Review: Gods That Fail

Gods that fail

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.”

Is It Time for a New Declaration of Barmen?


Karl Barth

The Declaration of Barmen. No, this isn’t the drunken bloviations of a bunch of good old boys who have had a few too many at the local pub. Rather, this was a serious statement formulated by Karl Barth and agreed to by representatives of Germany’s Confessional Churches to address the rising threat of Nazi tyranny and the usurpation of the place of Christ by the state in the life of the church. It basically argued that the church cannot and would not give to the state what belongs to Christ alone and spoke out against the idolatry of the “great leader”

In its various articles it confessed:

  • There was no other power beside Christ who reveals God’s salvation.
  • That there was no area of life not under the Lordship of Christ.
  • That the church could not abandon its order or message to conform to prevailing ideological or political convictions.
  • The church could not allow special leaders, particular instruments of the state, to rule over its life.
  • The church could not and would not become an organ of the state.
  • The church could not subordinate the Word and work of Christ to any state agenda.

A friend of mine wondered whether it is time for another such declaration. I wonder particularly if it is time for such a declaration among the churches of America.

It seems to me that for too long we have looked to the political powers-that-be, whether on the right or the left, as our source of hope and have made of government an idol.

It seems to me that for too long the church in America has been politically captive to the left or the right rather than focusing on its distinctive message of the in-breaking rule of God.

It seems to me that for too long we have been infatuated with electing the “right” political leader into office and have lodged far too great a hope in fallible human beings and governments.

Karl Barth and the German leaders who signed this Declaration were prescient in recognizing the political captivity and the idolatry of power that was gaining a foothold in the German churches and compromising the Christian message with a gospel of power and hate that destroyed six million Jews, and countless others in the World War that followed. Unfortunately, much of the German church did not heed this declaration, and sadly, a deeply compromised church lost its power to speak into the life of a Germany re-building after the war.

I wonder if we have reached a critical juncture in the life of the church in America where we need to clearly choose between politics and the gospel of the kingdom of Jesus. And I say this across the spectrum from liberal to conservative in both the political and theological senses. Will the church in America simply mirror the political divides of this country, which we have done through so much of our national history (think of the debates on slavery)? Or will we seize this moment, which might be our last, to repent of our idolatry, and political captivity, and divisions among ourselves?

Is it time for a new Declaration of Barmen? Time and past time, I would say.

Review: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power

17293092 (1)I think many of us have developed our understanding of power from Lord Acton’s axiom: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For most of us, that is the end of story and this accounts, at least among many Christians I know, for a deep aversion to anything like the exercise of power.

Andy Crouch has a different take that is evident in the word play in his title Playing God. We often think “playing God” is the worst manifestation of abusing power. But Crouch would argue that as image bearers, people who reflect something of the nature of God, we “play” like God in using power, and that this was originally intended for the flourishing of fellow human beings, and the creation, for creating cultural goods and even good institutions.

Crouch explores the original gift to power and how it has been distorted through idolatry, which he defines as giving to some cultural artifact ultimate significance. And idolatry leads to injustice as idols demand allegiance that undermines the flourishing of human beings. Crouch argues that instead of idol-making, our calling is to be icons, literally those who are seen through, giving glimpses of the Creator who made us to be like Him.

In the next part of his book, he explores the nature of power. Power is often hidden and yet exists, even in characters like Michael Scott from The Office. He talks about the realities of force, violence, and coercion and what impressed me is the nuanced fashion in which he did so, recognizing these can be used for evil or good (an argument pacifists may not accept). Finally, he exposes the realities of privilege, the perquisites of power we often are not even aware we have, except when we see ourselves through those who do not have them.

For me the third part of the book was most interesting because he explores power in the context of institution-making. Again, we often see institutions in a negative light but Crouch argues that institutions can be gifts for good if we assume our responsibilities as trustees of these institutions.

Finally, he explores the end of power through the lenses of discipline, sabbath, and the consummation of power in the return and ever-lasting reign of Christ. True power is like the prodigal father who uses all he has to maintain and restore his relationships and the flourishing of both of his sons, the younger profligate one, and the older resentful one.

This is an important book. What I believe often happens in Christian communities is that we try to deny the existence of power and thus become less self-aware of how we may exercise it, both for ill and for good. This, to me, seems greater than the danger of the conscious exercise of power that is cognizant of how power may be abused but also how power might be used to serve others and to promote their flourishing. Furthermore, our aversion to admitting the gift of power we’ve been given is the denial of the gifts of God, both those inherent in our humanity, and those spiritually endowed among the redeemed people of God. My hope is that Crouch’s book is widely read, that a new way of using power is charted that neither makes it into an idol nor denies its existence but redeems this gift and uses it for good.