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The Sins of Jezebel movie posterHallo again to all.

Idolatry, like cannibalism, seems mostly to be something in which other tribes engage. Not us.

In his controversial but widely-read 1979 book The Man-Eating Myth, William Arens argued that for the most part, charging another people or culture with cannibalism was 'a consistent and demonstrable ideological and rhetorical device to establish perceived cultural superiority'*. If you are, for whatever reason, trying to denigrate and vilify an entire culture, claiming that its members are cannibals is a powerful tool.

We suspect that charges of idolatry are, for the most part, rather similar. Accusing someone of idolatry is certainly a forceful attack. Consider, for example, 1 Kings 21, whose author is explaining to us what a bad person is Ahab. Tales of Ahab's bad character build up to this final paragraph:

There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel.

The Bible has plenty of talk of idols, but always in the third person and always as condemnation. With the possible exception of the golden calf mentioned in Exodus, we don't recall seeing, ever, anywhere, a first-person statement 'I worship idols' or 'This idol is what I worship'.† But we've heard distressed third-party assertions more times than we can count: 'Those people aren't worshipping God, they're worshipping (insert noun here)'. Icons, crucifixes, candles, statues, portraits, corpora, altars, etc.

We are quite certain we are not idol worshippers. We're utterly clear that the object of our worship is the very God so clearly named and identified in the Nicene Creed. God in three persons; creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. Yet our church is chock-a-block with objects a hostile observer could sneer at and call idols. A Golden CalfWe enjoy their presence, and we suspect they help enable in us some sort of psychological jiujutsu by which we can more quickly shed the temporal world through which we had to travel to get to church. We understand that the church is not the building but the people, and a worship service can be held anywhere, but we don't think we would be able to focus on worship as successfully if we were on the asphalt in a petrol station and the priest was standing in front of the petrol pumps to lead us in worship. The smell of traces of fuel spilled on the ground would distract us in a way that the smell of incense floating in the air never does.

When we travel, whether for business or holiday, we always do our best to find and attend an Anglican service in that distant spot. The decor and style in those churches rarely matches our own (nor should it). Often as we are returning to our hotel on bus or train or Mephisto, we reflect on how the physical setting of the church helped or hindered our worship experience there.

Every person is different, of course, but we find we do best when we can push out of our minds every thought and context not directly part of the worship. (We were about to write 'not directly part of the liturgy' there, but quickly realized that some fraction of the Anglican churches we've attended in our travels are not at all liturgical). If anyone ever asks you to 'spend the next 30 seconds NOT thinking about zebras' you will realize how hard it is for humans to apply negative focus. The objects so often vilified as idols — the icons, crucifixes, candles, statues, portraits, corpora, altars, or etc. — seem to help us leave the irrelevant behind and put our entire being into the worship that is, after all, our reason for being there.

We can understand how a casual or cynical onlooker might think we were worshipping the objects and not the Lord God. But the onlooker would be very wrong.

See you next week.


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Last updated: 21 June 2009

*William Arens, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (New York : Oxford University Press, 1979).

†We have heard people in the workplace tell us that they worship the coffee maker, but we think their meaning of 'worship' was different.

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