Christian ‘Atheism’ – disbelief & the naming of cultural idols

Considering the vigorous dialogue that followed James’ post earlier in the week, I want to keep the discussion going by drawing attention to James Kay’s editorial in the July issue of Theology Today. Kay raises important questions related to American Christianity and what he describes as the ‘idols’ claiming the allegiance of some American evangelicals (e.g. nationalism and militarism).

The context for Kay’s remarks is the firestorm that followed Pastor Gregory Boyd’s sermon series in 2006 at his Minnesota mega-church in which he rejected the notion that the United States is a ‘Christian’ nation, refused to hang the American flag in the sanctuary, and urged that Christians stopped glorifying American military campaigns. The result? A thousand members left Boyd’s church, some before the end of the sermon series.

In light of the problem represented by the scenario at Boyd’s church, what American Christians require, Kay argues, is a healthy dose of ‘atheism’ – atheism’s protest against all deities that is. Christians need to take atheism’s critique captive and press it into the service of a robust cultural criticism, one that can identify and reject the idols that inhabit the church’s societal setting.

‘Pastor Boyd’s public airing of his disbelief in certain de facto dogmas of the evangelical movement…withdrew sacral support from the American idols that were claiming unqualified Christian allegiance and sanction from the language and practices of the church. The lesson here is that in order to become a true Christian or a true pastor, at least in America, one may have to become something of an atheist. Perhaps the protest of traditional atheism against all deities, when taken captive by the gospel (cf. 2 Cor 10:5) and thereby “regenerated” and “reformed,” can be impressed into the gospel’s service of cultural criticism.

…In the Greco-Roman world, where many gods were tolerated and honored as transcendental strands binding together a cosmopolitan empire, the refusal of Christians to take part in the customary obligations and oaths of civil religion (“Caesar is Lord!”) must have made them appear thoroughgoing atheists to their devout neighbors. In light of this history of resistance to popular forms of socially sanctioned religion, its retrieval might lead Christians to greater faithfulness to the disbelief entailed by the gospel. By honoring their ancient reputation as atheists, Christians might be emboldened to utter an occasional “anathema” to the reigning deities of contemporary society (‘Christian Atheism?’ Theology Today, 65 (2) July 2008: pp 142-43).’

Kay’s remarks, both perceptive and direct, should raise some questions that we can pursue here with some specifics: What are the reigning ‘idols’ and ‘deities’ of contemporary society threatening to hold the allegiance of American Christians? And, what might ‘Christian disbelief’ (Christian ‘atheism’) entail for those committed to the Gospel?

On the eve of the American presidential elections, discussions such as these can become unnecessarily (or at least too quickly) polemical. In posting Kay’s remarks on American evangelical Christianity, my point is not to argue for or against specific issues but to get us thinking about the practice of ‘Christian atheism’: standing for the Gospel and in doing so standing against the ‘deities’ that hold sway in American culture. A practice that has always characterized the church when it was most faithful to the Gospel.

What might some of these ‘idols’ be and how is their allegiance manifested by Christians? That’s where our discussion should start.  What do you think?


15 thoughts on “Christian ‘Atheism’ – disbelief & the naming of cultural idols

  1. As an American who has grown up in the evangelical church, I think you nailed it: nationalism and the military are idols. Too many believers think of America as Israel – God’s chosen people who are especially favored. And just like Israel, we’re blind to our faults, letting pride swell and idolism run rampant.

    I agreed with Boyd, and was impressed that he took such a stand. We need more pastors with that kind of independent thought. And that kind of backbone.


  2. Excellent topic.
    From the perspective of being an American now living in New Zealand, I think one thing that ‘christian atheism’ will NOT mean is either a complete rejection-of or marriage-too any political party.
    But yes, it will mean some things we may not be comfortable thinking about (let along doing). I’m thinking here about the tension between ‘the American dream’ and the Kingdom of God.

  3. This topic is a favorite of mine. I am always impressed (depressed?) by the scores of Christians who whole-heartedly embrace the ethic of violence as the manner in which real redemption is made. I find that remaking the world through the slaughter of ones enemies rather than exploring the difficult and ethic of loving those who have the least claim to our grace, is most likely a failure of creativity. I think that one of the centerpieces of any idol anyone makes is its simplicity. It is easy to accept and understand (wealth= work hard & get ahead, beauty= acquiring the right clothes/products, militarism= kill the enemy) but this kind of worldview rarely examines the difficulties and exceptions of life–where true grace is required. Idols hide behind nebulous rules while being a Christ follower requires an annointing each person, each circumstance…

  4. Dale – I am with you regarding the danger of aligning ourselves (as Christians) with one particular party as ‘the’ Christian party. I tend to agree with Tony Compolo that Christians should answer the question ‘What party are you?’ by asking ‘Which issue?’ And on some issues, we might not be able to see policies that align/resonate with the gospel in either party.

    Mike – Well said. Violence and militarism has run close to the surface throughout this discussion, but I think the dieities of ‘wealth’ and ‘beauty’ are far more pervasive problems for American evangelicals. Far more evangelicals need to be ‘atheists’ regarding the American culturual idols of prosperity and the gods of never-ending youth.

  5. Kent, I’m not sure exactly how to respond here, but I guess from my standpoint, the problem for North American theologians is less the challenge of identifying the idols than it is remaining engaged with those members of the Body of Christ who may have fallen captive but whom we continue to define as members of that Body. My concern over what happened in Boyd’s church—without knowing any of the details—is that Boyd may have plowed headlong into a “divorce” that left him permanently incapable of reaching a substantial proportion of his evangelical constituency—idols or not.

    I don’t see the OT prophets calling for such a divorce. The question is, How shall we then live as a people who have idolators in their midst? Secondly, who among us is called to be that contemporary prophetic voice? It may well be that Boyd truly counted the cost in a mega-church setting and decided that the only way to proceed was to blow the whole charade up and that it was truly the best way to speak the truth to his constituency in love—I can’t second guess his chosen tactic of tackling the issue of American evangelical idolatry.

    Perhaps the best way to frame the problem from my perspective is to relate a true, modern-day, American evangelical fable:

    Yesterday (yes, you will note the irony of the timing of this incident), I opened the garage door and was shocked to find a new bumper sticker plastered on the rear window of my wife’s car. At that very moment, serendipitously, she opened the door from the house on the opposite end of the garage and looked at me. The text of the bumper sticker was framed by graphics of two American flags and stated in bold letters, clearly legible from at least three car-lengths away, “You don’t like my flag? Call 1-800-LEAVE THE USA.” I looked back at her and said incredulously, “YOU put THAT bumper sticker on your car?”

    She responded, “Yes, I sure did; because that’s exactly the way I feel!”

    This really did happen yesterday, two days after mulling over Kent’s post and in the aftermath of James’ immediately preceding post, which I had read to my wife last week. My wife is the daughter of a WWII fighter pilot who was a double ace, flew in the European theater, and whose missions largely involved bombing and strafing targets located within Nazi Germany. My wife was born in 1942 and did not see her father for the first time until she was three years old. As you all know from the previous thread, I am a retired US Air Force officer, and I am the second Air Force officer to whom my wife has been married. I can’t even begin to fathom the depth of her roots of patriotism.

    Now, what kind of prophetic voice should I have toward my wife, who also is a thoroughgoing complementarian, believes I am the best teacher in the entire church, volunteers weekly (in spite of arthritis) for 6 hours at a soup kitchen for the marginalized here in Colorado Springs, is a compassionate magnet for the worst “down-and-outers” at our church, and has put me to shame with her willingness to love others sacrificially during the majority of our 31 married years?

    How should I identify—and help her understand—her false gods? Am I ready to hear from her about my own gods? I don’t think I would risk divorce per se, but I would sure have to count the cost and be very careful about how I speak, whether mostly by words or mostly by actions, etc. I leave it to Boyd and his constituency to consider the same questions in retrospect.

  6. Perhaps I should clarify one thing regarding the OT prophets and divorce: While they certainly did voice God’s sentiments, in that He certainly threatened divorce, so has my own wife when she felt she could not get my attention in any other way. But would He forever reject His covenant people? I don’t think so, as per Deut. 28-30.

  7. Thanks for the candor of all, especially for Jim. I believe what Jim says hits at the heart of this difficult issue: the challenge of understanding the gospel imperative within the context of our lives, our family stories, and our country’s stories.

    Kent’s blog and subsequent example of Boyd brings up a very important issue facing each believer and community – living as salt and light in a decaying and dark world. I admire Boyd’s charisma to challenge his congregants to view the gospel in a new way. Moving the flag out of the place of worship communicates that only God alone is worthy of praise. The gospel imperative commands us to live at times at odds with our culture and nation. The gospel imperative demands that we seek to make peace with those who are violent and cause us pain.

    However, in our culture today, some of us (or someone that we know) are willed by God into occupations that place them in positions where violence will occur. Our military and police force exist to protect our communities and nation from violence. They need our support and prayer. According to Kent’s description of Kay’s article, the emphasis of which Boyd confronts is the glorification of violence. Just turn on the television and another add for a violent video game flashes by. Our kids are confronted with mulitple ways in which to kill, maim, injure, and violate images of humans and animals. Long gone are the days of playing cowboys and indians – now the game is how many cowboys or indains one can kill to get to the next level. If those within Boyd’s church who choose to leave due to these two challenges from the gospel, then that is there choice.

    Pastor’s exist on the ragged edge between speaking the truth and offering words of encouragement and grace. Just like the church of Revelations that was neither hot nor cold, sometimes it is God’s desire to speak through His Spirit to rattle us out of our evangelical malaise to cause us to remember the experience the gospel afresh and anew. Not many pastors are willing to expose their people to the raw and unfiltered gospel in such a way as to risk the comfortability of their congregants. If this is being prophetic, then at times each pastor is called to such a task.

    Boyd’s action might not be for all churches in every place. But his example should be that which each pastor needs to pray and meditate upon. Woe to the pastor whom God wills to preach a “hard” sermon to convict the hearts of man and chooses not too.

    I have much respect for Jim and your wife. My wife’s grandfather recently passed away and he was a WWII vet and purple heart award winner during the battle of the bulge. Unfortunately he never evidenced any faith in Christ (we have hope that at the last God was speaking to his heart), but his life still is a legacy that I desire my son to emulate in certain ways.

    Any more thoughts – thanks Kent and James and others for continuing this thought provoking exercise.

  8. As I poke my head above the surface of completing job applications (getting a job in higher education is a full-time job in itself!) I have a couple thoughts.

    Jim, you have directed our attention away from the ‘abstract’ question I posed (identify the idols of evangelical Christianity in America) and focused it on HOW we go about identifying them and then HOW we go about dealing with those idols (how ‘disbelief’ is lived out). You have essentially made a somewhat abstract theological question quite pastoral in fact. Derek picked up that shift and shared some insightful comments in that regard (thanks D!). I am not complaining. We need to address those issues as well and they are the ones that fly closest to the surface of our lives so thank you for bringing them up in this context. Now, with that in mind let me share a a couple thoughts.

    First, yes (as you say) we need to be vigilant in applying our very best discernment when it comes to actually addressing our idols – putting legs to Christian disbelief whether that be at home, at church, or in the classroom. Simply being ‘prophetic’ isn’t enough if it isn’t accompanyied and driven by careful discernment motivated by love. There are a whole host of other questions we could pursue related to the HOW questions of being a prophet. That is likely a discussion for another day.

    Second, Jim and Derek, any chance you have any thoughts on the more abstract issue related to identifying idols? Thus far nationalism, militarism, violence, beauty, and money (capitalism) have been called out as potentials. You want to add any to that list? Jim, you don’t seem to dispute the claim that patriotism can in fact be an idol for American evangelicals – is that true? If so, you want to say more?

  9. Just a quick addition to the discussion I remembered from Shane Claiborne’s book “Jesus for President”:

    “It’s the beautiful things that get us. Perhaps the greatest seduction of not the ANTI-God, but the almost God. Poisonous fruit can look pretty tasty. That’s what is so dangerous about ideas like Freedom, Peace, and Justice. They are all seductive qualities, close to the heart of God. After all, it’s the beautiful things we kill and die for. And it’s the beautiful we market, exploit, brand, and counterfeit.

    We find ourselves possessed by our possessions and enslaved by the pursuit of freedom. Nations fighting for peace end up perpetuating the very violence they seek to destroy. Serpents are a slippery and slimy things.

    Most of the ugliness in the human narrative comes from distorted quest to possess beauty. Coveting begins with appreciating blessings. Murder begins with a hunger for justice. Lust begins with recognition of beauty. Gluttony begins when our enjoyment of the delectable gifts of God starts to consume us. Idolatry begins when our seeing a reflection of God in something beautiful leads to our thinking that the beautiful image bearer is worthy of worship.”

  10. Sure, Kent. Yes, I do see patriotism as a potential idol for American evangelicals. I’m just not very good at drawing the lines.

    Actually, I think the book of Revelation may well be the most subversive portion of Scripture dealing with the issue of patriotism in the Church, but the roots are planted in the OT, especially in the prophets, particularly when they employed the figure of adultery, to which I alluded previously.

    The gauntlet was thrown down when Israel first requested a king like the surrounding nations. The imagery becomes very graphic in the major prophets, esp. in places like Ezek 16 and 23, where Israel and Judah are characterized as beautiful but whoring sisters because they sought political alliances that were most likely to preserve their secular nation and lifestyle, when they had been called to be a theocracy. The striking thing in the prophets is how such alliances are invariably associated with frank idolatry.

    There is an undercurrent of this kind of link between patriotic obeisance and idol worship in the letters to the seven churches that I believe runs through the rest of the book of Revelation and is consummated in the Great Harlot of Rev. 17 and 18. The “overcomers” called out of the seven churches had “ears to hear what the Spirit has to say” and in the rest of the book overcomers would “keep the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” In Rev. 18:4 he says “come out of her my people, lest you share in her sins…”—a clear allusion to the invitation that was repeated throughout the OT to people of God who were tempted to “play both sides.”

    Now, what does that mean for American evangelicals? I don’t think it means “come out of the USA, my people…,” at least not at this point in our history. I do think it means that there is an ever-present danger for the people of God to seek “life” in one’s allegiance to the state. In a democracy, that could (or it might not) mean any of the following: glorying in certain aspects of our history as a nation while downplaying or excusing others; protecting social security at all cost; trusting in a fail-safe national health care system; discharging our calling to help the poor and oppressed by increasing taxes to underwrite social welfare programs; preserving global credit markets at all cost; putting teeth into immigration laws; defending the (private) right to bear arms; defending the right to private property; or preserving all individual “rights” to the detriment of the disenfranchised.

    I could come up with myriads more—again, I’m not very good at drawing lines.

    So, your question then becomes, When does the kind of patriotic devotion I illustrated above in my “American fable” become idolatrous? I don’t think you can ultimately identify the idols apart from living intimately enough in community that we can tell when our brothers and sisters are getting false life from a source other than God, which is my definition of idolatry.

    I guess my stake in this question would instead be to turn our attention toward identifying the marks of righteousness in the people of God, as I suggested in my responses to James’ last thread. Could it be that probing into the reasons for a lack of righteousness among our people would surface the idolatry?

  11. RE: any thoughts on the more abstract issue related to identifying idols? Thus far nationalism, militarism, violence, beauty, and money (capitalism) have been called out as potentials. You want to add any to that list?

    I highly recommend this website:

    Mr. Cherbonnier explains that it is impossible for a human being to go through life without SOME center, conscious or unconscious. The proper diagram of even the most selfish life is therefore not a closed circle but an ellipse with two centers, representing the false god around which the individual makes his orbit.

    On this website you will find a very long list of cultural icons such as patriotism, beauty, unselfishness, pride, etc. which have been or can be used as “idols” or points around which we can center our lives. If they are false gods, they will be proved so by invariably dissappointing their followers.

    FINALLY, after reading this website I have been persuaded that the God encountered in the Bible is far more worthy of becoming the center of my life than any of the other possible points of focus in our cultural world. I only wish I had encountered this gifted teacher seventy years ago.

  12. While perusing the web to find a photo I could use in my teaching presentation on idolatry today here in Switzerland, I came across your discussions. Having had discussions with others about “hard-core” idolatry vs soft-core” idolatry (e.g. Peter’s Wagner’s book) I tried to explain that the root of all idolatry is wrong ideas about God.

    A.W. Tozer wrote in “The Pursuit of God,” “Among the sins to which the human heart is prone [having a natural tendency towards], hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel [ a spoken or written statement or a representation that gives an unjustly unfavorable impression of a person or thing] on His character. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than He is…The essence [fundamental nature] of idolatry is the entertainment [allowing into the mind] of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him.” [amplification in brackets mine]

    “No God But God,” edited by Os Guinness, one contributor, Richard Keys observed, “If we do not understand the nature of idolatry, we will not be able to recognize it or guard against it in our lives and communities. As noted in the introduction, the apostle John was warning Christians when he wrote, “Keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). ”

    Ray Comfort, a New Zealand evangelist living in Southern California wrote in ‘The Great Deception,” The Cause of the disease of evangelical apathy which is so prevalent in Christendom, is simply idolatry. This is nothing new. It was the cause of Israel’s sexual sin (1 Cor 10:1-14), and was rampant throughout history, in fact, Unger’s Bible Dictionary tells us, `The term for harlot is used figuratively for idolatress…’ The symptom of idolatry is lawlessness within the church, and the cure is a correct understanding of the true nature of our Creator, revealed essentially in the Law of God…Notice that when God commissioned Gideon, the first thing He told him to do was to destroy his father’s idols. Then he was told to rebuild on the rock, in the proper arrangements. We must do the same. With all due respect, I am convinced that our twentieth-century spiritual forefathers (sincere though they may have been), have handed down to us an idolatrous understanding of the nature of God. We must destroy “our father’s idols,” then rebuild on the rock of the true character of God.”

    Francis Frangipane in “Truth, Holiness and the Presence of God” wrote, “…the resistance in you against God is an idol. It is the most powerful idol in the human heart.”

    Let’s be radical and get to the root of the problem…we can identify idols all day long but that does not mean we will understand the nature of idolatry or know how to deal with it.

  13. Pingback: Christian, your flag does not define you!: Ben Witherington III on Social Identity « Theology Forum

  14. When pastors stand up against idolization ideas, then they become vulnerable idealistic people, I personally, think this is not common to American only, this is more common than we tend to align to, we as ministers of churches must oust these wrong theologies and stand firm on the word of God

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