Dispatch from the Age of Idolatry

Photo by Cezar Sampaio on Unsplash

We live in the Age of Idolatry. If you want the bill of particulars, I’ve got it, but it does no good to rehearse the many ways that we have discovered gods who are not God since few of us will own up to such heresy. Idolators are always the other guys. And if I cite one from the left column and one from the right column, politically speaking, then we’re just wandering in the “both-and” land.

So what am I talking about?

Idolatry in our day is not about golden calves and graven images. It’s about the many ways we substitute a framework of reality centered on the work of the Delivering God with so many lesser frames. In particular, and most obviously, it’s about politics.

If I can scooch up on a higher perch for just an instant, I’ll point out that from this height it’s not about one group having ‘bad’ politics and the other ‘good.’ It’s about both (all) groups not being on the right playing field at all.

I’ve been thinking about our current reality as I have been going back to Paul’s letter to the Romans. I am tackling the letter as a translation project following a test run with Colossians earlier this year. Every theologian from Augustine to Barth seems to have cut their teeth by gnawing on Romans, many merely finding a mirror along the way. But it’s an intriguing glimpse into Paul’s thinking and keeps drawing new generations.

One companion I have had in this journey is the Baylor biblical scholar, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, who published a book in 2016 titled When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul. The title hints at Gaventa’s view that Romans is far more than a simple letter of guidance to a struggling church. There is something comprehensive here, a grand vision that tells us the basic story of Jesus Christ.

Of course, Gaventa has seen how churches and preachers have abused Romans through the years. She laments that “we are seldom in Romans for very long. At most, we make weekend visits.” (2) We select pieces that concur with our own agendas, read Romans 8:31-39 at funerals (“neither death nor life nor angels…can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”), and read Romans 12:3-8 when we install church officers (“many gifts, one body”).

It is as if we ride through Romans on one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses, seeing the same highlights every time we travel around the circuit. We never notice that we are in a vast metropolitan area. And that metropolitan area is larger, more astonishing, and more disturbing than we imagine. In my judgment, that metropolis—large and wild and unsettling—is vital for the life of the church. (3)

So what’s it like to spend time in the back streets and ‘burbs of Romans? In four sterling essays, Gaventa tackles salvation, Israel, ethics, and church as they appear in the letter. 

Beverly Roberts Gaventa

The first of these chapters places all discussion of salvation within Paul’s larger understanding of a cosmic conflict between God and the powers of Sin and Death. While the opening chapters of the letter are sometimes read (piecemeal) as a litany of particular sins good Christians should avoid, they are actually an indictment culminating in 3:10 with the conclusion that “there is none righteous, no, not one.” Jews and Gentiles alike are caught up in a drama that has been going on long before any one or group of them showed up with their besetting transgressions. And the solution to their situation is not to deliver themselves through right belief and better behavior but to understand that God’s powerful work in Jesus delivers them from big-S Sin.

In the second chapter Gaventa extends the argument by helping us see something that’s already apparent in Paul’s thinking about salvation. Turning to the question of Israel in Romans chapters 4 and 9-11, Gaventa notes that interpreters through the centuries have often been preoccupied by the question of Israel’s fate. For Paul, she says, it’s not primarily about Israel’s belief or obedience at all, but about God. And if we’ve established that there is one God, and that that God is God of all people, then we can’t count anyone out because God’s intention is to redeem ‘all.’

The later chapters and conclusion are equally provocative, but I want to return to the problem of idolatry. When I despair over the way politics has eaten whole the rest of society and other ways of knowing…when I lament that what is left is such a thin world in which frivolous things get outsized attention and headlines…when it seems that despite all the bells and whistles, history really is collapsing in on itself…there is still a rich reservoir of faith in the “strange, new world of the Bible.”

That’s a quote from Karl Barth, who used it in a 1917 address. His closing words are appropriate today, seen in the refracted light of Paul’s master work:

We live in a sick old world which cries from its soul, out of deepest need: Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed! In all [people], whoever and wherever and whatever and however they may be, there is a longing for exactly this which is here within the Bible. We all know that. And now hear: “A certain man made a great supper, and bade many; and sent his servant at supper-time to say to them that were bidden, Come, for all things are now ready! …”

–Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, edited and translated by Douglas Horton (Pilgrim Press, 1928), pp. 28-50.

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