Christopher Wright takes up the topic of idol worship in relation to mission in one chapter. The biblical understanding of idols is double. First an idol is nothing. It is just the work of human hands. There is no real deity behind it since there is only one God.
The other biblical perspective is that idols are demonic. They represent something dark. They represent powers and spiritual forces.I think Wright means something like Jesus’ use of the term Mammon. Mammon is a god. But Jesus spoke of it realistically as the power behind wealth. The idea of Mammon may be a human construct, but wealth does become a real power in people’s lives.
So idols represent both a human construct and actual powers or structures, especially those powers that challenge God for influence in our lives. But we should remember that human social structures and traditions are all constructed. We are today familiar with that stereotypes and expectations may be socially constructed. The biblical critique of idolatry enables us to see many socially constructed aspects of life and religion that do not necessarily reflect the one true God.
However, the fact that they are human constructions shows that they can be overcome. Since they have been constructed, they are destructable.
There are relatively few biblical passages that speak of idols as demons. The main emphasis is that idols are works of our hands. They come forth from the imaginations of our hearts. In other words, they are human constructions.
We conduct mission over against idolatry. Mission exposes the gods as weak human creations that deprive the true God of his glory and distort the true image of God in us.
Wright has not been too specific in this chapter about the powers behind modern idolatry. The use of constructionist philosophy gets fleshed out in political terms by other writers. Walter Wink is just one writer who does this.
I am a doubter when it comes to this theory. Jesus’ use of Mammon is one clear example of something like this in the Bible. Most of the idols in the Bible, though, really are material idols and represent actual religions, not social structures. Even Mammon in Jesus’s day probably connected to the image of the Emperor on coins. The Bible personifies money and death as powers. But are they (especially death) socially constructed systems that are amenable to analysis and deconstruction?
To think in terms of abstractions like empire, patriarchy, or capitalism seems to impose modern categories on biblical metaphors. There are other theories about what the Pauline letters mean by “principalities and powers.”
I think one of the attractions of the philosophy or epistemology of social constructionism as an interpretation of idolatry is that it avoids attacking those religions that have idols or totems. So it seems more sensitive to the idea of multiculturalism.
Christian mission comes under fire today for having a crusading spirit. The idea of displacing other religions was a part of mission for a long time. We are struggling with that today. So interpreting idols in a secular way as socially constructed systems is attractive. It avoids contending against other religions. However, it introduces political contention into mission. One wonders if that is a great advance.
So far Wright has not gone too far with that. Perhaps he won’t.
I like to point out that Western Christianity often fails to bring the Eastern Orthodox perspective into discussions of idolatry. Since God became flesh in Jesus, icons are now permitted. God has revealed himself as one who can be represented by an image. The minimalist impulse in Calvinism, Puritanism, and the Radical Reformation has played down the importance of imagery in spirituality and worship.
By raising these more specific issues, I am just saying that, up to this point, Wright leaves me wanting something less vague. His insight (that idols are treated in the Bible mostly as human works that cannot represent God but also sometimes as dark powers) is true. He uses the word: paradox. But is it a paradox that we can resolve?