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Book Review – Counterfeit Gods

I wrote a review of another Timothy Keller book here about The Prodigal God. I enjoyed that book so much that I went back to see if Mr. Keller had written anything else I might enjoy and I was pleasantly surprised to find Counterfeit Gods.

In my opinion it was better than The Prodigal God, but probably in so much that it applied to my life more so and thus I probably got more out of it, although The Prodigal God was an excellent book and one in which I’m sure I’ll read again.

I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll try to keep this review to a minimum, but I thought it was a great resource so I’ll do my best to give you the gist.

As you can probably imagine, this is a book about human nature’s ability to superimpose false idols (or gods) on the all sufficient God of the Bible. Essentially we as human beings are always trying to find things outside of God to worship. One of the things Keller says I thought most interesting was the thought that the basic premise of the Bible that runs through each and every page is that it is one big story about how people have basically worshiped the created things rather than the Creator. This has been true throughout human history.

As you would expect, Keller devotes a few chapters to obvious counterfeit gods that we all deal with to a certain extent, but he puts an interesting twist on them. The first chapter deals with the idol of getting everything we want, and Keller uses the example of Abraham to tell this story. Basically everything that Abraham wanted was wrapped up in Isaac. In this regard, Abraham made Isaac an idol and then God came calling for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac before the Lord provided the ram to take Isaac’s place.

Keller then spends the next chapter on that idol called love. The interesting aspect to this chapter is that Keller uses the example of Jacob and his zealous love for Rachel. A zealousness that was so overwhelming that he wound up playing Laban 14-years worth of service just to have Rachel in his bed. Keller brings Jacob’s other wife, Leah, into the story as well which is pretty interesting. Keller retells the story and makes connections that aren’t all that obvious and I think there is a lot to learn from it.

Keller then jumps to money as another counterfeit god using the example of Zacchaeus to tell this story. The one interesting aspect of this chapter to me is that you can make money your idol in a variety of ways. If you look upon money as a security blanket then you are making it into a false idol. Keller essentially points out that money can be used in a good way to provide security, but when you start to trust money for your security over Christ then it’s an idol and you are committing idolatry. I really liked the point because what Keller is trying to say is that people in their foolish ways can rationalize anything. Who couldn’t rationalize the accumulation of wealth for your family as a good thing? But in reality it turns into a bad thing.

Keller talks about this too in that the Bible says where your treasure is there will your heart be as well. What do we spend money on? If we give freely to ministries and our church then our heart obviously is about doing God’s work. My wife and I have never had this problem. On more than one occasion we’ve both felt stirrings of the Lord to completely empty out our bank accounts and give to missionaries or our home church. Was that foolish in human eyes to give all of our money away that we saved up for so long? Possibly, but not in God’s eyes.

Still, it’s easy to wonder how many different ways you can rationalize money. Keller does a good job of cutting right to the heart of the matter.

Keller then devotes a chapter to the idol success and uses the example of Namaan, the commander of the Syrian army. Namaan’s story begins in 2 Kings Chapter 5, and again I think Keller uses an unusual example and exploits it to its fullest. This chapter moved me the most of the first few because I often wonder if I’m becoming a physician because I’m doing it for the glory of God or am I doing it because I want it as another notch of success on my belt? I’ve read on many occasions that medical training is the most arduous postgraduate training one can go through and I sometimes wonder if I glory in the knowledge that I could beat it. If that is true then obviously it’s for the wrong reasons.

The last of these obvious idols is the idol of power and by this Keller means political power in today’s world. He uses King Nebuchadnezzar as his example. The funny thing about this chapter is that Keller basically paints a picture that if you are a Christian it’s virtually impossible to become active in politics. This somewhat disappoints me because I often think about possibly running for mayor in my home town way down the road after I spend a few years as a practicing physician, but Keller essentially says it’s a path filled with devilish traps that are too difficult to evade. He makes an incredibly convincing case, and I oftentimes think that when you read the Bible, I don’t see how Christianity jives with public service unless it’s servicing the Great Commission.

THE ABSOLUTE BEST PART OF THE BOOK is the 2nd part where Keller talks about hidden idols. These aren’t the obvious idols like money, sex, love, power or materialism, and this is where the book cuts straight the heart of idolatry in and of itself. Keller describes the obvious idols as idols of the heart. They are the idols I’ve already written about. The second part of the book talks about less obvious idols which Keller calls idols of our culture & society.

I definitely don’t want to give too much away on this front. A couple of things really stand out though. Keller goes into great detail retelling the story of Jonah from a standpoint of having an idol of our religious faith. The Jonah story is an obvious one for those of us raised in Sunday School. We can tell that story backwards and forwards, but again, Keller uses a unique way of retelling the story. Jonah of course was a prophet of God, but Keller notes that Jonah was a true idolator in that he used his religious piety as a false idol to feel superior to other people. Obviously Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, but Keller makes the case that Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he hated that race of people. They were Israel’s enemies and Jonah wanted God to punish them instead of saving them. Keller makes the point that Jonah was racist against Ninevites and prejudiced against those people.

Keller goes on to paint a picture that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Jonah was lucky enough for God to extend his grace to him, so why should Jonah fell like he earned something? Of course this all leads back to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and how we are all saved by grace. Obviously I’m leaving a lot of the stuff that Keller goes into out of this review, but the Jonah exposition really hit home with me for various reasons. It’s definitely worth it to read what Keller has to say.

Keller goes back to Jacob one more time to talk about Jacob & Esau and how Esau welcomes Jacob home although Jacob thought surely Esau meant to kill him when he found out that Esau was coming out to him with 400 soldiers. I won’t go into it here, but it’s a lot like the story of Jonah in that Keller uses another well known Bible story to hit home our false need for counterfeit gods.

The final chapter of the book is more application regarding identifying our counterfeit gods. Instead of writing about a lot of what Keller said, here is a bullet point list of some of the better points Keller make:

  • Contemporary christians are just as materialistic as non-believers in our culture
  • What you daydream about or imagine can lead you to see what your false idols are
  • What you spend money on can lead you to see what your false idols are
  • How you respond to unanswered prayers & disappointment give insight into your heart
  • Looking at your uncontrollable emotions gives insight to possibly having an idol

All in all a great book. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find Timothy Keller and it gives me some renewed faith in modern biblical scholarship. I hope you get a chance to read The Prodigal God & Counterfeit Gods. They are well worth the effort and aren’t long books. You can get through them in 3-4 hours I’d think if you went straight through.


February 6, 2010 - Posted by | Book Review, Christianity

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