Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Which Is Our Golden Calf?

All through my childhood and into my teenage years, I was taught that idols were a bad thing. The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston would come on TV, and I would watch the scene of Moses coming down the mountain and becoming enraged when he saw the Israelites worshiping a golden calf.

Fast forward to 2002 and the word idol became cool with the launch of Fox TV's American Idol. I won't offer up a brief summary of what the show is about since you already know, unless you've been on Mars for the last decade. But yes, placing someone high up on a pedestal is what viewers and non-viewers alike tend to do.

We hear someone sing, we read a fascinating book, we watch a thrilling movie, and we jump to placing more importance on someone else than we do to others.  Some people idolize the singer Adele, some idolize Tom Hanks. Others idolize Moses or Jesus.

And here comes the difference between an inspirational figure and an idol.

There are many people whom I've met or haven't met that inspire me. But when we focus too much on the individual rather than the qualities they possess which we admire, we fashion them into idols and lose sight of the real goal: self-improvement and personal growth.

It occurs to me sometimes when I pass a church sign or read people's status updates that Jesus has become an idol, almost a golden calf for some people.  From my knowledge of the Bible, Jesus spent his time on the fringes of society with the poor and disenfranchised, rather than building opulent church buildings in his name.  He focused on the sick and the widows, yet we raise up his cross on our church buildings and wear them around our necks.

There is nothing wrong with Jesus, or Buddha, or Muhammad being a very inspirational figure whom we can learn from, but if we merely idolize them, and lose sight of the ultimate goal - self-improvement and being more loving, we are akin to the Israelites and their golden calf.

I don't believe Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life and build opulent churches and form a religion in my name." Rather he said, "I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly."  And what does abundant life look like? It is a life full of love. Love always has to be the focus, rather than placing one or two people up as idols.

Finally, the goal is, in John Shelby Spong's words, "to live fully and love wastefully and be all that we can be." This also means radical self-acceptance. Sometimes I think that people are so prone to raising up idols, whether it be Julia Roberts or Jesus, because it distracts them from taking up the difficult task of shedding personal shame or blame. But if we are constantly raising up our personal golden calf, we never have to do the difficult personal work of self-improvement or growth. Nor do we necessarily have to love; we can just point other people to our idols and say, "Look at him/her."

In the end, if an inspirational person or persons help us to become 1) more loving, and 2) more whole individuals, then that should be embraced. But if we worship something or someone just because "it's always been that way," or in order to avoid doing our personal inventory or taking up the challenge of loving wastefully, then we must remove those idols from our lives.