“Here Are Your Gods:” Faithful Discipleship in Idolatrous Times
Wright, Christopher J. H. “Here Are Your Gods:” Faithful Discipleship in Idolatrous Times. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. viii + 167 pp. Paperback, $18.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-5335-9.
Christopher J. H. Wright is international ministries director for Langham Partnership. On the first page and at the first sentence after his Table of Contents, Chris writes, “All royalties from this book have been irrevocably assigned to Langham Literature, which is one of three international programs of Langham Partnership.” This may be the only “Christian” or “Biblical Studies” book I have ever reviewed that makes this generous claim up front. The preface recognizes major political events which one may anticipate will play a role in the following chapters, i.e., the UK vote favoring Brexit and the 4-year administration of President Trump in the U.S.
Part One considers monotheism and its relation to mission. The one, true God wills to be known and worshipped throughout his creation. This first chapter recalls the understanding of the history of Israel in the academy as proceeding from an original polytheism through henotheism and finally arriving at monotheism. Of course, this is not the only historical interpretation, one that sees Israelite faith as “indistinguishable from Canaanite religion” (p. 4). My own book, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey (Baker, 2007), argues for one deity as well as a pluralism of deities providing two interpretations that both stretched back to the beginning of Israel’s history in the land of Canaan. Wright chooses not to address this alternative, preferring to fit his interpretations into polytheism and henotheism as being the original faith(s) in Israel. The presentation of God as alone sovereign is bolstered only by New Testament writers (e.g., Richard Bauckham) with no discussion of Old Testament scholars who take this view.
Chapter 2 instructs readers in how to identify the idols and gods of the ancient Near East as: objects in creation (Job 31:26-28), demons (Zech. 3:1-2p. Deut. 32:16-17; Psa. 106:35-38), or the product of human hands (2 Kgs. 19:17-19; Hos. 8:4, 6; 13:2; Jer. 10: 3-5, 9, 14; Isa. 40: 18-20; 44:9-20; p. 11). Where Wright does properly veer away from John Barton and other traditional critics is in his view that Isaiah and other prophets did clearly understand what the gods of Babylon claimed to be and what they actually were. The gods need defending and are incapable of providing any salvation. For Wright, the “old gods” are now manifest in abstractions such as patriotism, free market, economic growth, and national security (pp. 22-23). While this much is a true and an ongoing danger, it is a shame that Wright nowhere addressed communist socialism, economic chaos, and capitulation to atheist powers (e.g., Communist China) as problematic. Is the worship of these gods not as significant? Yet, many of us see them on display every day in our culture of death that encompasses so much of the world. Wright hearkens back to the “For God and Ulster” slogans that he notes were part of Christian identity in N. Ireland and more recently in America. His observations of the error and sin that glorifying “a nation’s god usually meant praising the nation’s military might” (p. 26) ignores the important contribution Ted Lewis for whom the early biblical pictures of Yahweh’s holiness uses primarily martial imagery alongside pictures of power, thunder, and lethality (Theodore J. Lewis, The Origin and Character of God [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020], pp. 575-694). This is not to suggest that God supports every military interest of his people, much less self-divination (Ezek. 28:2, 9), but it is to challenge the assumption that God’s people can never play a role in the military interests of the divine.
For Wright, our attraction to the gods has always been one of splendor, majesty, strength, and glory. Thus, athletes, soldiers, rock stars and movie celebrities are the images of such deities. But one might add here those politicians and very wealthy individuals that share the political views of the readers (p. 36). Indeed, the terrorists and viral pandemic (as well as the promoters of this pandemic and its “cures”) become modern images of these figures (p. 38). Wright’s attempt to identify the gods of Canaan with rain, sun, soil, and sex (p. 40) is a good one but needs to be broadened across all political agendas. If idols deprive God of his glory (Psa. 96:5-9), distort his image in us to our detriment (Isa. 44:12-13), and disappoint us (2 Kgs. 18:32-35; Jer. 2:11-13), then where is the role for mission? Focusing on Rom. 1:18-32, where it is rebellion and then on subsequent events in the book of Acts, where it is a matter of ignorance, Wright demonstrates the presence of idolatry and that the “manmade gods are not gods at all” (p. 55). After reviewing examples of the eating of meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 8-10) and its parallel in India’s culture, and of gambling in other modern contexts, Wright concludes that we need to understand the variety of ways in which people make gods for themselves and to be discerning to the different contexts in which idolatry appears.
As Creator, God has given Israel its land and has given other nations their lands; although it might be more accurate to say he has lent it to Israel and to all other nations. He is sovereign over history and the fate of all nations. From Amos 1:1-2:8, it is clear that as God judges foreign nations so he will judge Israel (and more strictly). On p. 77, we are told that pre-Renaissance Western Europe was the poorest continent and that the Ottomans in the Middle East, the Ming dynasty in China, Aztecs and Incas in the Americans, and the Ashanti in Africa were far more “advanced.” We are not told what “far more advanced” means. Does this include the massive castration of African slaves (with torture and high mortality) by the Ottomans, the torture and murder of hundreds of concubines by Ming emperors to save face, the tearing out of the hearts of live human prisoners by the Aztecs, and the human (including child?) sacrifice among the Incas? The Ashanti nation was not pre-Renaissance, coming into existence after 1700. Wright may be a prophet in suggesting that China may become a dominant world power in the 21st century. However, at the time of this writing he seems less prophetic in describing how Chinese Christians will change the cultural and political stance of that nation and of the world (p. 78), however much they may wish to do so. One can only pray. Wright is certainly correct in describing the shedding of innocent blood, but fails to mention the estimated sixty million murdered by Communist China in the twentieth century and perhaps another forty million by the Soviet Union. “The culture of death” that took place in the twentieth century and the one that we now live in is overlooked in favor of the condemnation of “nationalism,” “sexual confusion,” “family breakdown,” and “the war on truth.” Much that is said here needs to be heard but it seems that the acceleration of this culture of death in recent years deserves more consideration as idolatrous than even what preceded.
In ch. 6, “God in the Political Arena,” Wright reviews biblical standards required in public life. Looking at the standards of the king given in Deut. 17:14-20, he observes that “We are ruled by millionaires and billionaires” (p. 89), a statement made all the more true in light of recent revelations concerning the manner in which such individuals invested in the 2020 American election to sway it in their direction. Wright likewise considers the important text of 1 Sam. 12:1-5 where the prophet Samuel denies profiting from leadership or betraying the trust of the people. There are few leaders (although there are a few) today who have not taken their salary and more while in office. God requires his leaders and all his servants to administer justice and help the weak and powerless (Prov. 31:1-9). Citing these texts and others we read how we need to defend the poor and needy. This is usually where many are tempted to go astray. It is even more so now when “the defense of the poor and needy” is often broadcast by interested media and politicians to justify and hide what amounts to the opposite – enriching themselves and their friends at the expense of those less well off, and tolerating the theft and destruction of private property. Perhaps this is why Exod. 23:3 is included in the Covenant Code, the most foundational legal collection of the Old Testament: “do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit” (NIV). Preferential treatment in either direction is condemned as unjust.
Wright is certainly correct in the manner in which many Israelites saw Yahweh as their national God and also worshipped the local Baal(s) for “health and wealth” (cf. the biblical and archaeological evidence summarized in R. Hess, Israelite Religions, pp. 330-32). Jeroboam I who split the Northern Kingdom of Israel away from Judah and took away worship at the Jerusalem temple “blatantly used the name and symbols of the God of Israel to bless and glorify the state” (p. 98). Wright finds patriotism possible but not as part of a worship service. For him “the gun is surely in the Olympian superleague of American gods” (p. 100). There is a lot of truth to this although not everyone would agree that the solution is to disarm citizens, if it means leaving the same weaponry available to criminals. For those who struggle with issues of identity in Christ, the blanket condemnation of the exhortation to “Believe in yourself” as narcissism and megalomania might seem premature (p. 101), and leave one questioning whether self-loathing is preferable and will address the terrible increase in suicide among young people. Again, we find Wright denouncing Brazil and the Philippines for dictatorships, but making no mention of Venezuela. The chapter ends with Wright’s quote (actually a rather loose paraphrase that he admits in the endnotes) from Calvin – when God puts a nation under judgment, he gives it wicked leaders. This certainly happens sometimes.
Chapter 7 finds Wright rejecting the Bible as a book of mainly rules, promises, or doctrines in favor of his great sweep of the narrative story of the text. He wants us to ask ourselves how we can apply our lives to the “great story of the Bible” (p. 115). It is encouraging to see the emphasis on personal Bible reading, public biblical preaching, and Christ’s promised presence. The only note I would add is the reality of God’s Holy Spirit as giving life to the Christian and the ability to accomplish what is impossible in our own strength. Pages 117-20 provide a useful summary of Wright’s five marks of mission: building the church through evangelism and teaching, serving society through compassion and justice, and stewarding creation through the godly use of resources. Like Jeremiah, the apostle Paul would encourage Christians to be good citizens wherever they find themselves. Wright reviews Constantine’s rise and the “Christianization” of the Roman empire which led to corruption and complicity. There is much truth here. Still, I am reminded of many Christians who did sacrifice all at that time and later for the sake of Christ and his kingdom. Picture the scene at the Council of Nicaea and how many of the representatives there (in the relatively new Constantinian order of things) bore on their own bodies the marks of the persecution of Diocletian. It would be good to hear from those Christian leaders and pastors which type of society they preferred in order to promote the gospel. Wright concludes the chapter by emphasizing the social and economic evils of society and their condemnation by the Bible.
The final chapter opens with a rehearsal of the sins Wright identifies among political leaders, which have not changed in the years since his book was written. He turns to call Christians to both “penetrate society” and to “retain our distinctiveness within society” (p. 137). He calls us to pray the Lord’s prayer. Begin with, Our Father in Heaven, to recognize the supreme authority of God above all governments. Yet even here it might be good to balance this with the point made by Andreas Schüle, when discussing the prophecied use of “our Father” in the Old Testament appearing only in Isa. 63:17 and 64:7: “Israel finally doing what it had failed to do before – supported by the hope that God would still be willing to accept the role of father” (p. 136); “Isaiah 56-66,” pp. 128-41 in The Oxford Handbook of Isaiah, ed. Lena Sofia-Tiemeyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020). There is an intimacy in this term as well as a regard for authority. Pray for the values of the kingdom to come and pray for all those in authority. This last point Wright explains as: “I see no contradiction in both praying for our rulers and yet also praying against them” (p. 143). Wright closes the chapter with a wonderful quote from George F. Macleod about how Christ was crucified “on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage-heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek… at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because there is where churchmen should be…” (p. 146).
Wright concludes his book taking his lead from a message from Charlie Cleverley, about moving from lament, to love, and then to hope. It is a good way to conclude this thought provoking work. I commend “Here Are Your Gods” to all who wish to begin to engage seriously in the difficult work of acting prophetically and yet responsibly in the world we live in.
Richard S. Hess, PhD
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages