Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Gods at War: Defeating the Idols That Battle for Your Heart, by Kyle Idleman


I had never heard of Kyle Idleman until I read Tim Challies' review of his recent bestseller Not a Fan. Challies had some very positive things to say about the book, but ended his review with three concerns: 1) Idleman relied overmuch on humor and pop culture references; 2) Idleman occasionally employed questionable exegesis; 3) Idleman seems to imply that sanctification is accomplished through effort. I expect Challies, if he were to review this latest book, would find himself repeating his earlier concerns.

But first a bit about the book. It is, as you might expect from the title, a discussion of modern-day idolatry. Idleman argues, quite rightly, that at the root of every sin is the sin of idolatry--the elevation of something else above God. He is quick to admit that the various 'gods' we serve are often not bad things in and of themselves; it is only our worship of them that is sinful. He groups these idols into three categories: pleasure (food, sex, and entertainment), power (success, money, and achievement), and love (romance, family, and self). He does a decent job of explaining our modern fascination with these 'gods', though I think a more nuanced discussion of the 'god' of self would have been helpful. And fear of man, though related to success and achievement, is prevalent enough to merit its own separate discussion--the 'god' of reputation, perhaps, or popularity.

Still, for the most part, Idleman is dead-on in his discussion of common idols of our day. Some of his biblical examples may be exegetically suspect (he has a tendency to supply behind-the-scenes motives or purposes that are not explicitly supported by the text). From what Challies observed about Not a Fan, it sounds like this may be a trend in his writing. His takeaway points ('worshipping the idol of X is bad') are fine, though. 

Idleman does rely heavily on humor (and humorous footnotes), as Challies noted. However, I actually found these observations amusing and refreshing; Idleman handles the humorous aside with more dexterity and skill than many authors, and his humorous asides were legitimately funny and either positively contributed to the text or, at a minimum, didn't detract from it. Idleman is clearly among the better modern-day Evangelical writers, which is in itself some cause for celebration.

My biggest issue with the book is an echo of one of Challies' concerns: the Gospel is largely absent. Idleman acknowledges that Christians have been saved by the atoning death of Christ, that He died for us while we were yet sinners, that God willingly sacrificed His son to save sinful man. But the Gospel that saves does not appear to have any power to sanctify. When it comes to dealing with the issue of idolatry, Idleman's solution seems to be: don't do that. He very helpfully draws his reader's attention to the areas of idolatry in his or her life, but his only real advice is 'you should stop.'  As a recovering legalist, I can tell you that this advice is ... not terribly useful. I know from experience that I am not capable of removing the idols from my life.

True, Idleman ends each chapter with a meditation on Jesus's superiority to the particular idol discussed therein--He satisfies us more than food; He is our family; He is our bridegroom; He is our treasure, our security, etc. As Idleman repeatedly observes, "idols are defeated not by being removed but by being replaced." True enough, and I agree that reminding ourselves of the sufficiency of our God is a useful tool in fighting the sin of idolatry. But we cannot will ourselves out of idol worship. Instead, we confess our sin, we praise God that our idolatry was paid for on the cross, and we trust Him to work sanctification in our lives through the power of the Gospel, even as we simultaneously strive to kill sin in our own lives. It is this Gospel that changes us, that motivates us to change. It is the Gospel that assures us that even as we struggle with idolatry--and continue to struggle until we die--we can rest in the finished work of Christ on the cross, and His purchase of forgiveness on our behalf.

It may be that this is precisely what Idleman meant to convey. But it's all to easy to read Gods at War as an exhortation to just 'try harder' until you've ditched all the idols in your life, and I suspect that more than a few legalistically-inclined readers are in for a disappointment when they strive against their idols only to find that their efforts at holiness are not enough to defeat their sin.

So feel free to read this book as a way to think through the hold idolatry has on your life; it does a decent job of identifying the problem. Just be sure to look elsewhere for the solution. (I recommend Overcoming Sin and Temptation, by John Owen. Elyse Fitzpatrick, whose Love to Eat, Hate to Eat was quite good, also has a book on this subject, though I confess I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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