Book Review: Counterfeit Gods, by Tim Keller, Reviewed by Nathan Pitchford
When Wall Street began its painful crash in the Fall of 2008, a great deal of ill-placed global confidence was uncovered. Why did the Great Recession impact so many people negatively, what should we do in the aftermath, and how can we avoid being so let down as a nation and a culture again? In his latest book, Counterfeit Gods, Timothy Keller offers some real answers, not just for those tragically failed by the economic system, but for those let down and abandoned by any false hope or confidence whatsoever. Could it be that we are all guilty of trusting the wrong things for joy and security in life, and that our mask of idolatry was painfully ripped off when things turned bad? In a very insightful examination of our cultural â€œgodsâ€ the things we look to for meaning and success, Keller diagnoses our true underlying problems, which go far beneath the panic we felt when the stock market crashed, and gives hope for a true and lasting solution. A must-read for America today!
If you ask the average American on the streets if we are a nation given to idols, the obvious answer would be, â€œNo!â€. Idolatry was commonplace in the pagan Greek and Roman cultures, but may scarcely be found in these more enlightened times. But what if there really are counterfeit gods all around us, only the kind not made of stone or metal? â€œIn Ezekiel 14:3,â€ Keller reminds us, â€œGod says about elders of Israel, 'these men have set up idols in their hearts.' Like us, the elders must have responded to the charge, 'Idols? What idols? I don't see any idols?' God was saying that the human heart takes good things like career, love, and material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the integrating centers of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and complete fulfillment, if we attain themâ€. If this really is the definition of idolatry, then perhaps it is not so foreign as we think. And perhaps we are not just given over to, but being destroyed by idols. If we look for â€œsafety and complete fulfillmentâ€ in things that can never finally provide that, then are we not doomed to despair? Are there not a great many more Wall Street experiences in store for us?
What exactly, in this culture, are the counterfeit gods that control us and let us down? How about romantic love, Hollywood style? If I can just find my one, true love, so many people think, my â€œsoul mate,â€ surely I will be happy and fulfilled forever! But then that perfect person never comes, or worse yet, he or she comes and it only takes a little while to discover all the flaws and imperfections, and crushing disappointment sets in. Well, if happiness cannot be found in love, perhaps it may be in financial security â€“ success and prominence â€“ power and prestige â€“ national glory, the success of capitalism, the triumph of my political party in Washington.... We labor for these things and more, thinking, if only I can accomplish this, secure this for myself, I will be happy and safe. But these counterfeit gods will surely let us down.
Keller has a way of really getting beneath our outward actions, and even beneath our surface motivations, and showing the deepest needs and longings we are acting upon in our lives, longings perhaps hidden even to ourselves. More than once throughout the book I found myself unsettled by the sudden realization that he is right â€“ I really do act that way because of a deep seated and unspoken desire for something I do not like to admit or even know about. I save money frugally and this person spends it irresponsibly because I'm wiser and less greedy, right? Or perhaps, just as that person spends all his money on his counterfeit god of needing to be noticed and appreciated, I â€œspendâ€ all my money on my own god of needing to feel secure and in control of my future. I'm really the same as he is. Ouch. Or how about this painfully perceptive insight: â€œWhen people say: 'I know God forgives me, but I can't forgive myself' they mean that they have failed an idol, whose approval is more important to them than God'sâ€. True, but how uncomfortable!
But this unmasking, as painful as it may be, is not the point of the book. The point of the book is this â€“ all those longings you have, of which you look for fulfillment to your counterfeit gods, really can be fulfilled and satisfied, by the one God who is not counterfeit. Take the false god of finding eternal happiness in romantic love, for instance â€“ how do we get beyond this false god, for one thing, and find that desire which motivates us to look to it, for another? Keller explains: â€œAnd here is the power to overcome our idolatries. There are many people in the world who have not found a romantic partner, and they need to hear Jesus say, 'I am the true Bridegroom. There is only one set of arms that will give you all your heart's desire, and await you at the end of time, if only you turn to me. And know that I love you now.' However, it is not just those without spouses who need to see that God is our ultimate spouse, but those with spouses as well. They need this in order to save their marriage from the crushing weight of their divine expectations. If you marry someone expecting them to be like a god, it is only inevitable that they will disappoint you. It's not that you should try to love your spouse less, but rather that you should know and love God more. We must see all that he isâ€. Dead ringer.
What about the counterfeit god of money? Does the same cure work for that, too? Yes! â€œJesus gave up all his treasure in heaven, in order to make you his treasure â€“ for you are a treasured people (1 Peter 2:9-10). When you see him dying to make you his treasure, that will make him yours. Money will cease to be the currency of your significance and security, and you will want to bless others with what you have. To the degree that you grasp the gospel, money will have no dominion over youâ€ (p. 110). And so I could continue, with other quotes pertaining to other idols, were it not for lack of space.
Overall, this is a truly perceptive book, that is not just vastly applicational to our time and culture, but applicational in the most important things. I may have had some minor reservations about a stray phrase here and there (e.g. Keller's comment that the Christological implication of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac was "something that Abraham could not see, or at least not see very well in his time" â€“ but what about Jn. 8:56 and Heb. 11:17-19? Or later, his assertion that the command to â€œRejoice in the Lord alwaysâ€ (Phil. 4:4) â€œcannot mean, 'Always feel happy', since no one can command someone to always have a particular emotion" â€“ but the truth is that God commands many things beyond our moral ability, which has been damaged by the Fall). But in the real meat of the book, he has displayed some amazing acuity in uncovering our â€œcounterfeit godsâ€ and that matters tremendously. Because the idols that we follow are not genies we control to get what we want, they are tyrants that control us and then destroy and forsake us. â€œIdols control us, since we feel we must have them or life is meaninglessâ€. So instead of looking to those tyrannical traitors for what we want, we need to look for satisfaction in the God who really does reign, but is not a tyrant. How? â€œWe have to know, to be assured, that God so loves, cherishes, and delights in us that we can rest our hearts in him for our significance and security and handle anything that happens in lifeâ€ â€“ and we really can come to that assurance, but only if â€œwe look at his sacrifice on the cross, and say to God, 'Now we know that you love us. For you did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love, from us'â€.
Counterfeit Gods, by Tim Keller, Now Available at Monergism Books