What is idolatry? Is the word a religious relic of bygone ignorance, or worse: a slur of religious intolerance? Or perhaps, does it contain in its concept precisely the judgement, the wisdom, and the prophecy that our civilization needs, but will refuse to hear?
Religion is upstream from economics, which is upstream from politics. If you care about power, you should care about money; if you care about money, you should care about values: for what the people value, they pay for, and whom they people pay, they empower.
Idolatry can be conceived of as market inefficiency, in the market for primary values. And one could argue that market inefficiency in the market for primary values is the root cause of the downfall of civilizations.
To say: “This generation worships false gods” is to issue a jeremiad, a prophetic warning— handwriting on the wall — that our primary values market is grossly mis-priced, that the wrong values have been valued, that the right values have been undervalued; that we’ve bought the bad, and sold the good; that a reckoning is due, a recession is coming, maybe even a depression, maybe even a war, maybe even worse — maybe the gradual decline of this civilization, until one day, we wake up not just with the fear, but with the undeniable fact, that our supremacy has been super-ceded, that another civilization has replaced us, and that its primary values now are the new gods of the human race.
I fully expect my cannon-shot over the prow, in this dark corner of the internet, to go ignored. And as any prophet knows, his job is to be mocked and misunderstood, and hopefully to be wrong. But I will at least sleep better knowing that I have shouted, given voice to The Voices I hear, done what they told me to do, and that anything beyond that is beyond my control.
What are our primary values, as a culture, in 2019? This should be debated, but I will advance my perception, that among them are the old gods named: SLOTH, LUST, GLUTTONY, PRIDE, GREED, ENVY and WRATH. To recognize them, look no further than the irrelevant, ephemeral drivel that we read, which we call NEWS; the popular books lacking all profound insight, which we call LEARNING; the schools we attend lacking all earnest spiritual seeking, which we call EDUCATION; the crass clanging which we call MUSIC; the vulgar plots which we call THEATER; the buying of superficial and useless goods and services which we call SHOPPING; the striving to get-rich-quick without-effort-or-risk, so we can buy-more-things and work-less-hard, which we call CAREERS; the devaluation of romance which we call DATING; the bacchic rites which we call FESTIVALS; the glamorization of physical beauty and debauchery which we call CELEBRITY; the popularity contest which we call SOCIETY; the ideology of envy and greed which we call PROGRESSIVISM; the pageantry of victimization and emphasis of all superficial group differences other than the essential differences of individual character, which we call IDENTITY.
Now the word idolatry is a question: Are these the true gods? Do we value the right things? Are these symptoms of a healthy society? Can we imagine a stronger civilization built on sterner stuff? If we can, how can we replace these false gods with truer gods?
And word idolatry is also a command: Replace the false with the true.
At some point in this country’s history, our economy shifted from a producer-culture to a consumer-culture. In a producer-culture, everyone saves money. Saving money is a way of saying: “THAT WHICH I VALUE DOES NOT EXIST YET; IT EXISTS IN THE FUTURE; WE MUST INVENT IT; NOTHING EXISTS WHICH IS WORTH MY MONEY.” Savings economies invest. Instead of spending all their money, they invest it in training, tools, inventions and enterprises. Producer-cultures are not only parsimonious about money, they are obsessed with time: because all demands for their time prevent them from investing their time in the future. But today, we borrow and spend, which is a way of damning the future; a way of saying: “LET US EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY; FOR WE ARE HERE TODAY, AND GONE TOMORROW!”
Is it any coincidence that this economic shift from a producer-culture to a consumer-culture has coincided with a religious shift from pietistic to secular, and a political shift from capitalist to socialist?
In Gibbon’s analysis of Rome, it was the loss of civic, and specifically, martial virtue that led to the triumph of the barbarians: Rome collapsed on its own. Bred in the cold dark, toughened by war and driven by hunger, the bronze age heroism of the barbarian religions gave them more fire, more virile strength, than the Romans softened by pleasure and inured to dominance.
Do we still possess the virtue that gave us the land? Every generation must prove itself anew, and cannot inherit the victories of its forebears. The Cold War is not yet over, still, three-quarters of a century later... World War II was not our victory. The Great War was not ours. The Civil War was not ours. The Revolutionary War was not ours. None of it was ours. We are not those men. Their virtues are not our virtues. Their strengths are not our strengths.
We criticize them for their crimes in war: for slavery, for the conquest of the indians, for the neo-colonialism of all our foreign misadventures since Vietnam. But who are we, and what have we done?
Instagram is the nightmare dystopia in which People Magazine took over the world: and we live in it. We are the citizens of that dystopia which barely reads, and when it reads, reads nothing good; that has celebrities but no heroes; and whose great concerns are environmental sustainability and free health-care.
We are ripe for conquest: and a long period of economic decline always precedes a hard power transition. Perhaps for a long time yet we can persist in denial. Rome is capitalized and the barbarians are not. For there was not one people that sacked the empire. Will it be the Chinese? The Russians? Or others? Who knows? But it will be a people with a religion of strength.
Maybe it won’t even be violent; maybe there won’t even be a war; maybe we can go gently into the night, but it won’t be a good night… “The night is dark and full of terrors.” At the very least, what will be lost is the supremacy of our original civic religion: LIBERTAS. Liberty, freedom, creativity, expression… these are less God-given rights, than blood-earned rights by people who believed they were God-given. The religion came first, then the economic strength, then the political power.
The 21st century Jeremiah will not call upon the people to repent, to humble themselves and pray. But merely to ask: Am I worthy of all this? Have I done enough with what I have been given? Will I be the one to let the white city fall?
The Call of Jeremiah
The word of the LORD came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
“Alas, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.
Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”
“I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied.
The LORD said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.”
The word of the LORD came to me again: “What do you see?”
“I see a pot that is boiling,” I answered. “It is tilting toward us from the north.”
The LORD said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,” declares the LORD.
“Their kings will come and set up their thrones
in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem;
they will come against all her surrounding walls
and against all the towns of Judah.
I will pronounce my judgments on my people
because of their wickedness in forsaking me,
in burning incense to other gods
and in worshiping what their hands have made.
“Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land — against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.
Israel Forsakes God
The word of the LORD came to me:
“Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem:
“This is what the LORD says:
‘I remember the devotion of your youth,
how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
through a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the LORD,
the first-fruits of his harvest;
all who devoured her were held guilty,
and disaster overtook them,’ ”
declares the LORD.
Hear the word of the LORD, you descendants of Jacob,
all you clans of Israel.
This is what the LORD says:
“What fault did your ancestors find in me,
that they strayed so far from me?
They followed worthless idols
and became worthless themselves.
They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD,
who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness,
through a land of deserts and ravines,
a land of drought and utter darkness,
a land where no one travels and no one lives?’
I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
The priests did not ask,
‘Where is the LORD?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me;
the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
following worthless idols.
“Therefore I bring charges against you again,”
declares the LORD.
“And I will bring charges against your children’s children.
Cross over to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and observe closely;
see if there has ever been anything like this:
Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glorious God
for worthless idols.
Be appalled at this, you heavens,
and shudder with great horror,” declares the LORD.
“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
Is Israel a servant, a slave by birth?
Why then has he become plunder?
Lions have roared;
they have growled at him.
They have laid waste his land;
his towns are burned and deserted.
Also, the men of Memphis and Tahpanhes
have cracked your skull.
Have you not brought this on yourselves
by forsaking the LORD your God
when he led you in the way?
Now why go to Egypt
to drink water from the Nile?
And why go to Assyria
to drink water from the Euphrates?
Your wickedness will punish you;
your backsliding will rebuke you.
Consider then and realize
how evil and bitter it is for you
when you forsake the LORD your God
and have no awe of me,”
declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.
“Long ago you broke off your yoke
and tore off your bonds;
you said, ‘I will not serve you!’
Indeed, on every high hill
and under every spreading tree
you lay down as a prostitute.
I had planted you like a choice vine
of sound and reliable stock.
How then did you turn against me
into a corrupt, wild vine?
Although you wash yourself with soap
and use an abundance of cleansing powder,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,”
declares the Sovereign LORD.
“How can you say, ‘I am not defiled;
I have not run after the Baals’?
See how you behaved in the valley;
consider what you have done.
You are a swift she-camel
running here and there,
a wild donkey accustomed to the desert,
sniffing the wind in her craving —
in her heat who can restrain her?
Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves;
at mating time they will find her.
Do not run until your feet are bare
and your throat is dry.
But you said, ‘It’s no use!
I love foreign gods,
and I must go after them.”
“As a thief is disgraced when he is caught,
so the people of Israel are disgraced —
they, their kings and their officials,
their priests and their prophets.
They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’
and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
They have turned their backs to me
and not their faces;
yet when they are in trouble, they say,
‘Come and save us!’
Where then are the gods you made for yourselves?
Let them come if they can save you
when you are in trouble!
For you, Judah, have as many gods
as you have towns.”
“Why do you bring charges against me?
You have all rebelled against me,”
declares the LORD.
“In vain I punished your people;
they did not respond to correction.
Your sword has devoured your prophets
like a ravenous lion.
“You of this generation, consider the word of the LORD:
“Have I been a desert to Israel
or a land of great darkness?
Why do my people say, ‘We are free to roam;
we will come to you no more’?
Does a young woman forget her jewelry,
a bride her wedding ornaments?
Yet my people have forgotten me,
days without number.
How skilled you are at pursuing love!
Even the worst of women can learn from your ways.
On your clothes is found
the lifeblood of the innocent poor,
though you did not catch them breaking in.
Yet in spite of all this
you say, ‘I am innocent;
he is not angry with me.’
But I will pass judgment on you
because you say, ‘I have not sinned.”
“Why do you go about so much,
changing your ways?
You will be disappointed by Egypt
as you were by Assyria.
You will also leave that place
with your hands on your head,
for the LORD has rejected those you trust;
you will not be helped by them.”