Michael Clark reviews Chris Wright's new book, where he offers a scathing critique of contemporary political idols like prosperity, national pride and self-exaltation.
It is not often a book is published that has such a clear, direct and relevant biblical message for our times. It should be essential reading for anyone who espouses Judaeo-Christian values and who is concerned about the current conduct of politics and the political process, both here and in the US. This is especially true when it comes from Rev Dr Chris Wright, Ministries Director at the Langham Partnership and former chair of the Jubilee Centre Advisory Board. Chris is the author of many books, but readers may remember particularly his magisterial Old Testament Ethics and The People of God (IVP 2004), written out of his conviction that the Old Testament has a vital relevance to the whole range of contemporary ethical concerns. As he notes in this present book, 'Israel shaped through the Torah is to be a model of what a society governed by the character and standards of Yahweh God should look like.'
The first part of the book is a survey of biblical teaching on idolatry, which he believes is often handled with shallow understanding and simplistic responses. What are idols? Do they actually have an existence beyond their physical form? The second part focuses on the main area of Wright's concern, political idolatry – both in biblical perspective and in the contemporary political arena. His analysis focuses on the idols of prosperity, national pride and self-exaltation. His diagnosis is blunt and unsparing; as Christians, we are involved with and dominated by the false gods of the people around, to the extent that the syncretistic and idolatrous nature of much of Western Christianity is contributing to the ultimate collapse of Western civilisation. Finally Wright considers how our discipleship might shape our response to these issues, once we have called out and addressed the idolatry that he believes is lurking in much of our approach to political leadership and to the key issues of our day.
Don't get too comfortable
A health warning; this is not a comfortable book and readers may disagree sharply with some of the conclusions he draws, which are very specific. He challenges us as to whether 'we have submitted our political views, choices and support to the criteria of God's Kingdom as revealed in the OT and the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, or whether we are giving colluding praise and approval to corrupt and immoral political power in the hope that it might somehow benefit the cause of Christ.' He is scathing about current political leadership and culture both in Britain and the US, which he excoriates for its habitual untruthfulness, denial of reality and inconsistent claims, coupled with sexual promiscuity and arrogant narcissism. This book was completed just before Covid-19 erupted, but his analysis is uncomfortably prescient both in relation to the handling of the pandemic and most recent events in the USA.
There are two areas where Wright’s analysis may strike a particularly uncomfortable chord for some evangelicals. Firstly, he underscores that Scripture has far more to say in condemnation of social and economic evils and specifically poverty and injustice, than it does about sexual misconduct. He takes strong issue with an approach to political choices which homes in one or more ‘moral hotspots’ at the expense of taking a wider biblical view of how Government policy addresses the key issues of poverty, oppression of the poor and social injustice – and this is exemplified in his thesis.
Secondly, his reading of the Psalms (particularly Psalms 1-10) is that they set out urgent, passionate and desperate prayer that God would do something about the prevailing evil and the abuse of political power, asking that He would overthrow it and bring righteousness and justice to the fore. He argues that far too often, our public prayers for the governing authorities start and end with bland requests such as ‘God bless them’ and ‘God give them wisdom’ and have no cutting relevance to contemporary political issues. Lament, protest, anger at duplicity and violence for instance are noticeably absent in Christian prayer. He sees no contradiction in both praying for our rulers in accordance with Romans 13 and yet also praying against them when wickedness, corruption, lying and injustice are so often the order of the day.
It is to be hoped that this book will provoke a robust and considered debate about how we should apply biblical teaching on idols in both Testaments to the current state of the political process in the West. Whilst Christians will always make different political choices, we would benefit from acknowledging the reputation evangelical Christians have gained on both sides of the Atlantic, sometimes deserved and sometimes unfair, and seriously address the biblical priorities involved.
'Here Are Your Gods!' Faithful Discipleship in Idolatrous Times by Christopher J H Wright was published in September 2020 by IVP Press.
Michael Clark lives in Ipswich and is a former General Manager of the Jubilee Centre, following a career in HR and business regulation. He is now retired but active in his local church.