By Timothy Keller
My growing interest in Dr. Timothy Keller’s work continues with his short and fulfilling book on the poison of idolatry. Using vignettes from the Bible such as King Nebuchadnezzar to outcasts like Leah to the misunderstood narrative of Abraham and Isaac, we’re shown the dangerous power of modern day idols in our everyday life. From culture to career to codependency, we’re bombarded by every created thing that aims to steal us from our true purpose: to know and follow God.
We must live for something, but anything else besides God that is first place in our heart will always destroy us. Idolatry is enslavement: all temporary things consume our thoughts and goals until we are at the pathetic mercy of its every whim. Nothing is spared: Dr. Keller covers all imaginable angles. Yet there is hope, and while this could have easily been distilled to “love God,” he brings more intellect and insight to the issue.
On the first page, the book will cut your soul. Dr. Keller lists off rich men who have killed themselves since the economic downturn of the last few years, then quickly compares idols with the Ring of Power from The Lord of the Rings. From start to finish, this is an exhilarating read that will cut you over and over.
This could easily have been a paranoid, fear-mongering book of rules and restrictions which the mainstream often deplores. I’m all for conviction and pointing out error, but I tire quickly of books that are worded like, “If only you were a real Christian you would stop messing with that sin,” or worse, “Here’s what will happen to you if you don’t follow God. Most people who pick up this sort of book are already beaten up by life: we don’t need a widescreen view on it. Any so-called Christian book that turns into a guilt trip belongs in the trash. Not even the recycle bin.
While Dr. Keller does discuss the consequences (he would be unwise not to), he moves on quickly to the real issue. It’s always about the heart. We are always attached to something. He makes sure to point out that our spiritual need is an infinite, unconquerable thirst that can never be filled by any created solution. Even the best marriage, the best career, the best life will never be all that we hope it to be. On this side and the next, only our pursuit of God matters.
In his usual clear, urgent, intellectual style, Dr. Keller outlines every type of idol and how exactly we’ll be attacked. Knowing our weakness is half the battle. Each chapter keeps it gospel-centered, with Jesus Christ always our infinite provision. Idols never live up to their promises; God does. The last couple chapters offer practical solutions grounded in God’s truth. They are not easy, but they are possible.
Honestly it is such a short, razor-sharp work that there are hardly any weaknesses. The Gospel is in full view, the truth is never watered down, and Dr. Keller has an engaging style. The only thing I would say is that if you read this in one sitting, you will find the chapters predictable as he goes over each vignette of how idolatry controls us. Other than this, his work is powerful and transformative.
Get this book. Pray through it. Read it with friends. Beg the Holy Spirit to break your idols. You may find you have more external attachments than you thought. You’ll also find you can have freedom from the tyranny of control.
“Our fears and inner barrenness make love a narcotic, a way to medicate ourselves, and addicts always make foolish, destructive choices.” (33)
“Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding and identity, our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without a complete change of heart will be superficial and fleeting.” (68)
“When an idol gets a grip on your heart, it spins out a whole set of false definitions of success and failure and happiness and sadness. … In the end idols can make it possible to call evil good and good evil.” (146)