Whether there is a causal connection or not, shortly after humanity entered the nuclear era, two different kinds of literature (and movies) appeared that were fearful: nuclear destruction and humane destruction, the latter of which was ordinarily called “dystopian.” In much of the dystopian literature of the late twentieth century, a frightening reality emerges: a humanity that is barely human. The nuclear literature focused on the fearful prospect of the planet itself being either destroyed or uninhabited; the dystopian literature focused on the fearful prospect that our humanity—that constellation of traits that distinguish us from other forms of animate life—would be destroyed, even though we still existed biologically as a species. Within this dystopian vision, there were different emphases, of course. As Neil Postman pointed out, there were two widely-read dystopian visions: that of George Orwell, and that of Aldous Huxley:
Orwell feared we would become a captive culture . . . people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.1
For our purposes, it is not necessary to choose between the two alternative dystopian visions; it is merely important to notice that the dystopian future was as frightening as the nuclear future; the diminishing or destroying of all that is genuinely humane was as frightening as the diminishing or destroying of the earth itself. Shortly after, in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the two visions combine; the near-destruction of the earth itself after a nuclear war is combined with the survivors becoming inhumane, hunting and eating other survivors, leaving the child of the protagonist to ask the father, “Are we still the good people?”
Religiously speaking, there are also two ways of destroying humanity, and both ways are prohibited in the Decalogue. One of the ways is more obvious than the other: “You shall not murder” is a rather obvious way of destroying a human. The less obvious—though just as real—is this:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exod 20:3–6)2
How is this idol-making a destruction of the human? To answer this, we return to the creation narrative in Genesis 1:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them.” (Gen 1:26–28)
Four times in the brief space of these three verses, the human is described as the “image” or “likeness” of the true and living God. No other creature is so designated. For the human, therefore, to make anything else to be an image of God is to abdicate the human’s unique role in God’s order, and to abandon the human’s distinctive role in God’s creational purpose. God already made an “image of God” when he created the humans, and to deny this image is to deny the fundamental role of the human. When the human is no longer the likeness or image of God, the human is no longer, in this creational sense, human. To surrender this one distinctive creational role is, effectively, to destroy the human qua human. A fish that does not swim cannot eat, and therefore dies. A hawk that does not soar cannot swoop down and catch its prey, and it also dies. An image of God that gives that image away to another creature is no longer the image of God, and dies to its creational purpose. Like the Sardinians of Revelation 3:1, such people “have the reputation of being alive, but . . . are dead.”
Idol-making is a double sin, both against the Creator and against the Creator’s image. It is a sin not only against the Creator’s commandment, but also against the Creator’s prerogative to assign his image as he sees fit. It is a sin against the “living God” to assign his image to any non-living thing, which is why the prophetic judgment against idol-making is so tauntingly sarcastic:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Psalms 115:4–8)
The human idol-makers, once created in the “image” and “likeness” of God, “become like them,” like their lifeless idols. How would we describe a person who could not see, could not hear, smell, taste, or touch, a human who could not walk or talk? We would describe such a person as being “as good as dead,” or “comatose,” or “lifeless,” and so he would be.
In 1978, 918 people (a third of whom were minors) died at The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana, better known as “Jonestown.” The event was so tragic and so complicated that observers then and now struggle to assign a name to it, and variously refer to it as a “mass suicide,” a “mass murder-suicide,” a “massacre,” or a “mass murder.” Each term has truth to it, and each term also describes idol-making. Giving away our likeness—to our Maker and living God—to some lifeless creature of our own making is suicidal, a killing of what is distinctly humane.
As a matter of respect for my Roman Catholic friends who die, and in an effort to support their survivors, I attend their funeral services at the local Catholic church here in Grove City. At the front and center of the room is a 12-foot-tall painted statue of something, something that ostensibly is Christ. It is no Christ at all. It does not weep with the bereaved as Jesus wept with Mary and Martha; it does not raise their loved ones as Jesus raised Lazarus; it does not heal the lame or the blind in our Grove City Hospital; it does not teach, preach, warn, or call to repentance. It is not risen from the dead nor “the firstborn of the dead”; it is lifeless. We gather to honor the dead, and are confronted with a lifeless statue of a lifeless Jesus. Whatever biblical texts are read at those services, my mind hears only this: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”
Idol-making is, firstly, a great sin against God and against his commandment, and we should never forget this, nor that it is the only commandment whose violators are described as “those who hate me.” It is also, secondly, a great sin against ourselves and against all of our fellow humans as those who are God’s image, albeit marred. If the two greatest commandments in the law are to love God and to love our neighbor, nothing violates those two commandments more than idolatry, which is a revolt both against God and against his created order. God alone makes his own image, and we may not usurp his role in attempting to do so, nor abdicate our own privilege and honor to be the image he made.
- Amusing Ourselves to Death:Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking, 1985), pp. vii-viii.
- Students of the Decalogue know that there are seventeen imperatives in the Decalogue, and that the Decalogue is enumerated as “ten words” (never as “ten commandments”) on three occasions: Deut 4:13, Deut 10:4, and Exod 34:28. There are four different ways of understanding the Sinai revelation in order to arrive at only ten “words.” Here I adopt the Jewish enumeration, which has fewer problems than the Catholic, the Lutheran, or the Reformed enumerations. Only our Reformed tradition separates “You shall have no other gods” from “You shall not make. . . ,” a separation that perceives “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” as only pertaining to the making of idols, rather than to having other deities also. Any jealous wife would be as jealous—indeed more jealous—if her husband “had” another woman as she would be if he had an image of her in his wallet. Our Reformed heritage, so astute ordinarily, is painfully tone-deaf here.
©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.
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