I’m reading through N.T. Wright’s enlightening book Paul and The Faithfulness of God (PTFG) and it has really opened my eyes to the worldview of Paul. One of the things that is so fascinating is the ancient world’s saturation with the gods. We often think about God and religion as a small thing that people do, or some aspect of our culture. However, in the ancient world the gods were in everything. Religion and worship wasn’t something for Sunday for a subset of the culture, it was in the very DNA of public and private life. This leads Wright to make a statement like this in regards to the work and ministry of Paul:
When Paul arrived in Ephesus, Philippi or anywhere else with his message about the one God and his crucified and risen son, he was not offering an alternative way of being ‘religious’ in the sense of a private hobby, something to do in a few hours at the weekend. He was offering a heart transplant for an entire community and its culture. (PTFG, 255)
This is a fascinating statement. When Paul planted a house church and the locals came to faith in Christ, it was a 180 degree turn from the world around them and all they had known. When one became a Christian in one of these ancient cities, it was obvious as they travelled around their town and saw the temples and statues of the gods who was competing for their allegiance. How would they navigate their culture in light of their newfound faith in Christ?
So I think about this in light of the world we live in today. We don’t walk around town and see statues of gods and see temples that the culture says we should worship. We don’t have gods that the world believes bring about prosperity, health, fertility, etc…or do we?
The deal is, it seems obvious what the idols were in the first century. The danger was in navigating this gods-saturated culture. The danger for us today is much more subtle. While we may not have obvious temples and gods it seems to me we have plenty of idols competing for our attention.
How about the god of government and nationalism? I’m not saying a Christian can’t be or shouldn’t be involved in politics, but how quickly do our politics become our religion, or our god?
Or how about the god of money, self-image, idealism…you name it.
Or here is a dangerous one; the god of sound doctrine and right thinking. How quickly do we replace the God we were aiming to love, serve, and honor with our understanding of him and how we think others are supposed to think and agree with us?
It seems that we can sometimes go out as Christians inviting people to follow Christ, but so often we are just asking people to tack him on to a part of their life and then tell them their life will get better because of it (their life does get better, but not in the way many think). But here’s the deal, many of us, including myself are guilty of seeing our faith in that same way. Rather than it being something that effects every part of us, all the way down to the core of who we are, it becomes a cultural add on. Maybe if Paul walked into our communities today, he’d be offering us a heart transplant as well.
Wooden statues and temples built to the gods are pretty obvious for us 21st century Christians to avoid. However, those subtle idols find a way of making us prostrate ourselves before them without us even knowing it.