food. Food is only the presenting issue (or "surface/near" idol). Whereas deeper and more profound insecurities ("far/deep" idols) explain where the difficulties arise and where the true spiritual work must take place.

I think Pastor Keller has accomplished his goal very nicely and helps us a great deal with his little book. As I read, I found myself writing various pastoral "prescriptions" based upon the diagnoses I was now better equipped to make. In my mind, this is an important test of a book that travels in the region of sanctification; particularly as it addresses our need to put to death our idolatries and fan into increasing life the fruit of the Spirit. This book also provoked meditation upon my own personal struggles with false-loves and counterfeit loyalties. But of course, space limitations do not permit me to expand this point.

Although I take my purpose as a reviewer as more to exposit than analyze, I do have one observation, which I consider to be neither top tier nor trivial. Occasionally, readers will quarrel with the author about what he has garnered from the biblical text. "You are reading this into the text" you will say to yourself in a few places. I did scratch my head a time or two as I read Pastor Keller's interpretations. For example, I am not convinced that if God had not intervened by asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, then Abraham would have ended up loving his son more than anything else in the world (13). Nor was I persuaded that Jacob's life was empty and all the longings of his heart for meaning were fixed on Rachel, so that his behavior was that of an addict, seeking "apocalyptic sex" and the affirmation of a beautiful wife (27, 33, 40). At these few points I thought the narrative was being slightly stretched. As far as I can see, none of his findings are implausible, and certainly none pose any theological harm.

But a word of caution; having just preached through the Genesis narrative with a somewhat fine-toothed comb, I have frequently been astounded at the subtleties penned by Moses and inspired by the Spirit, which underline the point of the text. These clues offer us much if we will simply pay attention. Much of what Pastor Keller observes in the text may not be apparent to a casual reader, yet when the passage is studied with greater care his points will gain more credibility—even if they fail to convince. On the other hand, there are several helpful reflections, which the reader will deeply appreciate. One of these is how Keller explains the role of the servant girl in the household of leprous Naaman (89-90). I will not spoil your delight in reading it for yourself. And you should. This book offers helpful insights for shepherds in the church, and it will furnish them with deeper ways to think upon the needs of those whom they so earnestly serve and pray for in secret. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to church members. They will find it accessible and profitable as they seek to examine themselves in ever-increasing repentance and faith, so that they will love the true and living God with all their hearts.


[1] Os Guinness and John Seel, eds., No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 29-48.

A. Craig Troxel is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and serves on the Committee on Christian Education. Ordained Servant Online, May 2010.

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