Of Idols and Icons

I get a bit of a theological chuckle every time I hear mention of the television show “American Idol”. I’ve never willingly watched the show, but only because television generally and televised talent shows in particular tend to bore me to tears. My theological chuckle, though, has nothing to do with my television preferences. Rather, I find the name of the show ironic, because perhaps no society in human history has had more idols than 21st century America.

In his explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes:

What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together, faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.

By that definition, clearly there is no shortage of idols. Perhaps the most widely acclaimed idol is our money and our possessions. Despite our protestations to the contrary, the fact is that as a society we look to money as the source of all good and as a refuge in all distress. To see how embedded this belief is in our culture, try the following experiment: sit down and watch a golf tournament on TV. (The experiment also works during football games and other sporting events, and even during the evening news, but it is most evident during golf telecasts for some reason.) If the golf coverage doesn’t put you to sleep, when the commercials come on, take note of how many of the commercials are for financial service companies: investment brokers, insurance companies, banks, etc. Now, note how many of those companies make their pitch using the word “security”, and how many make their pitch on the basis of some variation of “living the good life”. Once you see it, you’ll start to notice it everywhere. Everything from cars to deodorant to cleaning products are pitched from one or both of these angles, being secure (i.e., a refuge in distress) or living the good life (i.e., as a source of good). We have, it seems, no shortage of American idols.

This is not a new phenomenon, by the way, nor is it an exclusively American one. Humans have a long history of worshiping and placing our trust in the gifts rather than in the Giver. The story of Aaron making a golden calf for the Israelites to worship in Exodus 32 is well-known; what is often forgotten is that the gold they used was given to them by God (via the Egyptians) on the day they departed from Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36). This was neither the first nor the last time humans made the mistake of worshiping God’s gifts rather than worshiping, trusting and believing in God.

In contrast to idols are icons. Sitting on my dresser is an icon, or rather two icons joined together into what is called a diptych. On the left is an icon of Christ Pantocrator, or Christ the Ruler of All. On the right is one of Mary with the infant Jesus.


Many Protestants, including some Lutherans, are rather suspicious of icons and consider them to be idolatrous. As justification, they usually point to the Old Testament prohibition against idols in Exodus 20: 4-6 and other places:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Icons, though, are not idols. Idols are things that we put in the place of God, that we look to as the source of all good and as refuge in distress. Icons, on the other hand, are things that point us toward the true source of all good and our true refuge in all distress. I don’t worship either of the images of Christ that sit on my dresser. Rather, their presence there, and the fact that they are almost the first thing I see each morning, serves to remind me of where my ultimate trust should lie. The fact is, I need that reminder. It’s as easy for me to fall into the idol trap as anyone else, and it’s distressingly easy for me to get up and launch into my day without sparing a thought for God. The icons on my dresser don’t completely negate this tendency, but they do help to moderate it. They help to remind me who I belong to, and who is actually Ruler of All.

What are the idols you struggle with in your life? What are the icons in your life that point you back to the true Ruler of All?

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