Idolatry makes a comeback – or not
It’s not often that idolatry becomes a national news outlet topic, but recently it did. It seems that St Austell has got itself a massive sculpture to commemorate its clay mining heritage. It has attracted comment about both its appearance and its name: “Earth Goddess”. Some of the earliest criticisms of the sculpture seem to be aesthetic rather than religious, prompting the question in my mind of whether some local Christians are being triggered deliberately to keep the issue simmering.
Idolatry and proclamation
I’d ask us to reflect on Paul’s response to idolatry at the Areopagus. There’s no doubt from his writings, that Paul is not a fan of idolatry -like most Jewish people then and now. Yet at the Areopagus (notice that this is an idolatrous name – Ares, god of warfare, is referenced) Paul is shown carefully and quietly looking around and taking time to see what’s really going on to find a way in that doesn’t begin with confrontation and rerunning the, no doubt, tired old expected denunciations of idolatry by Jewish teachers (remember Christians were a Jewish sect at this point). If a contemporary news reporter was there, that’s the story template they’d have in mind: “Jewish preacher denounces idols, local anger stoked”. I enjoy the way that Paul takes time not to fulfil that story-line.
Maybe the analysis of the situation which seems implicit in the response of those churches could do with being questioned and updated. I’m aware that in English idioms, we often find phrases like “domestic goddess” which has no real implication of idolatry. Breakfast television exercise leader Diana Moran back in the 1980s was nicknamed “the Green Goddess” but I don’t think anyone took that to mean it was a call to worship her. Military fire engines were once also nicknamed ‘green goddesses’ and similarly, no-one though this meant they should receive votive offerings. So we have plenty of example of a use of “goddess” in a non-religious way. Perhaps it would be wise to note that this is likely to be the same sort of usage. Speaking the truth in love is all very well, but first are we speaking truth? If people aren’t actually really idolising this statue, then is it really idolatry? What about the practical, day-by-day service that is being given to Acquisition in this country? And then are we really speaking in love? Because what seems to be coming over is rather hectoring and disrespectful.
Idolatry and gospel
The response to idolatry is, surely, to offer something better; re-purpose its drivers; to celebrate true, good and beautiful things or offer something liberating and joyful to displace it; invite people to Life in all its fullness. In the response to the St Austell statue, I wonder whether good news would be to celebrate the good intents for the common good the statue seems intended to represent and inspire and to seek for the hidden pointers to God in Christ: to enlist the “goddess” as a witness to the true God as Paul enlisted the Unknown God in the Areopagus.
But there’s also the more “technical” considerations of idolatry in relation to what is culturally going on. Idolatry is to worship something other than the true God or to give to something other than God what rightly belongs to God. We should recall that “worship” isn’t merely a circumscribed religious activity. If we take Romans 12:1-2 as any indicator, then worship is actually a life of service to God. Idolatry, then, is a life of service to other than God. It’s not merely – or even mainly – a performance of largely irrelevant honour to a picture or statue.
If people are investing themselves in love, and in the pursuit of Truth and Beauty, then a long line of theological thinking would say that they are, in effect, “not far from the Kingdom of God“. Our mission is to draw alongside such people, listen well and begin to help them to narrow the gap so that “not far from the Kingdom” morphs into “seeking first the Kingdom…”
Mission for Green Christians
For Green Christians, I think that this looks like being full and valuable members of environmentally concerned groups, investing our time and efforts in understanding the love, truth and beauty they are seeking, and finding ways to speak about how those things connect us to God in our own lives. We don’t need to be pushy or denunciatory: the aroma of Christ will be unstoppered as we serve, and the Spirit is at work drawing people to God. In this way we tie together at least 3 of the 5 marks of mission – creation care, serving others, and proclaiming Christ.
This blog post is expanded upon at Andii’s own blog here.
Andii Bowsher is the Anglican Attache to Northumbria University and a Trustee of Green Christian
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