Idolatry
By Stephen E. Fowl
Baylor University Press 2019. Pp. 180 $34.95.

Review by Anthony Petrotta

Professor Fowl’s argument is clear and concise: idolatry is alive and well, just as it was in the days of ancient Israel and the early Church. Fowl fleshes this argument out with masterful exegesis and clear, subtle theological reflection and engagement with the Church and the world.

I would be, however, hard-pressed to say that idolatry is a burning issue with clergy and in our local churches. Most worship is grounded in the reading of Holy Scripture (whether lectionary or, perhaps, a “book” study); most worship draws upon songs and prayers that address God directly in some form; and most churches will have Communion regularly. Before reading this one, a book on “idolatry” would be near the bottom of my list of “books to read before I die.”

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Having read other books by Stephen Fowl (and, in full disclosure, as a fellow doctoral student at Sheffield University), I felt that I should give it a try. Having read this book, I would now say that it is a “must read” for all priests, ministers, and others engaged in faith formation.

Why?

“For believers, idolatry is much more like divided attention than a sharp change from attention directed solely at God to a full-scale devotion to that which is not God” (p.4). Our attention as believers, through cultural influences and even friendships, gets turned away, often imperceptibly towards “that which is not God” (p.4).

This turning is rarely total; our attention always has God in view, even if only peripherally. The people in Micah’s day, I dare say, would not have immediately recognized that their attention towards God and practices were idolatrous, any more than we recognize our practices as idolatrous. Micah’s audience were offended by his words much as we are offended by prophetic voices in our day. We don’t readily recognize that some of our beliefs, practices, and attitudes might be less than God-ward. We may be distracted at times, but not idolatrous. Or so we reason.

Fowl seeks to show in what manner and how idolatry shows its face, even when thinly veiled, as it almost always is.

Fowl is a consummate reader of scripture and acquaints us with various passages and patterns surrounding idolatry in the Bible. He considers how we think about it, guiding us through “attending and forgetting,” “bounded and unbounded” desire, “insecurity, love and mission,” and concludes with the “community of the curious.” Fowl not only informs us, but models for us what reading scripture can be for those who profess scriptural faith and practice. Idolatry becomes less a concept and more an issue of formation in our faith.

The concluding chapter, “The Community of the Curious,” takes us through key texts that show how communities can be formed — whether for ill or good — and how we lapse into idolatry or flourish with faithful remembrance and practice. Fowl examines Deuteronomy 12-13 and Acts 17 in particular for what they show us about idolatry and its consequences.

In Deuteronomy 12 this lapsing begins with what seems a legitimate and perhaps innocuous question: “How did these nations worship their gods?” (Deut. 12:30). This question has legitimacy since we worship a God who is not readily or easily defined or confined: ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I will be what I will be” (Ex. 3:14). Seeing how others believe and act is a primary mode of learning; we are shaped especially through important relationships, such as friends, family, civic and religious leaders.

This nominally legitimate question of how others worship, however, is followed in Deuteronomy 13 with those who promise “omens and portents” and the invitation to follow “other gods” (Deut. 13:1-2). It seems that a genuine curiosity, however, exposes curiosity also as our inclination towards novelty. Fowl makes the point that our symbols require continuing catechesis since they can be co-opted for uses not intended at the outset (pp. 40ff.).

The Athenians in Acts 17 are an example of such a misdirection of attention. They are enthralled by novelty rather than by a true picture of God (Acts 17:21). I recall a scene in the movie Oh, God! where George Burns (playing God) replies to John Denver’s request for a miracle by changing the weather. “God” makes it rain — inside the car, not outside — and John Denver is elated with this “miracle.” John Denver wanted “special effects,” not a miracle, at least in the sense of God’s radical inbreaking into our lives.

The novelty of some religious practices can also be accompanied with a forgetfulness regarding the meaning and function of our own symbols and practices. It’s not simply a failure of memory, but it is also “tied to a failure to practice the right forms of attentiveness and to keep those practices of attentiveness rooted in catechesis” (p. 47). Later Fowl makes the stronger point that idolatry “is a misdirection of love and attention away from God and towards something that is not God” (p. 65).

Fowl follows this caution towards novelty in Deuteronomy 12-13 with a look at Luke 11 where Jesus admonishes his followers to have a “single” eye. The NRSV renders this eye as “healthy” (v. 34). Fowl argues that this admonition by Jesus is an expansion of Jesus critique of the crowds’ moral and spiritual blindness in Luke 11:29-32. Given this understanding, the “eye comes to stand, synecdochally, for all of one’s powers of perception and judgment, for the way one’s intellectual appetites are formed” (p. 115, italics added).

Fowl also makes clear that the believer’s interaction with the world is not one of hatred of the world but rather a love for the world, a vision of integrity toward the Lord (p. 114-5).

Fowl closes his discussion of the “Community of the Curious” by drawing us back to our baptismal prayer where we pray for an “inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works” (p. 121; cf. BCP, p. 308).

As creatures made in God’s image, we are curious creatures, and this facility, rightly, needs to be cultivated. What Fowl advocates in Idolatry is that we become aware of what shapes our faith and practice. Are those influences moving us towards — or away from — the knowledge and love of God? Without such discernment, our curiosity puts us in danger from the unchecked influences that the surrounding culture presents to us 24/7. Instead, Fowl entreats us to cultivate within our Christian communities those dispositions, habits, and practices that lead towards true worship of the true God.

Idolatry is not a comfortable read, but it is a delight to see a first-rate theologian tackle such an important topic.

The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Petrotta is rector emeritus of St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church, Wilsonville, Oregon and was associate professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary before his retirement. 

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