Not My Idol

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. ... Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. (1 Cor 10:14, 19-21)

The gods of ancient Rome and Greece didn't care if you lived a moral life. They only demanded that you honor them. Honoring them sometimes meant engaging in the same kind of highly questionable behavior they did. Socrates got in trouble and was branded an atheist because he pointed out that the gods were just expressions of people’s immoral behavior. They were an excuse, a way for people to glorify and justify their appetite for sex, gluttony, possessions, and blood. The thinking went something like this: If the gods are doing it, then it must be okay for me, too.

Hollywood and the cult of celebrity play a similar role as the gods of old. We glorify the behavior of movie stars, all the while watching their lives implode from their self-indulgence and lack of values. They end up in a cycle of marriage-divorce and addiction-rehab, with the recent scandal of sexual exploitation proving that the people controlling Hollywood are the ones least qualified to tell us how to live our lives. But all the while, they're still our idols. We yearn for role models—people we can pattern our lives after. The media creates gods for us; we honor and imitate them. We’re not so different from the people of ancient Greece.

If we think that we can connect ourselves to an industry driven by these values and not be influenced, we’re kidding ourselves. Hollywood can take immoral people, caught in self-destructive cycles, and represent them in a way that attracts us. We may not want to be influenced, but we can’t help it. We are shaped by those we idolize. We see it in all areas of life. As a parent, for example, I am constantly challenged by the reminder that my kids are watching me. It’s like walking a tightrope, living a holy life in today’s world, but I know that if I stumble, I can cause them to stumble also. As much as they are influenced by media more than me once they hit their teenage years, they still need an example of what it looks like to live a holy life in our culture. I’m the closest example for them of how to do that; if I can’t pull it off, they may conclude that it can’t be done at all.

Our responsibilities as parents are just an example of the thing we all need. We need someone to idolize—someone who will influence us in a direction that gives us the life we were created for, rather than the self-destructive emptiness we see coming out of Hollywood. It’s the solution that Hollywood needs, too; Hollywood can’t make sense of its own moral plight.

Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to a church that was divided on a number of different matters, and Paul’s goal was to resolve their disagreement by focusing them on a fundamental truth. One of their disagreements was over eating food that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. It was customary for the priests of ancient Rome and Greece to sell sacrificed meat in the market (anything they couldn’t finish themselves) or to host dinners in the temples. Some of the Christians were purchasing the meat and attending the meals, reasoning that no harm was done if the gods weren’t real in the first place.

Paul points out that the problem isn't the food or even the idols, but connecting ourselves to practices and values which are evil. The new converts needed to detach from their old lives in order to fix their eyes on Christ and be influenced by him. The seemingly unimportant connection they had to the temple food was an opportunity to be influenced by pagan values, and drawn back to a pagan lifestyle. We face the same challenge in our world today. We participate in the world, listen to what it says, and are drawn to its values and priorities. To the degree that we are, we’re not following the Lord. The cult of celebrity manipulates our affections and impresses its perspective on us. Resisting that and living a holy life is one of the great challenges of the Christian life in today’s world. But that’s the path to the power and fulfillment that Jesus offered. We lose out on his blessings when our hearts belong to something other than him.

It’s not enough to stop identifying with the idols we’re drawn to—the celebrities, automobiles, lifestyles, and diversions that captivate us. We need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ and let him influence us instead. We can do that in two ways. We do it, first, by reading his words and applying them to our everyday lives. When we obey, our lives glorify him (1 Cor. 10:31). We share his heart and priorities as we walk in his footsteps and live out his values. The second way we avoid idolatry is by following people who follow Jesus—our mentors, teachers, and pastors. They’re just people, with the same kind of challenges we face, but they are farther along the journey, and they can help us move in the right direction. It’s not always clear what it looks like, following Jesus in today’s world. “What would Jesus do” only gets us part way there. But we can look at the lives of people who are engaging culture and living holy lives, and allow them to guide us along the same path. This was one of Paul's recommendations to the Corinthians—follow him, as he followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).

The Lord has a life for each of us that is found in him. It’s a life of blessing and power. It’s his life, offered freely to all of us who trust him. The world’s substitute can’t provide you with the thing you need; Hollywood can't even solve its own problems. Celebrities need Jesus as much as anyone. Fix your eyes on the author of your salvation and follow him.

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