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Culture Q&A

Herbert Schlossberg

Herbert Schlossberg: Idol fighter

How idolatry in many guises leads the way to cultural ruin

Herbert Schlossberg: Idol fighter

Herbert Schlossberg (Lee Love/Genesis)

A third of a century ago Herbert Schlossberg, now 81, authored Idols for Destruction, one of the best overall looks at American culture then—and relevant to the present as well. He’s also written about Victorian England.

Many Christians are depressed now concerning this coming election, but are we worse off than at the beginning of the 1980s, when you were researching this book? The number of abortions in the United States then rose to 1.6 million. We had double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment, problems that weren’t supposed to happen simultaneously. That was well before these Patrick Henry students were born—what else should we remind them of? The sexual revolution: A sense of morality was gone, the divorce rate was skyrocketing, and children were passed around from house to house. The crime rate was skyrocketing. A tremendous amount of disillusionment with very low morale.

You probed the connections between these disparate trends. What did you find out? Idolatry seemed part of the story. I used a Bible concordance to look at all the verses about idolatry. One that struck me came from the prophet Hosea, who looked at the nation of Israel and saw sacrifice of babies, just like the pagans. Rampant injustice. Hosea said Israelites made idols for their own destruction. He meant that when people turn to idolatry, their lives change and they create conditions such that they will be destroyed. That is the theme of the book.

What are our idols like? In biblical times people really did carve figures out of wood or cast them out of bronze or gold. They worshipped this physical thing in front of them. That physical thing replaced God. We’re not talking about a physical thing at present, but anything we erect to replace God.

‘Government is a gift of God, but we turn this gift of God into something evil when we misuse it.’

You wrote about the idols of Mammon. Mammon is the biblical expression for the pursuit of money and material possessions above all things. We have legalized theft: Politicians want to buy our votes with other people’s money.

That connects with idols of power. People learn to get what they want through the exercise of power. If they want money, they get it through the taxation system, or they get it by bribing politicians, so everything becomes more and more centralized. The American constitutional republic founded in the 18th century is very different from the federal government now, which has powers specifically denied to it in the original Constitution.

You write about “the messianic state.” Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Savior, but that term has become an adjective: “Messianic” can refer to anything that purports to save us. The messianic state accrues more power to itself, which we voters willingly give it because we believe that only the state can save us.

Do Christians run the risk of idolizing liberty, patriotism, and other positives? Many idols are good things. Take the golden calf that Aaron made when the people insisted on it, as Moses was up on Mount Sinai getting the law: I consider it a possibility that artistically it was a fine thing, probably beautiful. In itself it was just a piece of art: What made it evil was that it was lifted up in place of God and worshipped. Something good turned into an evil.

A good pastor in New York City, Tim Keller, defines idolatry as turning a good thing into an ultimate thing. Government is a gift of God, but we turn this gift of God into something evil when we misuse it. Liberty is a gift of God, but let’s not turn it into something evil by elevating it so that it takes the place of God.

How do we as Christians fight our own tendency to idolatry? The more basic question is, how can we be obedient to God? If we are married, how can we be faithful to our wife? How can we be good parents? How can we do the right thing and not the wrong thing? It’s living the Christian life.

Does government change culture or does the government reflect the current cultural mindset? Politics is downstream from culture. We elect foolish and dishonest politicians. We wouldn’t do that if our culture was healthier.

So what’s happening now? Most of the idols are making us sick in about the same way as they were then. There are some positive indications, but some things are getting worse. The homosexual movement was astonishing to me. I mentioned homosexual marriage in Idols for Destruction in a very negative way, and treated it as ridiculous. Now it’s a constitutional right.

How can we fight idolatrous temptations? Ask yourself: How well do you know the Bible? What is your devotional life like? Who is available to talk with if you’re wandering a bit? What kind of pastoral help will you get? What friendships have you made that can help keep you on the straight and narrow?

What did you learn from your research into British history? English society in the 1730s was in very bad shape. Authorities were saying Christianity was dead. Then something happened: the conversion of John Wesley in 1738. In 1739 he and his brother Charles started the Methodist movement. Within a few years, lay Methodist preachers traveled all through England by foot or by horseback preaching the gospel in fields and woods, any place they could gather people together. That snowballed throughout the century. At virtually the same time in various parishes in the Church of England, ministers realized they had not been preaching the Christian gospel, but preaching what some called moralism. They themselves were converted, often through a personal Bible study, and these studies spread from church to church until by the end of the century you had a full-blown evangelical movement going.

This was a religious revival that changed social institutions. The Sunday school movement began in the 1780s: Children who would have been unable to read and write were taught to read and write, and they were taught by reading the Bible. Churches began to sing hymns. Christians wrote books, including novels.

You titled one of your books, The Silent Revolution. Why “silent”? This was a revolutionary age, sometimes violent, but England had a cultural revolution. In the 19th century more people read the Bible. New editions were published. Bible studies formed in parishes. Present-day England, as pagan as it is, is a lot better than it would have been had that revival not taken place.

Aren’t cultural revolutions the only real revolutions—the ones that make long-lasting change as opposed to the momentary sensations of people shooting each other? Yes. The normal revolution is one group of tough guys giving way to another group of tough guys, but nothing changes down below.


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  • PaulC
    Posted: Thu, 10/27/2016 11:03 pm

    First, We should not overlook the fact that the purpose of making the golden calf was idolatry.  Motive was wrong.  Secondly, the homosexual movement is NOT constitutionally protected, just government protected.   That early government leader (I am forgetting who) got it right when he said our form of government would only work for a moral people.  Without the fear of God, we abuse the freedoms which He has given, and we lose them.