Tim Keller’s "Counterfeit Gods": a book review

I’ve always had apprehension when I hear preachers use the word “idolatry.” It’s not a […]

Todd Brewer / 2.5.10

I’ve always had apprehension when I hear preachers use the word “idolatry.” It’s not a word used in everyday life. When I hear it, I usually think of a Baptist pastor preaching fire and brimstone to ancient Egyptians. I think of televangelists yelling loudly into the camera- trying to scare me into the kingdom. So when I was given as a gift Tim Keller’s new book, “Counterfeit Gods,” I didn’t know what to expect. Would he be the angry televangelist, or the thoughtful, poignant writer I’ve come to love? I am happy to report that my fears were unwarranted.

Keller defines an idol as “Anything more important to you than God… anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living” (xvii). While idols can take the form of “other gods,” Keller is more interested in gods of money, success, sex, and power. We serve these idols in hopes that they would provide for us true meaning and joy. Keller writes, “We all need assurance of our unique value from some outside source” (158) .Our idols are our fondest dreams, that which makes us feel important, and the means by which we justify our existence.

Keller does not offer a strategy of ten steps to avoid idolatry and live the life of a disciple (the problem, unfortunately, is much worse than that). He says, “[Idols] cannot be remedied only be repenting that you have an idol, or using willpower to try to live differently” (171). Sin cannot be “pruned” off; like a weed it will continue to grow back. Keller does not simply exhort his readers to turn from idolatry to faith in God. God’s law is powerless to change the human heart and cannot remove our false idols.

Instead, the idol must be replaced by God’s grace in Christ. When we know that we are valued by God, we do not find our value in worthless idols. God woos our hearts toward him with his forgiveness in a joy-based repentance. This consistent focus on the Gospel as the impetus to change idolatrous hearts is what sets Keller’s book apart.

All in all, I highly recommend “Counterfeit Gods”. Keller’s even and gracious tone carefully carries the reader through the difficult subject of idolatry without finger pointing or condescension. When he preaches “the law” he does so by pointing out the many ways that idols fail to produce what they promise. Keller also provides insightful illustrations about everything ranging from economics to Madonna. But most of all, Keller adeptly uses several stories in the Bible to talk about a God who gave up everything he had for us miserable idolaters. Don’t buy this book for a friend- buy it for yourself.