American Idols

by Bob Hostetler – 

It started quietly enough in the summer of 2002. Three talent scouts named Randy, Paula, and Simon visited American cities to find the next “American Idol.” They auditioned hundreds of potential singing stars, eventually ending with Kelly Clarkson, whose debut single became the fastest chart-climber in history. Since then, the winners (and even some runners-up) have gone on to the stardom they were promised.

The series has weathered controversy and scandal to become one of the hottest shows on television, most recently auditioning over one hundred thousand “idol wannabes” in seven different cities. Its fourth season debuted with 33.5 million viewers, more than ever before. Its contestants become instant icons. Each new round makes news. And yet American Idols are nothing new.

America has long been rife with idols, and not just the Carrie Underwood or Clay Aiken kind. The idols we worship are far more numerous than the contestants who make it to Hollywood and the final few episodes of American Idol. They are real. They are dangerous. And chances are, they are affecting our lives—and that of our family, friends, and church—to a shocking degree.

America: An Idol-Free Zone?

We don’t think of ourselves as idolaters. The idea seems absurd. Sure, we idolize athletes and movie stars, but that’s a different category altogether. We don’t really traffic in idols. That stuff is all so, well, ancient. As in ancient Greece. Ancient Rome. Ancient Bithynia, for crying out loud. Those people worshiped idols, but not us. We’re too modern for that.

Not so fast. We don’t keep a golden calf in our garden or chant prayers to an image, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our lives are free of idols. It may just mean that our idols are more subtle. It may mean that the idols we worship, we “worship in ignorance,” like the ancient Athenians (Acts 17:23). It may mean that we have “refined idolatry to make it a part of every day life,” as journalist and former missionary Marshall Allen suggests.1

So what are the idols we worship? Not Baal of the Canaanites. Not Dagon, whom the Philistines worshiped, or Marduk, the false god of the Bablyonians. No, our idols are of a different sort entirely (my book, American Idols, discusses in detail fourteen quintessentially American idols, and could easily have identified more). Three of the most prevalent are:

Individualism. Americans have always valued “rugged individualism,” but in recent generations, we’ve come to emphasize personal individuality, self-expression, self-esteem, and self-fulfillment to an idolatrous extent. “I’ve gotta be me,” “I’ve got to find myself,” “I can make it on my own,” “I’ve got to do what’s best for me”—it’s all about me, the individual. But God’s Word exalts a different standard: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ nor again the hand to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, all the more . . . .God has put the body together . . . so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:13, 21-25).

Consumerism. Marshall Allen points out “It’s almost become cliché for American Christians to return from trips to the Third World, saying in amazement: The people are so poor, they have nothing—and yet they have such joy, they seem so happy! This stock phrase reveals more about the United States—and Christianity in America—than it does about poor people in the Third World. It exposes a godless assumption.”2 That assumption—that acquiring more things will make me happier—is what prompts me to be unsatisfied with what I have, motivates me to spend myself into debt, causes me to keep wanting more, and prevents me from giving more.

Naturalism. Modern life in the Western world is dominated by a view called naturalism, the belief that nature is all there is; absolutely everything that exists is just time, space, matter, and energy. In the words of Carl Sagan, the most influential televangelist of naturalism since Charles Darwin himself, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”3 In other words, there is no such thing as the supernatural. No God. No miracles. No angels. No demons. No such thing as a human soul. As Christians, we may think we’re free of this attitude. But the line between naturalism and theism is not a line that divides scientists and saints; it’s a line that runs through every one of us, practically speaking. Every time I try to get through the day “naturally” instead of prayerfully, every time I worry as if there were no God, sin as if there were no consequence, and keep my faith to myself as if there were no hell, I’m worshiping at the altar of naturalism.

Casting Down Our Idols

These are just three of the idols we worship. There are others: choice, for example. Or comfort. Or celebrity. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with all those things, just as there was nothing sinful about the golden earrings the Israelites carried with them out of Egypt. But just as Aaron made their gold into an idol (see Exodus 32:21-24), we can make such things as success and sexuality into an idol.

Our American idols may be harder to recognize than the worship of a stone idol. They may also be harder to correct. But they are attitudes and lifestyles that are abominations to God, and if we don’t do something about them, they will corrupt and devastate us just as they did the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai.

So how do we cast down our idols? We start by asking God to search our hearts and shine his light on our idolatrous attitudes and actions. When he does, we must respond by calling our pet personal idolatries by their proper name—sin. Then we must confess each one to God and devote ourselves to the cultivation of new beliefs…and new behaviors calculated to dismantle that specific idol. For example, a fine chisel to dismantle the idol of consumerism is generosity—giving away money and things—and one remedy for individualism is involvement in a small group, especially one that involves accountability. Finally, casting down our idols will mean giving ourselves anew to prayer (perhaps even fasting), asking God, in the words of the hymn writer:

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.
(William Cowper, 1772)

Bob Hostetler’s 21 books include the award-winning Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door (co-authored with Josh McDowell) and the new release, American Idols. He and his wife, Robin, live in Ohio and are the parents of two grown children.

1Marshall Allen, “American Idols IV: Ditching the Idols,”
Boundless Webzine, May 2004.
2 Marshall Allen, “American Idols II: The Pursuit of Happiness,”
Boundless Webzine, May 2004.
3Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985), p. 1.

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