- ISBN: 9781481310840
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: November 2019
Stephen E. Fowl begins Idolatry by describing the concept as a gradual diversion of one’s allegiance and attention away from God, rather than as “a sharp change” (4). Fowl argues that a believer’s existing dispositions, habits, and practices can distract one’s focus from God, leading to idolatry. Drawing on the theme of idolatry in a wide variety of scriptural texts (such as Zephaniah, Nehemiah and Deuteronomy) that demonstrate how idolatry creeps into non-vigilant communities, Fowl notes that attentiveness to our habits and practices in the material world keeps our desires in check. One of the strengths of this book is its repeated yet nuanced insistence that the people of God are not immune to idolatry, since it is a gradual deformation of life habits and thoughts, a “misdirection of love and attention away from God and towards something that is not God” (65).
In the second chapter, Fowl develops the notion of “forgetting and attending” gleaned from Deuteronomy 6, in which the Israelites were instructed to love God wholeheartedly to resist the distractions of material possessions through engaging in acts of hospitality and generosity (51). A reader unfamiliar with biblical texts might wonder at the demands required of the faith community. And here is Fowl’s thought-provoking “reply”: idolatrous gods appeal to “complacent, self-absorbed believers” (46) because these gods demand little from their followers and thus allow them full autonomy over their own lives.
Next, Fowl addresses the themes of desire/greed (chapter 3) and fear (chapter 4). Fowl discusses how God has created human desire for both material things and God. But excessive desire moves beyond our proper, God-ordered boundaries and leads to greed, which is idolatry, as Ephesians and Colossians explain. The antidote for greed is the practice of thanksgiving, for it trains us to subject our desire to the Lordship of Christ. This understanding of desire lays the groundwork for Fowl’s exposition of fear as idolatry. Fowl insightfully argues that fear—which produces suspicion and exacerbates human insecurities, as described in the books of Kings and Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke (90)—overrides trust in God for one’s well-being. It seems desire and fear are two sides of the same coin. One strives for more; the other worries about lack.
The concluding chapter, “The Community of the Curious,” focuses on Deuteronomy 12–13 and Acts 17. Here, Fowl delves into how “the LORD imagines three different scenarios wherein Israelites might be tempted to pursue the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites” (105). One of these is the warning against inquiring about or imitating the Canaanites’ worship (Deut. 12:30). However, Fowl does not explain how these idolatrous dangers arise; instead, he procceds to Deuteronomy 13 (106), which warns against prophets who lead the people into pagan idolatry. This leaves the reader wondering if Fowl is suggesting that a community’s leaders harbor latent dangers of leading people astray, and thus, a faith community must be built upon through God’s promises of hope and a future since it shapes a person’s disposition. On the dimension of religious community, the reader is reminded of a certain resemblance to René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, and in particular how it treats the influence and power of the collective.
In the next section of this chapter, Fowl brings together Deuteronomy 12:30 and Deuteronomy 13 to explain how disposition leads one into idolatry. He surmises that that curiosity (107–21) in the pursuit of knowledge, which grants power, also counts as idolatry. In short, curiosity is a desire that continually inflates itself. Desire for self-fulfillment is opposed to a God-ordered desire, as Fowl argues, citing Ephesians and Colossians. Fowl reminds us that “the curious do not direct their desire to know… and do not seek to know things” of God (109). Interested readers who are familiar with the work of Rowan Williams and Sarah Coakley might see a possible dialogue here relating to the concept of desire. Williams highlights the grave human error in our desire to perfect our personhood by prematurely ending the God-given desire within us. Likewise, Coakley’s proposal of reimagining desire for God through a trinitarian lens of contemplation and prayer echoes Fowl’s proposal for training our senses on God.
If there is a weakness in this inspirational book, it is the conclusion. Asian or other non-US readers might not fully understand or resonate with the section on “Whiteness and Idolatry”. While Fowl intends to demonstrate how “whiteness”, as the sum of white believers’ dispositions and practices, predisposes white people to idolatry, his description of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s question to white people (“how do these nations serve their gods?”) as an “ironic gloss on Deuteronomy 12:30” (128–29) needs further unpacking.
All in all, this book is not for summer beach reading. However, any scholar, student, or Christian who mulls over the concept of idolatry will find here insightful and compelling accounts of how we are misled by our daily habits, either towards or away from God. Fowl unveils what shapes (and distorts) our faith and practice, emphasizing the importance of rooting our faith in Scripture, thus resisting idolatry of different forms.
Kris H.K. Chong is a lecturer in systematic theology, theology, arts and cultural studies at Baptist Theological Seminary, Singapore.Kris ChongDate Of Review:January 26, 2023