Sophisticated Temples of Modern Idolatry

For decades, the consumeristic and narcissistic culture in which we live has served the unsuspecting and unconscious worshippers of North America with extravagant buildings in which to showcase the idols of a sophisticatedly synchronistic and paganistic society. In his profoundly insightful and influential 1989 article, “Mall Culture,” Steven L. Shepherd writes:

The malls are the Temples of our culture, and going to the mall is–in truth–an initiation rite. The shopkeepers should be glad about this behavior, because, as the children gaze through the windows of the well-stocked shelves within, they are learning to want, learning to ache for things supplied by others of which there can never be enough…Going to the mall is part of the relentless and powerful seduction of our children by that portion of our culture that affords human beings no more value than the contents of their wallets. It is part of the initiation into a life of wanting that can never be sated, of material desire that will never be satisfied, of slaving to buy and to have, of a life predicated upon unhappiness and discontent.1

Taking a cue from Shepherd, John Pahl, Stanley Hauerwas and James K. A. Smith have helpfully developed this idea in a more robustly theological and sociological way. For instance, Smith notes:

Let’s keep in mind that the mall is a sort of intensification of a wider web of practices and rituals associated with consumer capitalism. In this sense, one may say that marketing is the Mall’s evangelism; television commercials, billboards, internet pop-ups and magazine advertisements are the mall’s outreach. The rituals and practices of the mall and the market are tactile and visceral–they capture our imaginations through the sense of sight and sound, touch and taste, even smell. The hip, happy people that populate television commercials are the moving icons of the consumer gospel, illustrations of what the good life looks like: carefree and independent, clean and sexy, perky and perfect. We see the embodiment of this ideal again in the icon-like mannequins in the windows of the mall.2

While some may rightly suggest that the shopping mall has essentially been supplanted by the internet, there are serval other Temples of idolatry in our culture–for instance, the university, movie theater, stadium and gym. What makes these “temples of idolatry,” is not so much the size of the buildings as it is the potency of the worldview that preys on the lives of those outside its walls–calling them to enter into the rituals within. Consider how each of the following temples of idolatry function:

The University – The University is the intellectual idol factory in our culture. We continually witness every conceivable ungodly worldview taking root there, while the Christian theistic worldview is the great subject of hostility. In, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith captures the essence of Universities, calling them “Cathedrals of Learning.” Though many of the great Univsities in this country were founded on a Christian and Calvinistic Theistic worldview, they have become bastions of intellectual rebellion against the true and living God. Interestingly, even universities that have always been secular in the inception have take on the architectural form of a Cathedral. Smith notes:

I’ve always thought it fitting that a secular university like the University of Pittsburgh, which has no religious past, features one of the more stunning pieces of academic architecture in the United States: the Cathedral of learning. Towering over the campus (and the city), the building is intentionally gothic, invoking the architectural grammar of the medieval churches and cathedrals. But here the inspiring, pointed architecture is no longer striving to point to the Creator, but rather seeks to serve a different, more imminent ideal: the truth of enlightened human reason, marshaled for the progress of the race.3

Though the allurement of the university is discovered in the freedom that young adults feel as they cast off the restraints of biblical revelation and rely on their own fallen human autonomy, the result has been, for far too many, a lifelong bondage to the idols of the mind. The Psalmist captured, in the rawest form possible, the futility of such idolatry: “Those who make them become like them.”

The Movie Theater – Hollywood is, of course, the great popularizer of the philosophies of the universities–the evangelistic guild of anti-Christian thought. This is not to say that there are not moments in which the truth of Christ breaks through on the big screen. After all, Jesus is still Lord–and all truth is still His truth. There is no ultimate ideology or idolatry with which to finally and fully suppress the truth. However, what more influential idol factory could there be than these massive, in-ornate Temple-like buildings in which every conceivable worldview streams into our minds on mammoth 90 x 30 ft. screens? The theater takes the religious, philosophical and ethical worldviews propagated in academic form in the Universities and shrouds it narratival clothing, embodies it in the most gifted and gorgeous icons of our culture and dazzles onlookers with faux supernaturalism–all in entertaining form. In this way, the theater takes the idolatry of the University and makes it palatable to the lives of onlookers. The size of the building from which these ideas are spread rival any Temple in the ancient world. The cry, “Great is Diana of Ephesus,” from the towering structure of her wonder-Temple, is matched by the cries of the people as the celebrities of Hollywood walk off of the “big-screen” and into the real world of worshiping image-bearers.

The Stadium – The roaring of the fans, the lights, the music, the demigod like athletes rushing onto the field in a blaze of glory–it doesn’t take a genius to realize the idolatrous nature of sports in our day. Nothing shows just how consumed we are with creature worship as is true of our commitment to a particular team. There is, of course, an identity factor involved. We find solidarity investing the better part of our efforts propagating the liturgy of the football team of the university at which we happened to worship. It’s no wonder that we build the most spectacular amphitheater-like Temples in which to showcase our athletic gods and goddesses on the campuses of our universities.

In most cases in our country, American Nationalism provides the hymns that we sing at these sporting events. Smith again notes:

The rituals of national identity–and nationalism–have been almost indelibly inscribed into the rituals of athletics from Little league to High School football. “As is well known,” Stanley Hauerwas once quipped, “Friday night high school football is the most liturgical event in Texas. The imagination couples these spectacular displays at professional sporting events with the simplicity of the anthem and color guard at a high school football game, and together they build up a story of national unity forged by battle and sacrifice. Over time, these rituals have a cumulative, albeit covert, effect on our imagery. And together, I am arguing, these constitute liturgies of ultimate concern: the ideal of national unity and commitment to its ideals is willing to make room for additional loyalties, but is not willing to entertain trumping loyalties.4

In other words, our society will tolerate–and even promote–worshiping athletes while confessing the creeds and singing the hymns of nationalism, but not while confessing of creeds and singing of hymns to Christ. This is not simply true in America. By way of contrast, it is demonstrated by communistic Russia’s desire to implant it’s anti-Christian ideology throughout the world by means of it demi-gods, namely, the members of its national hockey team.

Whatever else may be observed, of this much we can be sure: Worshiping athletes and musicians in Temple-stadiums is one of the greatest forms of sophisticated idolatry.

The Gym – Over the past four years, I have watched several gym instructors at the gym that I attend leave their spouses for someone else with whom they were sculpting their body side-by-side in colossal buildings of full of worshipers. Over the past three decades, the Gym has become a Temple for narcissistic worship of self in our culture.

Interestingly, it has also become, for many in our day, a conduit for eastern mysticism. Hot yoga, Restorative Yoga, Bikram, Hatha, Anusara, Iyengar, Vinyasa and Ashtanga have made their way into the Gym-Temples of North America, at such a speed and with such subtly that most Christians have not given much analytical thought to what is occurring. A number of years ago, Al Mohler wrote an important article titled, “The Subtle Body: Should Christian’s Practice Yoga?” I will never forget the surprise I felt as I read an overwhelmingly slew of vitriolic comments made by professing Christian soccer-moms who found their daily devotional fix at the gym. The comments online revealed the depth of the problem. Instead of giving a fair hearing to what Mohler had to say, multitudes wrapped their arms around the Dagon of their Yoga class and gnashed their teeth at any intimation that there might be something wrong with Christians engaging in eastern pagan mysticism.

At our local YMCA, banners hang down along the walls with depictions of men and women carrying out incredible feats of strength. At the bottom of each banner is a verse of Scripture–taken out of context and applied to these images of motivational and physical liturgies. Just as humanistic as the philosophies taught in the University, these banners fuel an anti-Christian worldview–while throwing it under the cloak of Christianity.

Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that it is necessarily wrong–in and of itself–to go to the Mall, the University, The Theatre, the Stadium and the Gym. What the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians about eating meat offered to idols is applicable in this regard. In fact, I would suggest that there is a great measure of wisdom in knowing the culture in order to effectively speaking the Gospel into the culture. The apostle Paul read the Greek philosophers and utilized them in his preaching in Athens. Paul also drew on the athletics of his day in order to give metaphors for the Christian life. There is wisdom in exercising regularly in order to take care of the body the Lord has given us. However, there are enormous dangers in these things because of the sinfulness of our hearts. We were made to worship. If we are not sitting at the feet of Jesus, singing His praises, reading His truth, feeding on His flesh and blood by faith, we will be engaged in the liturgies of our culture. The Gospel is the cure for our idolatry. Abiding in Christ by faith and abiding in His word on a daily basis protects our hearts from the consumeristic idolatry of the Mall and our minds from the idolatrous philosophies of the Universities and Theaters. Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus protects us from setting them–in an idolatrous way–on the athletic demi-gods of our culture and from our own bodies and the bodies of those around us.

1. Steven Shepherd “Mall Culture” (an article in the Nov./Dec. 1998 edition of the Humanist)

2. James K.A. Smith Desiring the Kingdom p. 95

3. Ibid., pp. 112-113

4. Ibid., p. 106

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