“Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols.” So said a Genevan man 450 years ago, give or take. This side of Genesis 3, Calvin’s assessment rings true of my own heart. Despite the fact that this reluctant reformer was referring chiefly to the hearts of unbelievers, many Christians can sympathize with the sentiment. Most of us need not even look too deep into our own hearts to uncover the truth of this statement.
The biblical definition of idolatry probably goes something like this: "Rendering worship or undue worth to, or finding one’s identity in, anything that is not the Triune God of the Bible.” Some of us might quibble over semantics, but this short piece seems at least to get to the heart of the matter. If it’s not God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—don’t worship it. If it’s a created thing, remember that moth and rust destroy it. This principle is easy to keep in mind on a large scale. American evangelicals by and large (myself included) typically find it very easy to gaze upon secular Western culture and locate the Unholy Triumvirate—Money, Sex, and Power—as the idols of our age.
These idols take up much of our spiritual attention, and rightfully so to an extent. Insofar as we concentrate solely on Money, Sex, and Power, that Triumviral Demiurge of polite society, perhaps we miss making note of the little golden calves running around within the landscapes of our lives. Of course, every here and then little things come along which direct our gaze toward those little golden calves.
AJR’s Netflix Trip, off their newish album “The Click,” is one of those things for me. The song is a respectably raw account of how we humans often latch ourselves onto things we relate to especially well at especially poignant times in our lives. For AJR, that thing seems to be The Office. In one of the more piercing stanzas, this group of brothers writes thus:
Now the finale's done and I'm alone
I'm on a Netflix Trip here on my phone
But who I am is in these episodes
So don't you tell me that it's just a show
The words, “But who I am is in these episodes / So don’t you tell me that it’s just a show,” are especially moving ones because most of us can relate to them. It doesn’t take much for us to remember seasons of life in which we found our worth or identity in created things. Remember? Money, Sex, and Power? Or maybe TV shows or musical artists or movies?
“Who I am is in these episodes.” Those words ring in a key so frightening because they make such an errant claim about human flourishing. What they say to us is, “Attach yourself to this or that thing, for that is how you will find yourself. Identify yourself by X or Y hobby, that’s where you will find your worth.” Both of these statements, and many like them, amount to, “Worship the created, and you will find lasting joy.”
But this is so obviously wrong. Such an assertion doesn’t have reason in its corner, for the created inevitably passes away, nor does it boast the support of human experience, for even when we think we’ve found lasting happiness in The Office, we continue to look for the next riveting show or groundbreaking film or landmark book. Of course, none of these are idolatrous in themselves. But when they are made the ground of someone’s identity, when they are worshiped, humans cannot flourish.
Why is this? Why is it that we’re always looking for the next promotion, the next pay raise, or the next partner? Calvin, that wiley old pastor from the beginning of this post, says it’s because everyone has a sense of, or longing for, God, or a sensus divinitatis. However, due to our sin, we’re always looking for something else, something created, to place in that most ultimate of places. It never works, though. It never has, and it never will, and that’s because (to use a crass metaphor) when we look to created things to fill the Triune-God-sized hole in our hearts, the only things which result are pain, brokenness, and further separation from the only Lord who can fill such a void. Indeed, human flourishing and the worship of the Triune God, to the exclusion of all created things, go hand in hand. One cannot be had without the other.