From the First Letter of John:
Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 John 5:21 (NRSV) – February 27, 2014.)
Last evening while driving home from the midweek Eucharist, I listened to a program on the local NPR station in which the host and a guest were discussing the internet coverage of news. One of the things mentioned was that the analytics on a British tabloid’s website had demonstrated that a story about Taylor Swift’s legs had garnered more “clicks” and more viewing time than a simultaneously run story about the world-wide affects of global climate change – something on the order of 400% more! The discussion continued with similar examples of stories about Kim Kardashian and her “rear end,” Justin Bieber’s legal problems, and more.
In the course of their conversation, the guest said, “Our idols are a distraction.” Encountering John’s final admonition in his first letter this morning, it occurs to me how “spot on” that comment is theologically. Although some may regard idols as evil, following the thought attributed to Solomon that “the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil” (Wisd. 14:27), a more accurate description of an idol is that given by the Prophet Jeremiah: “Idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good.” (Jer. 10:5) What they can do, however, is distract us and that distraction can be harmful.
This is the point made by Paul in the eighth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth in which he discusses the eating of food which has been offered to idols. He starts with the premise that idols are powerless: “we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists'” (v. 4) so there is no real harm in eating such food. But, he says, there are “weak” members of the community who “have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (v. 7) If these less mature members see others eating food sacrificed to an idol and join in, they might because of their “weak consciences” be destroyed. (v. 11) The distraction of idols can be destructive.
And we have many idols to distract us. Taylor Swift and her legs, Kim Kardashian and her derriere, and Justin Bieber and his immature behavior might be obvious entertainment “idols,” but there are other less apparent distractions — sex, money, political power, career, sports, video games, pornography — we could compile a list of hundreds if not thousands of modern idols. “The human heart,” as John Calvin observed, “is a factory of idols.” These idols are distracting and deceptive. They deceive us so that we become preoccupied with them, our attention diverted away from more important pursuits.
From what do they distract us? From the two great commandments: Love of God and love of neighbor. They divert our attention and our energies away from the relationships that truly sustain us. Idols are not evil, but they are distracting. The distraction, as Paul warned, can be destructive. Following the two great commandments, we can gain uncommon blessings. We can find true happiness and achieve inner peace, but we have to be willing to avoid distractions, to keep ourselves from idols.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.