by Rod D. Martin
May 20, 2016
Oh, I don’t mean there’s no such thing as philosophical materialism, the idea that there is no supernatural and that we’re all just random atoms bumping off each other. Feuerbach’s materialism is alive and well, foundational to socialist thought from Stalin to Sanders, and to general atheism everywhere.
Nor do I mean that man never makes an idol, or worships the creature rather than the Creator. Of course he does.
But the materialism we speak of in our vernacular, that very pernicious “ism” that seems to infest so many Baptist books and Bible studies, is a straw man. No one actually makes an idol of their giant television, or their bass boat, or their favorite football team, no matter how inappropriately they prioritize it.
No one worships these things. No one worships having these things.
It may seem a pedantic distinction, but it’s quite important. If a man is guilty of what we call materialism, then, like all other sinners since Eve, he’s actually worshiping self. He is not on his bass boat Sunday morning because he’s made a god of boats: rather, he’s set his right to define what is right for himself above God’s. And in choosing his own law over God’s, he is making himself his god, usurping God’s throne, at least in that small thing.
It doesn’t matter whether the man loves boats, or hair shirts, or positions in the church: he is himself his idol. And we do him no favors by denouncing his symptoms rather than treating his disease.
If indeed the man is lost, if he lacks saving faith in Christ, he desperately needs the Gospel. If he has saving faith but is sinning in this particular area, he certainly needs discipleship. He lacks trust in Matthew 6:25-34’s promise of God’s perfect provision. He lacks belief in God’s sovereign promise to fulfill Romans 8:28. Whether through pride, fear or ignorance, he is out of fellowship with a Father who loved him so much that He sacrificed His only begotten Son not just to save him but to adopt him.
Talking about bass boats doesn’t just miss the point, it obscures it.
An idol is not merely something we like. It’s something we wrongly endow with the attributes of God. The chief among those attributes, the one which truly defines the idol, is its alleged right to make law. A man may worship Moloch, but he does not merely bow to Moloch: he accepts Moloch’s moral and legal code, or at least the code attributed to Moloch by its priests.
When we wrongly focus on so-called “materialism”, we tell ourselves and our hearers that the problem is a bass boat when the real idol is our self. No amount of divestment will solve that problem. And in ignoring the real nature of idolatry in favor of the easy metaphor, we so cheapen the word’s use that we are unable to preach powerfully against the very real idols – from self to Shiva – infesting our world.
It leads us down some other false paths as well.
The teacher railing against “materialism” can rarely help but rant against ownership itself. Like Jefferson, he takes scissors to the inerrant inspired Word and cuts out the Parable of the Talents. He ignores the pages upon pages of God’s Word that affirm and defend private property. He makes God’s material blessing of so many heroes of the faith into odd “exceptions” to his manmade ascetic rule.
But God condemns asceticism. He models and commands both creativity and productivity, two things which necessarily produce wealth. And He uses and praises Boaz the great farmer, Abraham the great sheik and Elijah the great prophet alike.
The straw man of materialism leads inexorably to the demeaning or condemnation of profit. For some pastors, it is as though the sinner who buried his talent did right – or might have done even better by giving it away – and that the faithful servant who finished with eleven really should have been ashamed.
Our bass boat-loving church member isn’t stupid. He knows what he does matters, even if he’s made to feel guilty about it: he knows it every time we pass the plate. He certainly has spiritual and practical problems his pastor needs to address. But it’s hard for him to hear his pastor, who lives on gifts, while the man implicitly demeans his calling and explicitly condemns the legitimate fruit of his labor.
So where is he on Sunday morning? He’s on the boat.
Our sloppy use of “materialism” and “idolatry” ends in leading us to attempt to be holier than God. And in this substitution of our standard for His, we commit the very idolatry we decry.
There is real materialism. There is real idolatry all around us, of objects, of ideological systems and ever and always of self. Our straw men pale in comparison to both. We must be clear in our teaching so that men might be saved from their horrors.
This article was originally published as part of my Beyond the Church Door series in the Florida Baptist Witness.