Friday, October 15, 2010


We have got used to footballers making the sign of the cross when they join the pitch. Since players on both sides do it, how does God choose which side wins? Lately I have seen the referees doing it. Is he praying for a tie?

When does religion become ritual?

We have been thinking about the Ten Commandments. In my Bible the second Commandment says "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below." This is the typical Protestant view, but the Roman Catholic tradition and some Lutheran churches conflate verses 2-6 of Exodus chapter 20 into a single Commandment and to split the Tenth Commandment into number nine about coveting your neighbor's wife and number ten about coveting everything else he owns. This idea comes from St Augustine and presumably reflects the Jewish opinion in the synagogues during the fifth century AD.

On the other hand the whole history of images has been a fluid one. When several years ago I journeyed to Capodocia on a lecture tour I was fascinated by the underground churches built in the sandstone 'chimneys' there. There was evidence of successive paintings of saintly images there followed by their destruction by iconoclasts. In England it is usual these days for TV programs to decry the destruction of medieval statuary from parish churches under Cromwell.

In defence of imagery is the fact that at a time of illiteracy, pictures are an effective way of getting the message of the Gospel across. Few would condemn the use of the 'Jesus' film in cross cultural evangelism and even Mel Gibson's quasi-horror film has its place. On the other hand to see the toes of statues of the Virgin kissed shiny in some Catholic countries smacks to me of the worst type of superstition.

Some lawyers have taken refuge in the King James Bible which states "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" taking its meaning as images are OK as long as they are not 'graven' images, but that is mere sophistry.

The whole question of idolatry is about putting something in front of God in our estimation: just as it says in Exodus 20:2. Protestants can be as guilty of this just as much as Catholics. My wife tells me that the first time she flew on an aeroplane the person sitting next to her took out a rosary and squeezed it intently as the plane took off; on the other hand my Pastor told me a tale of a man sitting across the aisle who took out his Bible as the plane drew along the runway. He was expecting a Scriptural conversation, but as the plane took off the man held the Bible aloft until the plane was safely in the air and then put it away again.

Things to do with religion can easily be the substitute for the real thing.

No-one has household gods in the Western world, but plenty of us have things that we put before God: house, family, career, our appearance, sports starts or Thespians, musicians or politicians.

One of the things I do as I am writing is to play through my Classical Music CDs. Apart from the first rank composers - Bach, Beethoven, Mozart etc I have a carousel that contains the second rank composers - Dvorak, Elgar, Sibelius, Cesar Franck and the rest They are arranged alphabetically and I have just reached Handel. Generations of English people have regarded Handel's Messiah as a religious event. Of course, the music is wonderful and the subject is Biblical, but we delight in the performance that gives us an emotional high. I similarly delight in Bach's Lutheran music and in Palestrina and Mozart's Requiem and in Orthodox plainsong performed by a Bulgarian choir. But if I put all these before God, they are idols.

At my funeral I want them to sing "I know whom I have believed and am persuaded - made popular by the Billy Graham rallies. I like that music. But if I put it before God, it is an idol. Many young people go to services with an hour of modern music and a ten minute sermonette. It is their metier; it wouldn't be mine. But if they put it before God, it is an idol.

In Jonah 2:8 when he is in the belly of the great fish, he sings, "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs" Another version has it as "They who observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy." Whether it was his own disobedience to God or his reliance on his being a Hebrew that was the lying vanity that Jonah was referring too, it was time for Jonah to get real with God.

I am convinced that tokenism is the great besetting sin of the Western church, whether Catholic or Protestant. In a recent survey 71% of British people claimed to be Christians. But in what sense. I think for most this would be a cultural answer to a question; most would not be able to define their beliefs nor would they be able to point to a relationship with the Lord Jesus. They would be scared off if one were suggested. Even among churchgoers - let's be generous, say 10% of the population, such a relationship would be a scary suggestion.

But if we are to avoid idolatry it is that relationship with Jesus that matters.

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate'er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.

So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.

Willimam Cowper from the Olney Hymns.


Anonymous said...

Holding a religious artifact during moments of stress is no more irrational that believing in invisible sky wizards that intervene in human lives.

Terry Hamblin said...

How sad that you feel need to comment on something you know nothing about. What benefit to you bring to anybody by making such a snide remark? Is it just malice?

Concerned Neighbor said...

Your story reminded me of being at a "Y" camp as a youth, where one of the guys always crossed himself before making a basketball foul shot.
"Hey, aren't you a Presbyterian?" someone asked.
"What's that got to do with it?" he answered.
Apparently, since most of the guys he played with did it, he thought it was part of the game!