Gods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (revised edition), Vinoth Ramachandra. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.
Summary: A consideration of how the false gods of late modernity both undermine human flourishing in a globalizing world and render ineffectual the witness of the church in that world, set in contrast with the biblical narratives of creation, the nature of evil, and the unique, transformative power of the cross.
This is a book with a global vision. It explores the failure of the gods of both western secularity and materialism and eastern spirituality. The author sees a common element in these–the effort to obtain power through some form of technique, whether of science and technology, or economics, or the techniques of spirituality to manipulate the powers of the spiritual world. Yet these gods invariably disappoint and lead both to personal futility and the dehumanization of others. But the author is not merely setting his sights on the failures of others. He also sees these forms of idolatry as vitiating the mission of the church. He writes:
“The book’s subtitle is deliberately ambiguous. Does Christian mission involve a confrontation with the ‘idols of our time?’ Or does Christian mission, at least in some prominent aspects, unconsciously disseminate forms of idolatry around the globe? Or are large sections of the Christian Church so riddled with idolatry that their missionary vision has been paralysed? The burden of this book can be summed up by saying that all three of these questions require the emphatic answer: ‘Yes’ “(p. 25).
The book both commends the biblical narrative as one that renders a true and compelling alternative to the dehumanizing gods of modern idolatry and serves as a ringing call to Christians east and west to recognize and repent of their own idolatries and captivities to the false gods of their cultures.
The author is uniquely suited to this task. He is a native of Sri Lanka, educated at the University of London. He serves as the international Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, a global partnership of over 150 student movements on every continent. His account is a model of fluent, sweeping and yet incisive analysis.
Following an introduction laying out his thesis and plan of argument, Ramachandra turns to the biblical account of creation, taking both scientists and Christians alike to task for the focus on questions of how and when and totally overlooking the narratives assertions of Who the Creator is and his relation to humankind and the rest of creation. This leads to a consideration of evil and suffering in the book of Job, the idolatry implicit in the answers of Job’s comforters, and the reality that God gives no direct answer to Job’s question because evil and suffering are in fact a “monstrous absurdity” in God’s good world.
Chapter 4 turns from biblical narrative to the critiques of religion posed by Marx and Freud, which Ramachandra actually sees as a telling critique on what Christian Smith has called “moral, therapeutic deism”. Just as Israel succumbed to the deities of the surrounding nations that provided fertility and prosperity while allowing them to ignore the poor, Ramachandra sees the critiques of Marx and Freud justly exposing bourgeois religion that domesticates God and is unconcerned about injustice. The god these atheists attack is one Christians have no business defending. Chapter 5 goes on to consider the violence of idols beginning with the mental formations behind things like money in which we embue things and concepts with power that come to dominate us. Ramachandra trenchantly illustrates this in his discussion of “development”, challenging our western notions of unfettered growth and what constitutes “development” which others might consider “regression.” He concludes this chapter with a return to Genesis showing how the chaos of the flood and the confusion and disintegration of Babel are inevitable results.
Chapters 6 and 7 concern science and reason as modernist projects and the assaults of post-modern anti-science and unreason upon these projects. In both chapters, Ramachandra demonstrates the rootedness of objective truth in a Creator and the false dichotomy between reason and revelation that need not set science, reason, and Christian faith against one another.
The concluding chapter considers the stark contrast of the crucified God of Christianity who does not cling to power but dies at the hands of power to give life to a humanity in thrall. It is when Christians renounce nationalisms, and economic and political power, to walk in the way of the cross and the hope of the resurrection that they are most true to their message and are able to speak most compellingly about the true God in a world of idols.
This work is a revision of a work originally published 20 years ago. The author notes that the most significant change is switching chapters 2 and 4 in the original book, which he believed improved the flow of argument. He brings some examples and statistics up to date but has not substantively re-written the book. And it is here where there might be some criticism of the work in that it reflects an engagement with post-modernism and its assault on science and reason that perhaps is far more prevalent in the social sciences and political theory in the years since and receives little treatment here.
One of the challenges for all thoughtful people, and certainly Christians, is to “understand the present time” (Romans 13:11, NIV). Without such reflection, and sometimes, the self-criticism that results, we may easily be swept up in the cultural captivities of the day and unwittingly give our worship to creations of our own hands. This book is a clarion call that can cut through the clouds of our murky thinking and cultural blind spots. I welcome this revised edition, which could not come at a more timely moment, at least for the North American church of which I am a part.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”