Idols For Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture Paperback – Jun 15 1993
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About the Author
Herb Schlossberg (PhD, University of Minnesota) is a historian and has served as a senior analyst in the Central Intelligence Agency. The author of several books, he lives with his wife in Alexandria, Virginia, and they have three grown children and nine grandchildren.
Charles "Chuck" Wendell Colson (1931-2012) was an Evangelical Christian leader who founded Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint. Prior to his conversion to Christianity, he served as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973.
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From this framework, Schlossberg examines many of the various idols that we have erected in this way. These include: history as an autonomous and inexorable unfolding of a closed system of necessary events; humanism, which elevates humans to the status of gods, but inevitably leads to a materialistic evaluation of them and a dehumanization of the people it professes to help; money, evaluated from the standpoint of an institutionalization of envy that believes that no one should have more than anyone else and the forced redistribution of wealth and crushing of motivation and incentive to succeed that it entails; nature, which is viewed through the lens of a philosophical naturalism that combines with secular humanism to dehumanize people; power, which resides exclusively in the state, and makes the state (and therefore the individuals who rule it) the source of, and therefore above, the law; and finally religion, which tends to blindly embrace whatever trends happen to be dominant in a culture and therefore ends up supporting, rather than casting down, the idols erected by the unbelieving world. In the final two chapters, he makes some predictions about where our idolatry will take us, and addresses how Christians should face the gods of an idolatrous age.
This book seems to have been first published in 1983, but I think that the analysis and research are outstanding, and the conclusions are probably more inescapable now than they were 25 years ago. Some examples are: "We should understand totalitarianism to refer not to the severity of the regime . . . but rather the scope of its purview. A totalitarian regime is one that seeks to control every aspect of communal life, and to bring as much of private life as possible into the sphere of the communal"; ". . . the attempt to be contemporaneous, which is to say relevant, ensures the irrelevance of theologies and churches." I was amazed by the parallels between this book and Herman Bavinck's "Philosophy of Revelation" (1908), which are very similar in methodology and are well worth reading together, which I did by accident. I heartily recommend this book - it should absolutely be required reading for all western Christians.
As for content, I concur with the observations made in the previous review entitled "Examine your preconceptions". Adding anything more would be redundant.
Update: I have read this book five times, refer to it frequently, and regularly use excerpts when teaching seminars and classes. My current economics students are reading chapter three, "Idols of Mammon". Parents have commented on how wise and perceptive their students are becoming as a result. I would love to use this book as the basis for an introductory college course.
One can immediately see Schlossberg’s intent in the opening chapter of Idols For Destruction as he ponders the meaning of the fall of civilizations. His concern, writing in the early 1980s, was to diagnose the ills of society in light of God’s Word. He begins the book examining what the Bible says about the decline of civilizations. He observes, “It is a curious fact that the Old Testament, which describes the beginning, course, and end of a number of societies, never assesses them as being on the rise or decline, as progressing or regressing, as growing to maturity or falling to senescence.” Instead, “…the biblical explanation of the end of societies uses the concept of judgment. It depicts them as either having submitted themselves to God or else having rebelled against him.” (p. 5)
Schlossberg echoes C.S. Lewis’s remark that, “…human history… [is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” Schlossberg argues we went astray through the rejection of God’s authority and the enshrinement of humanism. He begins by decrying humanists who, “are hostile to any notion of law that is external to the legislative organs under human control, and this means that morality cannot be predicated on universal codes." (p. 43) The humanist has rejected the supernatural and embraced the material—all that exists is matter, and only matter, matters. He writes, “Being poor is the greatest evil, in humanitarian thinking, because having material possessions is the greatest good… Modern materialism is not only an ethical philosophy that places a high value on money and possessions but a social philosophy that says that human relations are determined by material factors.” (p. 61) This materialist philosophy being at the heart of humanitarian project, explains what is perhaps the most important concept in the book—the power of envy, and jealousy, in shaping and reshaping human institutions—something Schlossberg calls ressentiment. The Humanitarian impulse, “is not to raise those who are down but to topple those who are up; ressentiment is the motive.” (p. 55)
Schlossberg exposes the fraud of humanitarianism—it seeks not the betterment of society, but simply to “exercise power.” The state is the humanitarian’s “lever of power” to reshape society. (p. 75-76) It is the state who, rather than God, becomes “the Father.” Schlossberg says “Looking to the state for sustenance is a cultic act; we rightly learn to expect food from parents, and when we regard the state as the source of physical provision we render to it the obeisance of idolatry." (p. 183)
Herein lies the central lesson of Idols For Destruction:
“The paternal state not only feeds its children, but nurtures, educates, comforts, and disciplines them, providing all they need for their security. This appears to be a mildly insulting way to treat adults, but it is really a great crime because it transforms the state from being a gift of God, given to protect against violence, into an idol. It supplies us with all blessings, and we look to it for all our needs. Once we sink to that level, as Lewis says, there is no point in telling state officials to mind their own business. “Our whole lives are their business.” The paternalism of the state is that of the bad parent who wants his children dependent on him forever…The paternal state thrives on dependency. When the dependents free themselves, it loses power. It is, therefore, parasitic on the very persons whom it turns into parasites. Thus, the state and its dependents march symbiotically to destruction.” (p. 184)
The paternal state grappling for power, in opposition to God, and its Machiavellian means of maintaining power, lead to the kinds of policies en vogue in national capitals across the globe. Governments use monopoly power over the creation of currencies and their inflationary policies to enrich themselves at the expense of its citizenry, all the while giving the perception of economic expansion. America has been pursuing inflationary monetary policy for decades, but never so rapidly as the last three years. These policies, Schlossberg writes have, “both moral and economic consequences.” (p. 99) He adds, “A society that inflates its currency tampers with a moral value. If the economic system lacks the basic honesty that permits economic transactions to reward both seller and buyer, lender and borrower, there can be no sense of justice.” (p. 101) Yet it is “both a cause and effect of moral decline… As long as people think they are advancing economically, the pressure to continue inflating outweigh those for stopping. When a society becomes pragmatic, the moral considerations seem less important than the economic ones.” (p. 102)
Inflationary economies “promise wealth without end.” Yet Christians know, as Jesus teaches, “the poor you always have with you.” (John 12:8) Ours is not a world of “wealth without end”--ours is a “world of scarcity.” He argues, “…compound interest without end and growth without end are in the same category as entitlements without end; they are illusions. But illusions in which people place their faith take on a sinister reality. When they are cashed in without sufficient resources to pay everyone off, then a process of allocation must be devised to settle claims. That process often is violence.” (p. 108) If you doubt this, recall the power of envy—it “cannot be assuaged any more than cancer can be; they are both pathologies whose very being requires expansion to their neighbor's territory. There is no fence that will ever be respected, no limitation that will be recognized as legitimate, no sense of proportion or humility sufficient to smother a sense of inferiority.” (p. 104) We’ve recently seen these forces unleashed around us—look at Greece (or Wisconsin, for that matter) where people facing the loss of entitlements resort to violence and mass protest.
The state has become the central god in the Humanist pantheon because of the power inherent in its function as arbiter of justice and role as law keeper. Schlossberg compares our age to the Kingdom of Judah: “Ecclesiastical support for the state idolatry is unconsciously imitative of the temple religion that endorsed and undergirded the unjust rules of Judah.”
He condemns the modern false prophets and those with “itching ears” (2 Tim. 4:3):
“People desire false teaching because it enables them to absolutize contingent systems to which they have given allegiance. They seek religious leaders who will bless their idolization of the nation, or the state, or the unrestricted pursuit of wealth or power, or the acting out of their hatred and ressentiment through humanitarian policy.” (p. 255-256)
America long ago switched allegiance with the One True God to The State, and the American church, in the guise of being “subject to the governing authorities,” (Romans 13:1) is in danger of the same apostasy. So, “what happens to a nation whose God is not the Lord?”
Schlossberg argues that one of the clearest manifestations of God’s judgment is a decline in wealth—moral and monetary. Christianity has built “moral capital” that we’ve squandered, and upon which we are now living. Once this reserve has been used up, a range of horrors will be unleashed upon a people. This is the civilizational collapse—the long prophesied lapse into barbarism. One only has to read the Old Testament to be reminded of these scenarios. Recall Gideon threshing wheat in his winepress, hiding from the Midianites and Amalekites, so as to avoid being plundered by these foreign armies. (Judges 6) Ben Hadad’s Siege of Samaria in 2 Kings 6 was appallingly brutal—people resorted to eating dung and even human flesh. The Israelites in 2 Kings 17 “burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” These are the sort of judgments levied upon idolatrous nations in the Bible. Our own national history records analogous judgments: the Civil War in particular was a time of savagery, famine, mutilation, destitution, rape, and pillage. The Bible teaches that these things are judgments from God—where guilty and innocent are caught up together in the judgment of God.
Schlossberg has much more to say than can be summarized in such a brief review. But Schlossberg is clear, “The practice of idolatry has serious consequences, which the prophets of Israel identified as oppression, injustice, and bloodshed.” (p. 262) But as C.S. Lewis writes, “Perhaps civilization will never be safe until we care for something else more than we care for it?”
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