The Two Faces of Idolatry

The Omnivore’s Dilemma 

Most animals are born knowing what to eat. A koala bear’s sensory systems are “structured in advance of experience” to guide it to eucalyptus leaves. Humans, however, must learn what to eat. Like rats and cockroaches, we’re omnivores.

Being an omnivore has the enormous advantage of flexibility: You can wander into a new continent and be quite confident that you’ll find something to eat. But it also has the disadvantage that new foods can be toxic, infected with microbes, or riddled with parasitic worms. The “omnivore’s dilemma” (a term coined by Paul Rozin) 37 is that omnivores must seek out and explore new potential foods while remaining wary of them until they are proven safe.

Omnivores therefore go through life with two competing motives: neophilia (an attraction to new things) and neophobia (a fear of new things). People vary in terms of which motive is stronger, and this variation will come back to help us in later chapters: Liberals score higher on measures of neophilia (also known as “openness to experience”), not just for new foods but also for new people, music, and ideas. Conservatives are higher on neophobia; they prefer to stick with what’s tried and true, and they care a lot more about guarding borders, boundaries, and traditions.

The psychologist Mark Schaller has shown that disgust is part of what he calls the “behavioral immune system”— a set of cognitive modules that are triggered by signs of infection or disease in other people and that make you want to get away from those people. 40 It’s a lot more effective to prevent infection by washing your food, casting out lepers, or simply avoiding dirty people than it is to let the microbes into your body and then hope that your biological immune system can kill every last one of them.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (pp. 172-174). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This polarity plays out in our religious world too. We’ve seen in the story of Israel the religious omnivore’s dilemma. The chief issue of the book of Judges  was the Canaanization of Israel. They were being absorbed religiously into the larger context of Canaan, following the religions of their neighbors. The law of Moses was to resolve that problem if only Israel would keep it.

In another way the chief conflict of the book of Samuel is the absorption of Israel militarily and economically by its neighbors in Canaan. Kingship was to be the antidote to that problem. While there have been problems with the priesthood in Samuel (Eli and his corrupt sons, Samuel and his corrupt sons) the corruption has been common corruption not religious corruption. Eli’s sons were weak towards sex and money not Baal and Asherah. Saul is now the main character through which we will see how this all plays out.

The Presumed Safe Harbor of the Right Church

Traditionally in the US and Canada the CRC was a safe place to be. By virtue of our isolation through Christian schools and churches that very much aligned with family it was easy to see ourselves as always right and everyone else as wrong. Cosmopolitan people might call this provincialism but for many of us in the CRC we simply called it home, a safe, warm place. We read books by CRC authors, sang songs out of CRC hymnals, taught children out of CRC materials. If it came from CRC Publications we were happy because it was safe.

In the broader evangelical world there were other code words of having the same thing. Over the last twenty years “family” works like “CRC” did. “The fish, safe for the whole family.”

Sometimes when people wanted to talk about the right kind of church they’d say “a Bible believing church” and we all knew what they were talking about. This was how to resolve the religious omnivore’s dilemma. Find what’s safe as a community and stick with it.


Pious Safe Saul

We really like these kinds of things because they give us a sense of safety and assurance. If we make the right choices, if we color within the lines, THEN we can keep ourselves safe and insure that we and our loved ones who also stick to the rules will enjoy the security, prosperity and success that they system affords.

Saul seemed to be exactly what Israel was looking for. Unlike Samson and Gideon and others in the book of Judges who had to wrangle with paganism and had some sketchiness about them Saul’s religious avoidance of paganism seemed to make him safe for the whole family.

Last week  after the victory over the Ammonites that secured Saul’s kingship the war with the Philistines began. You can read about the Philistine dominance of Israel militarily and how Saul and Jonathan counter this in 1 Samuel 13-14. Despite the misstep last week Saul remains dedicated to Yhwh with no sign of temptations to Baal. He’s direction from the Lord, binding himself and his troops with oaths and even to the death of his son looking to keep them. Saul is pious, committed, devoted.

The text invites us to compare pious Saul with his more action oriented and adventurous son Jonathan. While Jonathan is not a religious adventurer (notice how he slurs the Philistines over circumcision) he takes the initiative and seems blessed by God, even if he’s not always sure of what outcome will arise. Saul seems to stay in the camp and wait for circumstances to change, in this case moved by Jonathan and to the end of the section demonstrate that his religiosity is fouling things up. For all of Saul’s piety it seems Jonathan is blessed.

Two Ways of Being the Center

The book of Judges explores the question of Israel’s religious consumerism. One way for Israel to remain at the center of the world is to work the menu of religious choices in order to find the gods or spiritualities that serve her best in her own opinion. If the Lord is working out, choose him. If you need some help from the Baals or other gods cozy up to them.

For those of us who were raised in strongly religious context the choice is clear. If we stay home religiously we are safe, can feel safe, can esteem ourselves for making the right choice and staying faithful.

I would really love to tell you that this is all that it takes to stay on the narrow path and avoid sin, evil and error, but I can’. If sin were so easy to avoid we probably wouldn’t have needed a savior. The Bible talks about sin in such subtle terms, in such powerful ways that we shouldn’t be too quick to imagine that we can master it by coloring in between the lines of religious orthodoxy. That is one of the lessons of the book of Samuel.

Saul is not tempted to switch gods as the battle with the Philistines isn’t going his way, he doubles down on the Lord and that isn’t a bad thing. What is revealed with Saul, however, is that this God is not so much his Master but his hope for the outcomes he desires. He hopes that God will be his savior but Saul will remain his own lord. God is a means to his end. In that sense God has becomes Saul’s idol even if he never makes a Baal out of silver.

There are two ways of working idolatry. One is to shop around the religious or spiritual market place to find “something that works for you”. The other is to take the Christian god and turn him into an idol leaving you as the master of the universe.

How can you tell if you do this? Can you tolerate God having a plan for your life that you haven’t signed off on or would object to strongly?

The Strange Shape of Jesus’ Life

If you want to see this worked out you can look at Jesus’ life.

On one hand, like Saul, there is no hint of Jesus being a religious consumer. We don’t find Jesus considering emperor worship or dabbling in the paganisms of the first century Roman empire.

When Satan tempts Jesus around what do the temptations revolve?

  • Will you use God’s power for your own comfort and convenience?
  • Will you avoid suffering at the expense of calling?
  • Will you make yourself the center of this mission instead of the Father who sent you?
  • Will you cut deals to make it happen on your own?

Jesus avoids both the obvious idolatry of other gods and the less obvious idolatry of self.


The idolatry of self is not voided with religious scrupulousness. It is possible to remain your own savior and lord by keeping God as your utility.


If Jesus is our savior, both of our idolatry of other gods and our idolatry of self in his life he fulfills both callings. He is not only devoted to his Father over other “gods” but devoted to his father even over his own self.


How does God deliver us from the idolatry to self for those of us not so tempted by idolatry to other gods? Usually through suffering, by taking us off the implicit script of our lives, and along the way invited us to trust him still and be faithful to him.


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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