Essay

But I Don’t Want to Be an Idol-Worshipper!

One Christmas, I was probably about ten years old, I made a last-minute switcheroo in what I wanted for Christmas.

Instead of the tabletop football game that involved strategy and play calling, but was not visually interesting, I changed my mind and asked for an annoying electric game where the players vibrated and buzzed in senseless circles. Still, it did have twenty-two little figurines on something intended to look like a football field. Mine were the Chicago Bears and the then-St. Louis Cardinals.

All of this came to mind when I was talking with a person who volunteers at one of those craft/gift shops that sells items from all over the developing world. According to her, there is an almost insatiable desire for nativity sets—from all different countries and cultures. They sell like crazy.

Her comment set off all sorts of bells and whistles in me—about nativity sets, decorative figurines, the human form, idolatry, and finally, the Incarnation.

Recently I read that nativity sets originated with St. Francis of Assisi. Apparently, Francis returned from a pilgrimage to the Middle East seeking a way to convey the rustic simplicity of Jesus’s surroundings, especially his birth, to the decadent, upper-crust of his society. Ta-da, the nativity set! As I find myself saying all too often about too many things, “If that’s not true, it should be.”

I do love nativity sets, although I’m not really a collector. I’ve written before about my fondness for santons, the nativities from southern France that include people from a typical French village of the 1800’s. And I’m always amused by those lists of weird, creepy, and possibly inappropriate sets. Mermaids, marshmallows, monsters and much, much more. This year I especially like the one with Doc’s time-traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future crashing into the stable.

Probably my favorite is this minimalist one. It might appear to undercut my claim that there is something innately compelling about the human form. After all, these are only painted blocks of wood. I find it fascinating, however, that the nativity is so imprinted on our souls or psyches or whatevers that simple blocks can convey the whole thing.

Still, the comment about the incredible popularity of nativity sets caused me to look beyond crèches and Christmas. Why did I want that stupid football game with colorful, 3-D players, rather the more strategic game with no human figures? And wow, I never noticed but I have a lot of figurines. Probably most are religious in some sense, but many are not. A collection of Sinterklaases. Gatherings on bookshelves. Assemblages on desks. I look around and am amazed, surprised, entertained—and I wouldn’t be fully Reformed if I wasn’t also a bit convicted.

When I visit ornate churches, I’m prone to mutter something snide about Calvin’s contention that the human mind is a perpetual factory of idols. But simultaneously I am also enthralled by a sense of décor that finds a way to fill every square inch with something. I’ve also seen it as I’ve tried to protect “my chancel,” sparse and hyper-Reformed, from a never-ending barrage of people wanting to add this, bring in that, decorate here and soften there.

What was Calvin warning us against when he called human nature an idol factory? Of course, not to be fully aware of your motives and sins is part of what it means to be Reformed. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that I don’t worship my Ichiro bobble-head or that my Orthodox priest from Patmos is not an idol.

Here is what I’ve concluded: the human form in all it variety and colors and roles is undeniably compelling. We are attracted. We are charmed. We recall. We love. Yes, this could also be my justification for too much junk. Or maybe, some will say this is somehow narcissistic. Fair enough.

But this time of year, I’m going to take it one step further. Maybe the same force that causes me to desire human figures is what caused God to become incarnate in Jesus Christ. The human form is irresistible both to us and to God. God wanted to share in that joy and beauty and so came among us in Jesus.

Bring your claims that God needs nothing or lacks nothing. Voice your concerns that the Incarnation was about self-emptying, servanthood, substitution, sacrifice, and death. Your claims are not wrong.

But maybe it was also, at least a little bit, that God looked on us thought, “What I’ve created is so wonderful. I’m going to join them.”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

6 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thought this myself. Right on. But notice God didn’t choose a Dutch mother.

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    I hadn’t quite thought about it this way; I had leaned toward the idea that God knew that the human form was irresistible to us, and either wanted (wants? an eternal perspective can be difficult to get one’s syntax around) to get our attention or to figure out what the attraction was, but the idea that God shares our fascination . . . that makes me see this differently. Thanks, Steve.

  • –from Hopkins’ Sonnet 62:

    To man, that needs would worship block or barren stone,
    Our law says: Love what are love’s worthiest, were all known;
    World’s loveliest—men’s selves. Self flashes off frame and face.
    What do then? how meet beauty? Merely meet it; own,
    Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; then leave, let that alone.
    Yea, wish that though, wish all, God’s better beauty, grace.

    • And the sestet of another Hopkins sonnet:

      I say more: the just man justices;
      Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
      Acts in God’s eye what he is—
      Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
      Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
      To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I suppose we can guess about all sorts of things that could be on God’s mind, each guess being essentially unprovable and undeniable at the same time. Who can know the mind of God (except to the extent that he has revealed his will)? I see lots of attempts to anthropomorphize God, much like this attempt to project our longings on God. I wonder why that is.

  • Thanks to all. It is always gratifying to see all the different reactions that can come from the same blog. Dutch mothers to Hopkins! Eric, you’re right about anthropomorphizing. Isn’t it the blessing/curse of being human? It’s what we do. God sort of nudges us down the slippery slope with the Incarnation. James Brumm, I think you offer a very good corrective. The Incarnation tells us that God knows how irresistible the human form is to us! You zigged where I zagged, and that was a wise, important move. Again, thanks to each of you.

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