Monday, March 15, 2010

Counterfeit Gods (A Book Review)

Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009), 210 pages

Idolatry is not just a failure to obey God, it is a setting of the whole heart on something beside God. (171)

Idolatry is prevalent in our world, our communities, our churches and our individual lives. As Keller points out over and over, idols are not necessarily bad things. In fact, they are seldom bad. They are generally good things (family, sex, money, success, and even religion), but when we look to them to “satisfy our deepest needs and hopes,” they fail us. They become a counterfeit god. (xvii, 103). I found this to be a powerful and challenging book. It was published following our recent financial melt-down, written by a pastor whose church on Manhattan draws many of the investment bankers that were at the forefront of the crisis.

Using Biblical stories as illustrations, Keller attempts to expose the idolatry of our lives. For idolatry of the family, he draws on the story of Abraham and how the old man pinned his hope for a legacy on Isaac, essentially making his son into an idol. For sex, he explores the story of Jacob’s courtship with Rachel and Leah. For money and greed, he looks at the call of Zacchaeus. For success, he looks at Naaman, the leper, who question Elijah’s method of healing. For success, he looks at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of clay feet. His examination of how “correct religion” can become an idol leads him into the story of Jonah. And finally, he looks at how we need to replace our idols with God by exploring Jacob’s wrestling.

There are two levels to our idolatry according to Keller. We all have surface idols that mask our deeper idols. These surface idols are mostly good things, but they become idols because we place our ultimate trust in them as we strive to satisfy our deeper longings for power, approval, comfort or control. (64) We can fight against the surface idols, but new ones will pop up unless we address our deeper needs, which can only be handled by replacing such idols with a total trust in God.

Keller confronts our worship of success. He even challenges how some place total trust in “the free market.” “The gods of moralistic religion,” he proposes,” favors the successful.” It could be argued that such folks are attempting to earn their salvation. But the God of the Bible comes down to earth to accomplish our salvation and give us grace. (44) Later in the book he writes that the “Biblical story of salvation assaults our worship of success at every point.” (94) He challenges Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism for “deifying” the invisible hand of the market which, “when given free reign, automatically drives behavior toward that which is most beneficial for society, apart from any God or moral code.” He ponders, in light of the financial crisis, if the same dissatisfaction that occurred with socialism a generation earlier might also occur with capitalism. (105-106)

Keller also challenges our political and philosophical ideals, especially those that we place above our faith in God. Straddling the political fence and refusing to place himself on the right or left, as a Republican or Democrat, he observes that a fallout of us making idols out of our philosophy/politics may be the reason why when on group loses and election there is often an extreme reaction.

“When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their polices and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admit how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created. (99)

The author closes with an Epilogue where he discusses the discerning and replacing our idols. To discern our idols, Keller suggests we contemplate where our imagination goes when we’re daydreaming, where we spend our money, or where we really place our hope and salvation instead of where we profess to place it, or where we find our uncontrolled emotions unleashed. (167-9) To handle our idols, we have to do more than repent, they have to be replaced with God. I found this last part of the book to be the weakest, with just a few pages of suggestions, drawing heavily from the opening of Colossians 3. He calls for us to rejoice and repent together and to practice the spiritual disciplines as a way to invite God to replace our idolatrous desires. His final comment is an admission that this is not a onetime program, but a lifelong quest for as soon as we think we’re got our idols removed, we’ll discover deeper places within our psyche to clean out.
This book has given me much to think about. We can all benefit from what he says about the difficult to discern our own greed (52) and on how we worship success and our political ideals. Only one did I get excited about a “theological error,” and I feel pretty certain it was more from carelessness in language than in what Keller actually believes. On page 162, Keller speaks of when our “Lord appeared as a man” on Calvary, which sounds to me a lot like the Docetism heresy. Docetism held that Jesus’ humanity was an illusion. However, Keller concludes the sentence saying that Jesus “because truly weak to save us,” which sounds as if Jesus’ humanity wasn’t just an illusion.
I recommend this book and am grateful to Mr. Keller and Dutton Publishing for providing extensive notes and a detailed bibliograhy.


  1. Sounds like an interesting read. I just read Dembski's book on intelligent design where he talks about science as idolotry. To me, Dembski and his crew have turned God into an idol. They've created a god in their own image and I find it pretty horrifying.

  2. I am so going to buy this.

    I once heard a pastor describe an idol as that thing which we choose in conflict to God's will for our lives.

    BTW, I think one of the most insidious forms of idolatry is among Christians who predicate their Christianity on a person, i.e. pastor, friend, Billy Graham or whomever, as opposed to Christ.
    Invariably, those who've succumbed to that find out their idols have feet of clay and they wind up tossing Christ out on the ash heap too.


  3. Charles, reminds me of one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes, "God created man in his own image, man returned the favor"

    Randall, I'll look forward to reading your review of it. I agree with you that the "personality cult" is alive and well in today's churches.

  4. Interesting analogies are drawn in this book.

    I love the Twain quote, and couldn't agree more on that!

  5. Great review, and it sounds engaging. Perhaps a bit more theology than I'd bargain for going in, but I'll check it out at the library.

    I appreciate Randall's comment too regarding idolatry- so very true.

  6. You weren't kidding...I may need this book to cleanse myself from that dirty post of mine! lol

  7. Charles, I was reading some of his notes yesterday--he does a wonderful job for those of us into footnotes--and he does talk about how the 19th atheists challenged the church on the idea they'd made God into an idol.

    Leni, That's one of my favorite Twain quotes

    Beau, it's not overly theological (blame that on my review, for bring up docetism)

    Ily, your post wasn't "that" dirty! But it is interesting how the two posts contrast :)

  8. Sounds good. Applicable to all man. This is what the modern world is all about. Thank you for sharing.