Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation

Idols of the Heart and 'Vanity Fair' - Excerpt Four

Author: Date: October 22, 2009


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The following is an excerpt from the article “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair'” by Dr. David Powlison. The article originally appeared in The Journal of Biblical Counseling. We will be publishing excerpts here all this week to coincide with the October 20 release date of the book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters by the Rev. Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City. He is also the author of New York Times bestsellers Reason for God and The Prodigal God. In the new book, Rev. Keller makes reference to Dr. Powlison’s article as having been very influential in his thinking about the subject of modern idolatry. You can download a sample excerpt from Counterfeit Gods here, and read or download a full copy of “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair'” at the end of this excerpt.

Hunger as Idolatry

When a “hunger drive” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am actually engaging in religious behavior. I—”the flesh”—have become my own god, and food has become the object of my will, desires, and fears. The Bible observes the same mass of motives which the behavioral sciences see as a “primary drive.” Something biological is certainly going on. Something psychological, and even sociological, is going on. But the Bible’s conceptualization differs radically. I am not “hungerdriven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.”

We are meant to relate to food by thankfully eating what we know we have received and by sharing generously. I am an active idolater when normal hunger pangs are the wellspring of problem behavior and attitudes. Normal desires tend to become inordinate and enslaving. The various visible sins which can attend such an idolatry—gluttony, anxiety, thanklessness, food obsessions and “eating disorders,” irritability when dinner is delayed, angling to get the bigger piece of pie, miserliness, eating to feel good, and the like—make perfect sense as outworkings of the idol that constrains my heart. Problem behavior roots in the heart and has to do with God.

The idolatries inhabiting our relations with food, however, are as social as they are biological or psychological. Perhaps my father modeled identical attitudes. Perhaps my mother used food to get love and to quell anxiety. Perhaps they went through the Great Depression and experienced severe privation, which has left its mark on them and made food a particular object of anxiety. Perhaps food has always been my family’s drug of choice. Perhaps food is the medium through which love, happiness, anger and power are expressed. Perhaps I am bombarded with provocative food advertisements. The variations and permutations are endless.

Membership in the society of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam ensures that we will each be a food idolater in one way or another. Membership in American consumer society shapes that idolatry into typical forms. A complex system of idolatrous values can be attached to food. For example, we characteristically lust for a great variety of foodstuffs. Food plays a role in the images of beauty and strength which we serve, in desires for health and fears of death. Food—the quantities and types prepared, the modes of preparation and consumption—is a register of social status. Membership in a famished Ethiopian society would have shaped the generic idolatry into different typical forms. Membership in the micro-society of my family further particularizes the style of food idolatry: for example, perhaps in our family system hunger legitimized irritability, and eating was salvific, delivering us from destroying our family with anger. Yet in all these levels of social participation, my individuality is not lost. I put my own idiosyncratic stamp on food idolatry. For example, perhaps I am peculiarly enslaved to Fritos when tense and peculiarly nervous about whether red food dyes are carcinogenic!

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This excerpt is from a full length article originally published in the Winter 1995 edition of The Journal of Biblical Counseling.

David Powlison, is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF and has been the editor of The Journal of Biblical Counseling. He holds a Ph.D. in History of Science and Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. David has been counseling for over thirty years. He has written many books and articles on biblical counseling and the relationship between faith and psychology, including: Speaking Truth in Love; Seeing with New Eyes; Power Encounters; and Competent to Counsel?: the History of a Conservative Protestant Biblical Counseling Movement. David is an adjunct professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and has taught across the U.S.A. and internationally, including Korea, India, Brazil, Europe, United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. David and his wife, Nan, have a son, two daughters, and one granddaughter.