We Become What We Worship

G.K. Beale has written a book on one of the most fascinating subjects to be found in biblical studies. Personally, it is a topic of great interest to me as it relates to my own conception of piety and the philosophy of religion. I was also excited to read this volume, because I had heard good things about its author. Beale is a first-rate scholar and exegete who has produced some of the most comprehensive works on difficult subjects like the New Testament’s use of Old Testament citations and the book of Revelation. The title of his latest exegetical treatise is We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, and it is one of the most interesting–and poorly written–books I have ever read.

I am not going to mince words. This book was in no way a pleasure to read. Turgid and scholastic from its beginning it drags on for 310 pages containing some of the most tortured and inaccessible prose one will ever encounter. How on earth the publisher allowed the author to compose this overly-technical piece of scholarship is beyond me. True, it is produced by the academic division of IVP, but I fail to see why or how a book like this is required to meet such rigorous standards. Obviously, Beale is an academic who unfortunately does not seem publish much for the benefit of the popular reader. After reading this book, I am not even sure if he even tried to conceive of a popular reader (can he?) who would otherwise be very interested in the subject matter at hand.

With that out of the way, I only have good things to say about this book! One of the most powerful themes in Scripture is one of the least understood. In the words of Beale, “We resemble what we revere for our ruin or restoration.” This is the thesis of not only Beale, but, as he shows with great meticulous detail, but also Isaiah as well. Isaiah’s vision of God presents the framework from which Beale constructs his case. In chapter 6, particularly verses 9-13, Isaiah testifies to his mission that he is to go preach a message of judgment to idolatrous Israel and make the hearts of people calloused, their ears dull and their eyes closed, so they will not turn and repent (this following centuries of pleading for repentance).

This may seem like a strange place to start, but it is a text that is quoted in the Gospels, Acts, and Romans. Both Psalm 115 and 135 summarize its teaching. The message is clear: God judges those that run after other gods by making them resemble what they run after.

The tapestry this religious anthropology begins in Genesis 1 where it is said that humanity is made in the image of God. It is we, not what we make, that is made to bear a holy image. The travesty of idolatry lies in an unholy reversal that makes us the maker and the Maker the made. Idolatry refers to things both broad and specific. It can be thought of in the usual ancient Near Eastern way of bowing down to statues of metal and wood as well as the metaphorical way that sees ultimate security resting in created things (like wealth, power, sex) rather than the Creator. In general the Old Testament deals with ancient Near Eastern idolatry and the New Testament confronts it in metaphorical ways (though not always).

The genius of Beale’s interpretation of both Testaments lies in his method of “intertextuality.” This is the method of reading texts and finding allusions to earlier texts by way of some literary connection (similar wording, ideas). Beginning in Exodus, after Israel worships the golden calf, YHWH judges the nation as a “stiff-necked” people. This is a wry commentary on the nature of the people in connection with the object of their worship. They are like a “stiff-necked” calf who casts of the guiding yoke of its master that must be bridled into submission. Similarly, when the people devote themselves to Baal worship, they are said to “lay down as a prostitute” under “every spreading tree.” The imagery references both the love-covenant YHWH made with his people and the pagan fertility rituals where worshipers performed sex acts as offering to Baal. Israelite worshipers were not only engaging in adulterous behavior among themselves, but were being “bought-off” by the Baals, so to speak, and became what they worshiped: prostitutes.

When idolatry transcends wooden statues it often reflects our pride in things we find ultimate security in. Beale draws our attention to Ezekiel 28 and offers a very nuanced and helpful interpretation. The passage is confusing because it alludes to three different people: Satan, Adam of the Garden of Eden, and the King of Tyre. This “telescopic” vision unearths layer after layer of the “main problem” with the human psyche in historic, mythic, and cosmic demensions: we become proud on account of our beauty and abilities and exalt ourselves higher than what God intended us to be. By pride in our wisdom we become fools.

This is echoed by Paul in Romans 1:18-24, which is the NT’s most extensive treatment of idolatry. After expositing the gospel Paul gives the reversal of idolatrous worship with true worship in Romans 12:1-2. Instead of offering our bodies to whatever urge we might have, we offer them unto God for his purposes and use. Instead of serving created things we commit a “spiritual act” of worship that transforms and renews our minds. Rather than being subject to futile thoughts of a depraved mind that does not even retain the knowledge of God (Romans 1:28), we are able to approve of what is good and discern the right way for our lives and ultimately be conformed the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).

Though the above passages focus our attention on sexual issues, the Gospels portray this theology in much more ironic terms. Jesus is frank in his charge against the religious establishment of his day. The Pharisees, the wise and respected Teachers of the Law, are accused with putting the traditions of men above the word of God (Mark 7:6-13). The hypocrisy of staged religion and its pious showboating bring indignant condemnations anyone familiar with Jesus’ ministry will know (Matthew 23). White-washed tombs. Blind guides. Dirty dishes. They are all images of what the hearts clings to when it is zealous for religious practice that is about exalting us rather than God.

Beale concludes his long meandering study with some “final thoughts” that constitute the best part of the book. He takes time to excoriate the vacuous concepts of self-esteem, the church’s pandering to people’s “felt needs,” the practical atheism found in the media, and vain philosophies of life that have no sense of transcendent meaning. While one may not fully agree with where Beale applies things, one cannot come away with not applying the very relevant themes of this book to an examined life. A great deal of good thought and self-reflection can reveal where our hearts rest and where our spiritual compass is truly pointing in our lives.

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