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Why I Recommend Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods with One Caveat

            A fellow pastor recommended Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods (New York: Dutton, 2009) to me after I had stated that the Bible teaches that the fundamental human problem is idolatry.  I highly recommend it and here’s why.

            Keller has a broad understanding of an idol as  “… anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give” (xvvii).  Such an understanding allows him to explain how success, power, sex, money, and even religion can be idols.  Furthermore, Keller demonstrates that idolatry is not only a personal but also a cultural phenomenon that possesses nations, classes and eras.

            As a pastor, Keller is very effective in using biblical stories to demonstrate the problem of idolatry and then points to the work of Jesus Christ that frees us from it.  For me his commentary on Leah as the woman who desperately wanted the love of her husband Jacob and finally decided to turn to the praise of God was compelling.  That she gives birth to Judah, the heir to the messianic promises and ancestor of Jesus Christ, is a wonderful picture of how God blesses those who look to him even though they don’t possess what society values.

            The implications for Christian spirituality are an important theme developed by Keller.  Since we relate to idols by loving, trusting and obeying them, idolatry both stems from and results in psychological and emotional problems.  The false idols that we love, such as success, are revealed in our daydreams in which we fancy that they have made us valued and significant.  We trust in idols to save us from what we fear most and give us a sense of security.  Whatever controls us or what must we have if our life is to have meaning is the idol that we serve (xxi-xxiii).  On the other hand, Keller points out that we can only experience our true worth, be healed, and freed by loving, trusting, and serving the true God revealed in Jesus Christ.

            Now for the caveat.  The danger of psychological explanations of sin is not just that they tend to explain away or excuse sin—an error that Keller does not commit.  The problem is also that psychological as well as socio-economic explanations falsely make sin to appear reasonable.  I think Keller’s treatment of Jacob as always seeking the love that his father Isaac never gave him errs in this regard.  From birth Jacob was grasping his brother’s heel.  This description points to the depth of human sin in the heart.  Sin is not explained, for it is a perverse mystery.  Our inexplicable rebellion against God is an irrational and inexplicable act.  In all of us there is the fool who says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1).

            Nevertheless, this is a fine book, which is well-researched and clearly and engagingly written.  It is heartening to see that such incisive and insightful preaching still finds an audience in American churches.    

            I’d be interested to hear what you think of Keller’s book, if you have read it.  What other books of his have you found helpful and why?

2 thoughts on “Why I Recommend Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods with One Caveat

  1. I haven’t read the book, but I’m around people who are strongly influenced by Tim Keller. I’d add a second caveat. I’m discovering that many who are influenced by this particular psychological framing of sin also tend to soften God’s injunction against other gods…not just psychological “gods”, but other gods. When anything can be an idol if it displaces God, then conversely, the idolatry of engagement with other gods through appropriated spiritual practices is no longer seen as forbidden outright by God; such practices are only idolatry if they displace God in some way. They are considered acceptable to God, or even as a general revelation and blessing from God if they are seen as spiritually beneficial. That is a dangerous shift, especially in a culture that is already spiritually eclectic and relativistic. Keller is popular in a milieu of people that are far more tuned into a psychologically based worldview instead of one that takes the unseen world (and its counterfeit gods) seriously.

  2. Thanks, Barb. Since I haven’t read anything else by Keller, I don’t know whether he is guilty of softening God’s injunction against other gods. I wouldn’t think so. Your comment does raise two issues for me. First, it causes us to consider the absolute exclusivity of God’s call on our life. Since the Bible demands a total allegiance to God, going anywhere else for blessings would be displacing him from his rightful place and so would be idolatry. Second, your reminder concerning the inadequacy of a worldview that is psychologically based is apt, especially since you mention the unseen world. We need to remember that idolatry or false religious practices bring us into contact with the spiritual forces of darkness. I hadn’t thought of that very important point. I don’t think Keller highlights it either, but I’ve returned the book to the library so I can’t say! I do believe that he writes about Satan’s temptation of Jesus. I would still say that Counterfeit Gods is worthwhile reading and helped me spiritually as well as intellectually.

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