Idols and Culture

I recently returned from another trip to a couple of countries in West Africa on behalf of the mission organization I lead called ServeNow. In this blog post I would like to reflect upon idols and culture not just in what I saw in another country, but even our own. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all are shaped and influenced by cultural dynamics we think are the norm, even when in a global context they are not.

On this trip, as I have in trips past, I walked through a couple of remote villages with many idols present. In one of those villages, they even worship a TV that no longer works. This village has been closed off to the Gospel. However, by empowering some local women in a micro-enterprise project, it is beginning to open new doors to the community as they become the missionaries to the village.

One man even donated a spot for our coordinator and his wife to teach the kids about Jesus. Sadly, however, this man was just in a motorcycle accident where he hurt his leg badly. He could not afford to go to the hospital, so he was treated in their traditional way, which is not helping. Worse, some people in the village are happy this happened to him as they see it as their gods punishing him for his generosity in welcoming the Gospel. When we learned of this, I gave him what he needed on the spot to get his leg checked out at a hospital. We also prayed for him and thanked him for what he had done.

In another village, we toured a site dedicated to the idols of the land. We saw many bizarre and grotesque idols and learned their backstory and cultural influence. As we walked through parts of that village, we also saw many idols along roads and on people’s land.

Two idols especially caught my eye. One was of a two faced double agent. It caught my eye because I saw in it the fact that we can at times be two-faced if we are not careful. While we should pay attention to be respectful of different environments, cultures, and people, we also must be authentic. I am not talking about being perfect. I am talking about being genuine and honest.

Another idol that caught my eye along this line was one that depicted synchronism. Synchonism is a way of life that thinks you can blend different religions together. In the image below, this is depicted by the idol holding a Catholic incense item in one hand and a voodoo item in the other. This form of religion is not only practiced literally in parts of the world. Many of us have adapted parts of culture or other religions into our own in a way that contradicts what it means to follow Christ wholly according to Scripture. We can’t live as a Christian in some areas of life or some settings. We are called to be Christ-like in all settings and all areas of life.

Additionally, we toured a python temple were snakes are worshiped. In another village nearby, we traveled a slave trade route that I wrote about here: Injustice Rolls On. What struck me too was the role of idols and evil and how that plays a role in historical and modern-day realities. For example, we heard of a recent story where people were buried alive in that village as a sacrifice to their gods.

Some of what I am writing may sound bizarre on the surface from an outside perspective. We may find it primitive or easy to judge or condemn. We view ourselves as more civilized or enlightened perhaps. But this is an outsider’s view of a deeply entrenched cultural reality. If you were to take those same people and place them into our culture, they would find some of our cultural idols and ways of life extremely odd. They may have statues representing their gods, but how many of us are addicted to the animated idols we see on TV? The impact of movies, TV shows, and celebrity icons can be just as addictive and idolatrous as what I saw. Think how deeply entrenched movies such as Star Wars or Avengers or other super-hero icons are. Not to mention sports, politics, and other priorities in our lives that often get exalted above relationship with God.

We all like to think our culture is “the norm.” And we all tend to judge and see things differently from an outside perspective. But each culture ironically similarly looks at other cultures and finds something hard to understand. For example, when people visit the US for the first time, they can’t believe the level of options food-wise we have, material items we possess (or possess us), and the level of luxury we live in that we treat as usual. Yet this is abnormal compared to the standards and life of most people worldwide and throughout human history.

My point is it is harder to see our cultural blindness and grip of idols in our hearts and lives. However, traveling outside our environments can open our eyes not only to other cultural dynamics but also our blind spots. We all are influenced by any number of things that we treat as cultural norms, and the real question is whether they hold up to the biblical ethic and way of life for a Christ-follower. These are questions we each must examine in our own lives and work out in relationship with God, according to our consciousness, prayer, and God’s word.

We can ask ourselves what might be holding us back from wholehearted commitment to Christ? What prevents us from loving God above all and with our all? What keeps us from loving our neighbor as ourselves? What is stopping us from total obedience to Jesus in being a disciple and making disciples? What influences could be blinding us? What idols may have a grip over us? What can other cultures teach us, and what do we need to unlearn from our own culture?

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