Precious Moments in American Religion

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, January 1st 1997
Jan/Feb 1997

On more than one occasion I have concluded that I am inhabiting a Salvador Dali painting: clocks dripping off of trees in surreal landscapes, and all that. Perhaps no occasion more deeply pressed this haunting suspicion than on a trip through America's heartland this past summer. I was making my way to New Haven, Connecticut, from California in my heavy-laden Pathfinder.

Having driven across the country numerous times, I have tried to punctuate the tedious trek with stops at various points of local interest. But this time, on my fourth day of the journey, I stumbled on a dizzying discovery.

As I entered Missouri-the "Show-Me State"-I began to notice billboards advertising something called the "Precious Moments Chapel." I thought nothing of it at first, recalling the "Precious Moment" figurines that seem to have replaced books in Christian book stores. But the billboards popped up again and again along the highway, boasting a remarkable mecca for "Precious" pilgrims. Groggy from driving far too many hours in one stretch, I felt strangely drawn to this chapel. So when a friend and I finally arrived at the turn-off, marked by an official state sign, I wound my way to the secluded venue.

"How big can this thing really be?" I asked myself repeatedly, as I began to approach the grounds. Suddenly, my jaw fell to the floorboard as I entered the expansive theme park that was the Precious Moments Chapel. Actually, it was a sprawling campus with tour buses and fountains, ponds and a visitors' center that combined the ambiance of a mall with the hushed reverence of a sanctuary. The ceiling of the visitors' center glittered with a starry expanse of twinkling lights, and shops bustled with pilgrims who busily snapped up everything from greeting cards and night-lights to the sacred objects d'art themselves, all bearing the image of the Precious Moments trademark angels. (As I learned on the tour, these figurines have now passed Hummel and every other maker of ceramic figurines in sales worldwide.)I made my way through the shoppers' paradise to the long colonnade, lined by life-size (life-size? -perhaps I'm taking this all too seriously) concrete statues of the inordinately chummy hosts, and finally arrived at the shrine itself. It was a large chapel, part Spanish-baroque, part Anaheim-funeral parlor, whose doors opened electronically, only after the tour guide had explained the exquisite appointments and their subtle meaning. Behind the heavy wooden doors was truly a world of wonder: the entire interior was enchanted with fresco-like images of the adoring cherubs. They were everywhere: on the walls, the vaulted ceiling, and enshrined in stained plastic windows. As we exited, a trolley greeted us with sweets. A little piece of heaven in Missouri.

Why do I relate this story? Is it simply an occasion to poke fun at the innocent pastimes of Precious Moments collectors? Hardly. This is big business, not just sentimentalism. But while I was visiting this park, I had my own precious moment, an epiphany, as theories about the American religion and popular culture were suddenly captured in one experience. Like the exaggerated features of the Precious Moment angels-calculated to evoke particular emotions of intimacy and sweetness-popular American religion in general has become increasingly captive to false gods.

Of course, only a hard-hearted Calvinist (perhaps a Lutheran, too) could launch such jeremiads against these delicate creatures. What gall: calling these delightful figures "idols"! I'm not calling them this because I believe that people are actually taking these ceramic trinkets home to a shrine, offering morning and evening supplications to them and lighting votive candles. But there are, after all, perfectly Protestant ways of setting up idols.

Like statues of Mary and the saints, these unique statues are not somehow evil themselves. There is nothing in the ceramic, no insidious conspiracy of a pottery elite, to lure us from the worship of God to the adoration of false deities. But I cannot resist the impression that the "cult of Mary and the Saints" has been replaced in some circles with the "cult of Sentimentality." Instead of the "Sacred Heart of Jesus," we have the "Sacred Heart of the Self." And what could be more sentimental, more inviting, more user-friendly and cozy, than these cute and cuddly creatures?

Nor am I suggesting that this business amounts to the "worship of angels," that the apostles warned against in their letters. Nevertheless, I do wonder if this sudden obsession with angels in pagan America is, like the medieval cult, a distraction from the worship of the true God. Just as Mary and the saints were made into objects of folk art to become something other than they really were-sinless, pure, worthy of devotion and mediation-these Precious Moments "angels" are far from the biblical representation. After all, biblical angels were the servants of Yahweh who stood at the gate of Paradise after the Fall, with flashing sword, barring entrance; ministers of judgment at Sodom and Gomorrah. One would be hard-pressed to have Michael the Archangel in mind when gazing on one of these benign figurines. Are these the angels that executed God's plagues on Egypt? Do we have any reason to identify them even with the glad but epoch-making announcements of mysterious births that were to advance redemptive history? Even when one came with joyful tidings, Mary was filled with terror at the appearance of God's angelic messenger.

Perhaps we like these adorable ceramic angels because they represent more than a likable, non-threatening angel; they offer us a sentimentally attractive deity as well, a religion of the heart that "bind[s] the wounds of [God's] people as though they were not serious, saying, 'Peace,' 'Peace,' when there is no peace."

It is in this vein that I wish to focus our attention briefly on the Second Commandment: "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Ex. 20:4).

Precious Metals

The immediate background to this verse is instructive. The days before, God had commanded Moses to have a fence built around Mount Sinai. It was for the safety of the people, after all, for if God's sinful people were to even touch the foot of God's mountain, they would be killed. "Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Go down and warn the people not to press through to see me; otherwise many of them will perish'" (Ex. 19:21). Everyone wants to have an experience with God; we all want to see the spectacle, to take in the sight of his splendor. But God knows best. He is holy, and we are not.

After the giving of the Commandments, we read: "When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, 'You speak to us, and we will listen, but do not have God speak to us, or we will die'" (Ex. 20:18). At Sinai, God's presence in his holiness was not attractive to Israel, but repulsive. Because of their sinfulness, the people felt distant from God and afraid: "Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was" (v.21).

While God was giving his Commandments at the top of the mountain, his people were already breaking them down below. In chapter 32, we read that the Israelites were growing impatient with Moses' absence, so Aaron accommodated to their "felt needs." Instead of a God whose presence inspired fear, they wanted a "user-friendly" deity who imposed no limits and made them feel good about themselves. Like Adam, when he realized he was naked and ashamed after his disobedience, the Israelites fled from God's terrifying presence, but instead of fig leaves they fashioned a golden calf.

At last, here was a god who could be safely approached. It's important for us to see here that Aaron was not violating the first Commandment: "You shall have no other gods…," but the second. In other words, : "Tomorrow," he decrees, "shall be a festival to the LORD" (Ex. 32:5). Notice, it's a festival to the LORD-the capital letters referring to Yahweh, Israel's God. In fact, this idolatrous form of Yahweh was so affable and friendly that the people "rose up early" to worship. They were ready to go immediately, prepared to eagerly meet this chummy deity. They "sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play" (v.6). What a contrast with their experience of the Holy One of Israel! At last, they had created God in their own image: a manageable, agreeable god who would serve their cravings instead of inspiring fear.

When Moses returns from the top of the mountain, he confronts Aaron. Like Adam, who passed the buck to Eve, who passed the buck to the serpent, Aaron replies, "Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, how they are bent on evil. They said to me, 'Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' So I said to them, 'Whoever has gold, take it off'; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" (vv. 21-24, italics added).

"Out came this calf," indeed. We can almost, in our day, hear Aaron telling Moses, "Look, you were up there with God all this time and the natives were getting restless. They were impatient, fearful of a God who inspired terror. I kept them in tow and simply changed the form of worship, so that they would stay around. Well, they stayed, didn't they? Don't get hung up on style, Moses!"

Later in his life, Aaron would see his sons grow up into fine ministers of God in the sanctuary. But one day, they too offered an unauthorized offering in the Holy of Holies, and died instantly (Lev. 10:1-3). "Aaron remained silent," we read.

It is a tough lesson, and Israel had to learn it again and again. To worship God-even the true God-according to our own imagination rather than according to his own self-revelation, is to discover "the consuming fire" rather than the welcoming Presence.

But there is good news in the midst of all this. God did not want to destroy his people, and that is why he commanded them to stay at a distance and to carefully observe the ceremonial boundaries. It was not enough to worship the correct God; they had to worship the correct God according to his own revelation, not their own wits. And why? Because one day, the true "icon of the invisible God" would appear, the promised Redeemer (Col. 1:15). God himself would visit his people and save them from his just wrath. He would come not in the form of a golden calf (or a ceramic cherub), but "though he was in the form of God," he would come "taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6-8). To solve the problem of impatience with an icon of their own making, Israel was substituting the glorious hope of the Incarnation and redemption in Christ with a mute piece of precious metal. They had worshipped themselves instead of God, settling for a cheap imitation who would satisfy their "felt needs" and momentary pleasures.

In the last century, theologian Ludwig Feuerbach declared, "The religious object of adoration is nothing but the objectified nature of him who adores it." Claiming that Feuerbach was a "new Luther" in the history of human development, Karl Marx added, "Man makes religion, it is not religion that makes man; religion is in reality man's own consciousness and feeling which has not yet found itself or has lost itself again." Thus, Marx concluded, religion is "the opiate of the masses," their self-created projections of hopes and longings. Sigmund Freud took this notion into psychoanalysis by arguing that religion was an "illusion" of human consciousness. Religious statements do not refer to objective realities, but to the subjective, inner psychological world that one desires so much that he or she will project it as though it had the reality of a piece of furniture.

But what Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud discovered was the nature of idolatry, not the nature of Christian belief. Though our purposes here are not to pursue the latter, clearly these writers are correct in observing that much of that which we call "religion" is indeed simply the illusory projection of our own felt needs, inner longings, and sinful demands. Israel projected her idolatrous longings for a user-friendly deity like that of her neighbors, and "out came this calf." Likewise, we determine what is most important to us, shaped as we are by consumerism, popular entertainment, shallow conversation, and the torrent of trivial information, and out comes whatever image of God that happens to satisfy our momentary lusts.

In our day, the temptation is to view these stories as remote examples of a rather crude, superstitious antiquity. And yet, ours is among the most image-based and image-worshipping societies in human history. Like the golden calf, our images promise health, wealth, happiness, success, even intimacy, without any price. "Don't worry, be happy," cry our gelded idols from the pages of slick magazines, billboards, TV and computer screens, and radio ads. "Sure it costs more, but I'm worth it!" "You deserve a break today!" "You can have it all!" "Just do it!" "Screw guilt!"

And too often, the evangelical world simply shapes its own calf from the fool's gold of popular culture. "God" is now worshipped as though he were a product, making promises not unlike those mentioned here in connection with other units of sales. Instead of being hidden in thick smoke, his voice shaking the earth as it sends terror into our sinful hearts, the images we market console us in our misery, enslaving us with bonds of addiction, at last leaving us to rot in a cell of consumption, self-deceit, and unfulfilled cravings.

Part of the problem is that we do not even really grasp our captivity; we are still in the phase of adoration, believing in the benevolence of the idols too much to reject them. When we hear stories of persecuted Christians in hostile lands, we cheer them on in their refusal to give in to the enormous pressures of compromise. As for the persecuted believers themselves-especially in Islamic states-they do not have the luxury of enjoying both the comfort of their cultural acceptability and the purity of faith. At some point, they have to choose. After careful consideration, weighing the options, counting the cost, they finally agree courageously to be baptized, realizing that this will alienate them from their whole society. Now, of course, nothing like that confronts us in terms of degree, but we do face the same challenge in kind.

The problem is, we express alarm when it comes to the political and moral crisis of our time, while we often ignore the ways in which our culture is deeply corrosive of Christian faith and practice in deeper and broader ways. I am far more worried about the market-driven, therapeutic, narcissistic and entertainment-oriented culture of modern evangelicalism than I am about the second term of President Clinton.

Furthermore, while we attack high culture (those "culture elites"), we swallow popular culture whole, when in truth there is more that is true, good, and beautiful in high culture than a mass popular culture can ever yield. When the church growth expert or the youth director hitches the ministry to the stars of popular culture (especially youth culture, which is the dominant form of popular culture), one might as well tell a Chinese Christian that her faith is perfectly consistent with Marxism or an Iranian believer that he need not renounce Islam in order to be a Christian. In fact, in terms of the parallel I am making here, one might as well even say that Marxism and Islam actually become practical means of grace, effective tools for evangelism. If this parallel sounds ludicrous, perhaps we have not sufficiently weighed the corrosive effects of a market-driven culture. America's popular culture is every bit as dangerous (perhaps more so because of its pervasiveness) as these more obvious threats. Popular culture, vast in its liturgical forms, is an ideology, perhaps even a religion.

While there is undoubtedly a great deal more freedom and justice in America than in China or Iran, there is almost no discussion within evangelical circles about the enormously detrimental effects of free market capitalism and its mass popular culture on the family, vocation, local culture, language, and faith and practice. In a fallen world, free market capitalism may indeed prove the best system, but to suggest (even by implicit silence) that its effects are either entirely benevolent or neutral is, I think, precisely what makes it impossible for us to see ourselves as exiles. While we are not persecuted, we are seduced. What we need to do at this moment in time is to repent: to say simply, like the Chinese or Iranian convert, "By God's grace, we renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil." William Willimon of Duke University speaks of the need to focus on "preaching to the baptized," but we should also start thinking and acting as the baptized.

But what if people stop coming to our churches? Is that really our business, assuming we are fulfilling our divinely-ordained functions? In Acts 2, we read that the apostles were preaching and God was adding daily to the number of the redeemed. We have to stop taking responsibility for the growth of the church and instead make faithfulness our measuring rod. It may just be that, as the culture unravels at an increasingly rapid pace, large churches that want to be faithful will experience serious numerical loss over a short time. This, it seems, to me, is the price we may have to pay, and it is hardly to be compared to the price paid by our persecuted brothers and sisters. The other option is to be increasingly seduced and to maintain our numbers or even increase the rolls, only to create a successful secularized congregation.

Perhaps pastors and their officers could spend their next retreat laying out such a call to repentance. Of course, there will be those, either on staff or as officers (or both) who will raise obvious practical questions, charts and graphs in hand. Surely wisdom would warn against extreme or sudden measures, but it is worth taking the time to build a team of pastoral and lay support before the typical warning lights start blinking. What are you willing to lose in order to be faithful to God and his gospel? That is the question to put before the group.

If there were only one Word and one Mountain, we might all become existentialists and abandon ourselves to this nihilistic realm of self-destruction, where we consume and amuse ourselves to death. After all, if God is only wrath and power, justice and holiness, we too might as well call for the rocks to fall on us-or fill our days with frolic around the golden calf-rather than face the God who is there. But, as God revealed his goodness to Moses by proclaiming his mercy instead of showing his face, so now, when God at last comes near to us in the flesh of Jesus Christ, we can finally see God and live to tell about it. Instead of his word of judgment, we hear his word of pardon:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him… (Col. 1:20-21).

Instead of Mount Sinai, burning with smoke, we have come to Mount Zion (Heb. 12:18-28). In Christ, the Consuming Fire is hidden in the gentleness of the manger, turning water into wine, inviting sinners to his table. Clothed in him, we are protected like Moses in the cleft of the rock, and are able to stand in his Holy of Holies without fear of judgment. And yet, our worship must still be "with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is [still] a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29).

Given this self-revelation of God, what have we to do with the false religious images? A sappy, sentimental, harmless deity is hardly worthy of our awe, and perhaps this is one reason why the popular god elicits only passing excitement and new golden calves must be fashioned when today's intoxication turns into tomorrow's hang-over. As Israel fell under the spell of her neighbors' idols again and again, so too the church in our day seems so eager to shape Yahweh into the various images of popular culture: entertainment, sentimentality, therapy, marketing, anti-intellectualism, and passivity. C. S. Lewis once wrote that our cravings are wrong, not because we want too much, but because we're willing to settle for too little. When God offers us a Mediator greater than Moses, a Living Redeemer instead of a golden calf, and a salvation so much richer and more promising than the trivial gods of our mass culture, how can we fail to turn from idols to the true and living God!

1 [ Back ] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, ed. by E. G. Waring and F. W. Strothmann (New York: Ungar, 1987), 10.
2 [ Back ] Ibid., viii.
3 [ Back ] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. and ed. by James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961).

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, January 1st 1997

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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