Friday, February 11, 2011

Idol Worship and the Super Bowl

As you may know, I am something of a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Last week, as the Superbowl approached, my excitement was spilling over in the church office. First, I brought in my “terrible towel.” Maybe you saw these yellow rally towels being whipped around in the stands during the big game? The Terrible Towel was created in 1975 by Myron Cope, THE radio broadcaster in Pittsburgh for Steelers games. The Towel has been taken to the peak of Mount Everest, and even into space on the International Space Station. Well, last week The Towel made its debut in the Sardis church office. I carefully arranged the towel, along with a can of Iron City beer bearing a photo of the 1980 Superbowl champ Steelers, in a place of honor on a credenza outside my office. Soon, offerings began to arrive—a calendar page with a Pittsburgh scene of the three rivers was added to the display. A copy of Sports Illustrated with Troy Polamalu on the cover.  A six-pack of Iron City that wasn’t over thirty years old. It was a thing of beauty.

Reverends Alice Johnson and Jane Fobel must have seen that I was veering into dangerous territory when it comes to the second commandment: “you shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” On the Thursday morning before the Superbowl I arrived at work to see my idol desecrated. The shrine had been overturned, the towel now face down and covering the other totemic items. Perched on top was a grotesque rubber figurine of Jabba the Hut, which normally lives on a shelf in Rev. Johnson’s office.  Like King Josiah ordering the destruction of the idols for Baal in order that the people of Judah would return to God, Alice and Jane must have been trying to get me to turn away from my idolatry of all things Steelers.

At first, it can be hard to imagine that the second commandment has much relevance for us today. We might make light of it, as in my story about my Steelers shrine. Most of us live fairly secure in the knowledge that we haven’t made and/or worshiped any “graven images.” Yet perhaps as in no other historical age, in today’s world we are overwhelmed with images.  Magazines and newspapers know that they need to use fewer words and more pictures, preferably with color, if they are to hold a modern audiences’ attention. Practically every one of us carries a device for capturing images (a camera) in our cell phone. Computers, television, mobile devices, print publications, billboards, and more all assault us every day with images to aspire to, to desire…to worship?

So what’s wrong with these “graven images”? J. Ellsworth Kalas, in his study of the decalogue, The Ten Commandments From the Backside, examines this very question:
…why should the commandment be so specific about graven images? Why not a broader prohibition against all perceptions of God? If our graven images come from our thoughts, as of course they do, why doesn’t the commandment forbid thinking about God—or at the least, speculating about God?

I suspect that it is because physical images are so much more restrictive, so much more effective at shutting us in. Tell me about your friend, and my mind will begin drawing a picture of him, but show me your friend’s picture, and my mind has no farther to go.

God is a mystery, and we are told “you shall adore the mystery which is beyond comprehension.” Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” not in wood, or gold, or even golden rally towels. Reducing God to a manageable, “graven” object makes it easier for us to wrap our human minds around the mystery, even to believe that God is there to do things for us (like make our team win? No, I didn’t pray for that).

Whatever our graven images--be they football teams, super models, sports cars, designer shoes –our “worship” of these images keeps us from the true worship God.

Thank you to my "ghost editor" Jessica Otto for her contributions to this post. She is pulling me into the digital age!

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