This week we are joined on the Ask Pastor John podcast with Dr. Richard Lints, the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Main Campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, just a short drive north of Boston. Dr. Lints is also the author of a book that releases this winter titled, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion published in Don Carson’s silver series, New Studies in Biblical Theology.
So implicitly, Dr. Lints, where we ended yesterday, is that an idol is something that is not God and something that we cannot imagine living without. Is that right?
That is exactly right. And it often points at and beyond itself to deeper needs you are trying to gain — deeper significance and senses of security that are there. And so often significance and safety are the two dilemmas we face with idols in every age. How do we gain security and safety in a world which threatens us? And it threatens us in different ways. And how do we gain significance? And I think the smart phone, just to use that again as the anecdote, tells us that we are significant if we are connected to enough other people’s lives.
But what we find is it is being connected to so many different people’s lives, so we actually gain a greater sense of insignificance, and our safety is apparently or allegedly granted here because we are connected with lots of other people. That is our safety net, if you will. And when you pull that out, you begin to ask yourself, “How will I be granted security or safety without this?” And that is this dynamic of feeling a loss when you take the idol out.
Yes — that’s a key definition. Yesterday I mentioned a study that says the average college student uses their phone 9 hours a day. So one of these college students comes up to you and wants to know how he can tell if his smartphone is an idol. What are the diagnostic tests you would put forward?
The immediate questions are, 1) What would you lose if you didn’t have it? 2) What role does it play, honestly? 3) How big of a presence is it? 4) What is its function in your life? And so, again, those are questions that are sometimes hard to answer by yourself. And so even the questions of idolatry and identity are communal questions that are best answered in a community and, surely, the fundamental community is with God.
But here with the smart phone, often the dilemma is that none of those conversations appear to be very thick or rich or deep or wide, so we have condensed the conversation to a small tweet, a short text. So we never get beyond the temporary, the superficial, the impression. And it is an extension of the television age when we lived on the management of impressions. And so that has simply speeded up and gained momentum in our time.
And so, again, being cautious that somehow there was a golden age back in the 1950s when we all sat around watching healthy television and had really good relationships. I don’t believe that for a second. It is in many ways an extension of that age that encourages us like a sleeping pill to simply accept the artificial and the superficial as normal. And that is the key question to ask the teenager or the person that lives on Facebook constantly: “What are the moments in life when you ask hard questions, when you think outside of the ordinary, superficial details of life?” And it almost for sure is not going to be because of a text message or because of a tweet.