by Timothy Keller
Counterfeit Gods is Timothy Keller’s response to the disappointment humans face when money, sex, achievement, and power don’t fully satisfy. In this text, Keller, author of The Reason for God and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, gives Christians a much-needed wake up call concerning contemporary forms of idolatry. Idolatry is not limited to bowing before statues or performing ritualistic chants; nor is idolatry a practice for ancient pagans alone. Keller defines an idol as “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give” (pp. xi), and discusses the ways in which finite entities can become the driving forces in our lives.
Most people would agree that allowing temporal things complete precedence over one’s life is wrong or at least unhealthy. In the Christian community, I can’t think of a single person who would say her or his life is built upon any being but God. But if we really believe there is one God in whom we should find fulfillment, why do so many of us feel as if we are desperately missing something? Keller seeks to answer this question, tackling some very complex subject matter in a short amount of space, which deprives the book of necessary depth. Therefore, Counterfeit Gods, although it offers strong devotional discussions especially on the idols of wealth and achievement, remains appropriate for those who hold similar hermeneutics to Keller and need little convincing of the truth in evangelical Christianity. Due in part to this brevity, I would not recommend this text to persons who do not already identify with the Christian faith; and even to those who do, I would, as with other instructional books, suggest reading critically.
To demonstrate God’s desire to replace our idols with Christ, Keller recounts the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. In Genesis, Abraham has a great deal going for him, then God commands that he and Sarah pack up and leave it all behind. And they do. But when the call comes to sacrifice Isaac, the child through whom a nation is promised, Abraham faces a difficult struggle. I cringe when writers employ this story of a parent asked to slay his son to teach about sacrifice. Loving and protecting one’s children is good. Keller writes insightfully that idols tend to be very good things: “The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that [an idol] can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes” (p. xvii). Thus, the point of this narrative is that there is hope beyond the people we love, the rituals we follow, and the things we possess: Jesus, the substitute. Because of a substitute, Isaac lives to see another day. And so can we.
Chapter Two, on the topic of love, is the portion most in need of expansion. Using the parables of Anna, a mother overly intent on her children’s success; Jacob’s obsession over Rachel; and Leah’s consuming need to bear offspring, Keller illustrates how human relationships can draw us away from hope and into despair. The longings we have to love and to be loved by another person are given by God, but they are longings only God can completely satisfy. Human love is an essential aspect of our lives, but it ought to not replace our love for God, or our receptiveness to God’s love. Throughout this chapter, definitions of love grow murky. For example, although the biblical narrative may state Jacob is “in love” with Rachel, it is obvious he also lusts after her, “loving” Rachel for her physical beauty before spending much time in her presence. It is not strictly love which drives Jacob, but sexual objectification as well. Keller, on the other hand, remarks how rare Jacob is for a man of his day because he marries for love. Clearer definitions and a deeper discourse on love would probably strengthen Keller’s argument.
Counterfeit Gods most convicting discussion for my life is found in the fourth chapter: “The Seduction of Success.” Without achievement and affirmation many people feel meaninglessness. Keller quotes numerous celebrities and writers, who, despite their apparent success, say something like, “My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre” (p. 72). Our society tells us to be the best we can be, at whatever we want. We are free to think beyond categories—to pursue our talents and desires rather than prescribed roles. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem lies in taking good things—personal choices and ambition—and expecting them to give us ultimate hope, through our own imperfect endeavors.
It is important to deconstruct social expectations, and to strive for excellence in whatever one does. But I know how draining over-achievement can be. I think, If I get accepted to one more conference, or published in another journal, that will cement my status in all the right places. But it gives a false sense of security, as Keller writes, because at the end of the week when everything has been turned in or crossed off, what is left? We scramble for the next task, never finished.
So, how do we get off the cycle of idolatry? First, we must honestly identify our idols. I heartily agree with Keller’s advice to examine our imaginations: “What occupies your mind when you have nothing else to think about?” (p.168). When we are aware of our counterfeit gods, we can replace them with the God who gives lasting hope. But what do we have to do to find that? Keller writes, “If you want God’s grace, all you need is need, all you need is nothing” (p. 88). Replacing our idols with the only hope that matters requires that we rest and find joy in the things of God—focusing our desires and aspirations towards God. Thanks to Keller’s wisdom, I think I’ll make some tea and allow my imagination to linger on God’s grace.