Thursday, May 9, 2013

ESPN Radio, Hyperbole, and Idolatry

I love listening to ESPN Radio on the drive home from work, but yesterday while driving home I heard an anchor giving a tease for a story:

"George Karl being named Coach of the Year is an absolute travesty. Find out why after the break."

In case you don't follow sports, George Karl is the head coach
of the Denver Nuggets, and won 57/82 regular season games before losing in the first round of the playoffs. The voting having happened before the playoffs, the postseason losses did not figure into the equation. This lack of consideration of playoff results is why, according to this anchor, Karl winning Coach of the Year in the NBA was a travesty.

Here's the problem.

A "travesty" is when something serious or important is made ridiculous (usually on purpose) by characterizing it in a grotesquely inferior imitation or gross misstatement.

A bad building renovation might be a "travesty" because it is so inferior to the original design that it now stops being beautiful architecture and becomes ridiculed. You might argue that Guantanamo Bay represents a travesty of justice, because it claims to be a criminal justice facility and yet offers something so far below that level as to be worthy of ridicule.

So now let's ask the question--does giving the Coach of the Year award before the playoffs are played really indicate a travesty has taken place? Does giving the Coach of the Year award to the coach of the team with one of the four best records in the NBA really justify the use of the word "travesty"? Particularly when one considers that the team won 19 games more than the prior year?

I couldn't care less about whether Karl wins this award or not--it really is nothing to me one way or the other. What I do care about is that this is an example of using a word so often and so wrongly that it loses its meaning.

For example, to "decimate" means to reduce something to 10% of its original size. But we use "decimate" to mean, "really harmed" or "did a lot of damage to"...and as such our loose use of languages ruins the value of the word. Decimate had a very specific meaning which had value for describing a particular situation: now it is basically no different than the term "devastate"...and thus we struggle when we want to describe a 90% reduction in force.

Likewise, the word "travesty" is used to mean, "A situation I disagree with," which is better described using other terms. Travesty has a specific meaning, and thus has value.

So why does this matter to a Christian blog?

Because there is a Christian equivalent: the word idolatry.

If you have attended an evangelical church for very long, you have heard someone misuse that term. Preachers routinely define idolatry as, "Putting anything else before God in your life." I have heard this definition probably more than a hundred times. Usually the 'idol' being identified is your job, or your television, or your video games, or movies, or books.

The problem? That's not what the word means.

You see, we have a perfectly good word for those situations. Pastors, if your flock is giving things an improper place in their heart, you can use this word: "prioritization." The situation you are talking about is the priority being in the wrong order. That is definitely NOT idolatry.

And this is important...because idolatry is one of the gravest sins in all of Scripture. It it a sin which angered God so much that He almost wiped out the entire Hebrew race just after having saved them (Exo 32:6-14).
How bad is it? The apostles met together in 50 AD and sent a letter to all Gentile believers to tell them that the Mosaic Law is not binding on them...except for the parts about idolatry and sexual immorality (Acts 15, Acts 21). It was listed in The Didache as one of the few "Grave Sins" that no Christian should ever violate. It is one of the few things listed over and over by everyone as something to avoid (see, for example, 1 John 5:21, 1 Cor 10:14, 2 Cor 6:16). The early church writers all agree on the topic as well, and write about it quite a bit: Tertullian says that idolatry is the principal crime of the human race, and that not only does a Christian never commit idolatry, but a Christian cannot even stand quietly by while it happens.

So no, pastors, this is not "watching too much TV" or "shopping too often." Idolatry is not simply "anything which has a higher importance to you than God."

Idolatry is a very, very serious crime and a very serious sin. It comes in three forms, if you read the early church fathers:  (1) worshipping physical objects made in the image of God or gods; (2) making sacrifices to pagan gods (as was required in government proceedings in the time of Rome; and (3) making offerings to the dead. Tertullian gave examples in his writings: banquets for the dead including sacrifices, blood sacrifices, burning incense, allowing yourself to be bound to a sacred priesthood not of Christ, praying to physical objects, or making such physical objects for others.

Do you see the danger of expanding the word "idolatry" to include common, minor abuses like watching too much TV? When you make the word "idolatry" applicable to minor errors that we all have made, then the word is no longer useful for carrying the powerful shame and risk that it once conveyed.

Indeed, we see that even today--people talk about their "sports idols" or "American Idol" like it is no big deal. The sting has gone from the word idol, the result being that we Christians lose the ability to treat seriously one of God's most serious commands. Furthermore, our next generation is unable to properly read Scripture as a result.

Pastors, choose your words carefully. Be very, VERY cautious expanding a term and applying it to situations that it was not meant to be used for. And please, please stop using idolatry wrongly. Idolatry is worshipping pagan gods or dead ancestors--and it is a Very Big Deal in the Lord's eyes.

This is not just a pet peeve of mine...it is a very dangerous thing to allow your mis-teachings to cause a member of your flock to stumble into sin unwittingly (see Matt 18:6). If idolatry is so important to God, start treating it as such--by using the term properly.

1 comment:

  1. These are good points. Every now and then I'll use a word in conversation and I'll mentally backpedal and wonder if I even REALLY understand the use and definition of that word. In the same way as "travesty" and "decimate" it can be very easy to throw in "scrabble words" when speaking or writing just because it gets the idea across, regardless of the accurate use and fit of the word. Its like this one time where I was 9 or 10 with my aunt and some others, and I got some kind of cut (a good one,too!). It starts dripping blood. I don't remember exactly what I said, but scrabble word I threw in there was that I was "hemorrhaging".. my Aunt graciously just grinned and glanced at another family member and said "well, I don't think its quite THAT bad."

    I do think there is strong benefit to the metaphor of idolatry in the ways you referenced, if for no other reason that it causes us to examine ourselves and the things in our lives and where we can curb activities that might be otherwise put towards things with God in mind (which for me was trading video game time for Bible-reading, other reading, and listening to sermons). But even with this, you make a great point that part of us keeping ourselves plumb with God's Word is to make sure we are keeping terms and ideas accurate. The words of God's word are how we know Truth, so its important that call Bible things by Bible names and do so accurately.

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