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Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods (Book Review)

My church recently distributed Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods, for Christmas to whomever wanted it. I’ve heard people sing Tim Keller’s praises but have never read his books or visited his church or church plants. Therefore, I decided to pick this book up first before picking up Keller’s other bestsellers that have piqued my interest: The Reason for God and The Prodigal God. And besides, it was FREE. How can you beat a FREE book?

I made a goal to finish reading the book before the clock struck midnight for 2010 and achieved that goal. The hardcover book, barely larger than 5 x 7 inches, is just under a 200-page read (including the Introduction but not including Notes, Bibliography, or Acknowledgments). I’m a bit of a slow reader so I was able to complete the book in about three days (of dedicated reading). A fast reader could easily complete this book in a day–it’s that small.

Upon completion of the book, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I enjoyed it. And it stood in marked contrast to a book I most recently finished, It’s Your Time by Joel Osteen, that touts health and wealth as proof of God’s favor upon an individual. Usually, I take a couple of days and allow my mind to fully absorb the contents from the book before making a full judgment, however, Counterfeit Gods impacted me so much, I view it as a life-changing book.

Perhaps life-changing seems like an exaggeration but for me it is not. I operate on a five-star rating scale, basically using the Amazon system:

* (one star) – I hated it
** (two stars) – I didn’t like it
*** (three stars) – It’s OK
**** (four stars) – I liked it
***** (five stars) – I loved it

Counterfeit Gods gets FIVE stars from me. It’s not easy for a book to garner that high a rating from me but I personally can’t find any fault with it. (Perhaps a pastor or some high-falutin’ theologian would.) Keller is clear, concise, uses modern-day and Biblical examples to support his points, and instructs readers on how to identify and replace any idols in their lives.

Keller leaves no graven image unturned in this book. This book, aptly titled Counterfeit Gods, could also have been titled If You’re Breathing, You’re Probably Breaking the First Commandment. Keller posits that anything that dethrones Jesus Christ as the sole object of worship in our lives is an idol. He also asserts that the remaining nine commandments are basically elaborations on the first:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.  ~Exodus 20:2-3 & Deuteronomy 5:6-7

Since Counterfeit Gods is a relatively recent book, he begins by addressing the economic fallout of 2008-2009 that led the United States into a recession. He refers to wealthy investors who made money their sole god. So when the bottom dropped out of the economy and those investors lost millions upon millions of dollars, they had nothing left to turn to. As a result, many of them committed suicide. Except for one bright shining hope in an investor named Bill who gave his life to Christ in 2005. Bill testifies:

If this economic meltdown had happened more than three years ago, well, I don’t know how I could have faced it, how I would have even kept going. Today, I can tell you honestly, I’ve never been happier in my life.

Don’t get the idea that Keller is saying becoming a follower of Jesus Christ leads to a life of butterflies and sunshine. Quite the contrary, he implies Christians have a tougher road ahead of them because they are called to a higher standard. As a result, Keller points out that today’s (mainly Western) Christians often don’t look much different from non-Christians.

Contemporary observers have often noted that modern Christians are just as materialistic as everyone else in our culture. Could this be because our preaching of the gospel does not, like Saint Paul’s, include the exposure of our culture’s counterfeit gods?

Harsh words. It certainly convicted me.

For starters, it would be good to define what an idol is. Here is the basic definition Keller provides:

It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.

Despite the book’s subtitle, The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters, Keller does not limit his discussion of idols to money, sex, and power. Not at all. Here’s a full list of the idols he identifies (located in the Notes section) with brief descriptions:

  • Theological idols: Doctrinal errors that produce such distorted views of God that we end up worshipping a false god.
  • Sexual idols: Addictions such as pornography and fetishisms that promise but don’t deliver a sense of intimacy and acceptance; ideals of physical beauty in yourself and/or a partner; romantic idealism.
  • Magic/ritual idols: Witchcraft and the occult.
  • Political/economic idols: Ideologies of the left, right, and libertarian that absolutize some aspect of political order and make it the solution, eg, deifying or demonizing free markets.
  • Racial/national idols: Racism, militarism, nationalism, or ethnic pride that turns bitter or oppressive
  • Relational idols: codependency, “fatal attractions,” living your life through your children.
  • Religious idols: Moralism and legalism, idolatry of success and gifts, religion as a pretext for abuse of power.
  • Philosophical idols: Systems of thought that make some created thing the problem with life (instead of sin) and some human product or enterprise the solution to our problems (instead of God’s grace).
  • Cultural idols: Radical individualism (typical in the West, making an idol out of individual happiness at the expense of community); shame cultures that make an idol out of family and clan at the expense of individual rights.
  • Deep idols: Motivational drives and temperaments made into absolutes
    • Power idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if I have power and influence over others
    • Approval idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if I am loved and respected by _________
    • Comfort idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if I have this kind of pleasure experience or a particular quality of life
    • Control idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of ___________

As you can see, it’s easy to create an idol out of nearly anything and anyone apart from God. I can’t imagine who hasn’t been guilty of any of these idols at some point in their lives.

Not only does Keller use modern-day examples of idolaters (ie, a mother who alienates her kids by attempting to live life through them) but he relies heavily on Biblical examples to show Christians the difference between an idolater (Jacob) and a non-idolater (Abraham). And in every single chapter of all seven chapters of the book, Keller deftly weaves in the need for Jesus Christ as the atonement for all sins, including the sin of idolatry, and the grace that God provides through Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection.

While this book can easily speak to a non-Christian, Keller recognizes that his primary audience consists of Christians and he wastes no time talking directly to them:

If we are deeply moved by the sight of [Jesus’] love for us, it detaches our hearts from other would-be saviors. We stop trying to redeem ourselves through our pursuits and relationships, because we are already redeemed. We stop trying to make others into saviors, because we already have a Savior.

And later on, Keller writes:

Though we may give lip service to Jesus as our example and inspiration, we are still looking to ourselves and our own moral striving for salvation.

… While Jesus is our Savior in principle, other things still maintain functional title to our hearts.

Ouch. How many of us as Christians are guilty of dethroning Jesus as the sole object of worship in our lives and replacing him with one or more of the temporal objects (idols) listed above?

Keller spends the majority of the book identifying idols. By the time chapter seven ends, he briefly mentions that idols should simply be replaced. Had I stopped reading then, I would have upset that he didn’t further address how to go about undertaking such a process. Fortunately, there is an Epilogue solely dedicated to “finding and replacing your idols.”

Because the Epilogue caps the book quite well, I want to quote a few choice sentences at length:

Archbishop William Temple once said, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” In other words, the true god of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there is nothing else demanding your attention. What do you enjoy daydreaming about? What occupies your mind when you have nothing else to think about? Do you develop potential scenarios about career advancement? Or material goods such as a dream home? Or a relationship with a particular person? One or two daydreams are no [sic] an indication of idolatry. Ask, rather, what do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart?

What a series of convicting questions! Keller continues, however:

Another way to discern your heart’s true love is to look at how you spend your money. …The mark of an idol is that you spend too much money on it, and you must try to exercise self-control constantly.

Christians often lament that they don’t have enough money to tithe to the local church or give to worthy charities. What are we throwing away our money on that could be better used for God’s honor and glory?

As if the previous points Keller raised weren’t enough, he was simply speaking in general to his readers–Christian and non-Christian alike. Now, Keller thrusts the sword into the heart of those who profess a belief in God:

You may go to a place of worship. You may have a full, devout set of doctrinal beliefs. You may be trying very hard to believe and obey God. However, what is your real, daily functional salvation? What are you really living for, what is your real–not your professed–god?

If you are still unclear what Keller is attempting to get at, he doesn’t leave you hanging:

A good way to discern this is how you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes. If you ask for something that you don’t get, you may become sad and disappointed. Then you go on. … But when you pray and work for something and you don’t get it and you respond with explosive anger or deep despair, then you may have found your real god.

Keller goes on to explain how to replace an idol. The pat Christian answer to this (without even reading the book) would be “Jesus.” Yes, it’s Jesus but it’s so much more than simply a standard answer.

Jesus must become more beautiful to your imagination, more attractive to your heart, than your idol. … We want to love Christ so much more that we are not enslaved by our attachments.

To dethrone any and all other idols apart from God, Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross must be real. The heart of the matter can be summed up in this question:

What is operating in place of Jesus Christ as your real, functional salvation and Savior?

It is a question that Christians should not neglect to ask themselves every single day.

  1. January 3, 2010 at 8:22 PM

    Based on your summation of Keller’s book, it would seem that the very title of his book can be utilized as an argument against his assertions. To categorize something as counterfeit and hold in esteem the particularities of his own belief is an opinionated assumption–tolerance cannot exist under the banner of exclusivism.

  2. joe
    January 3, 2010 at 9:24 PM


    I could say to you that your own view of this article is an opinionated assumption as well. Saying that doesn’t make one’s claim false by default.

    Also, you are not being tolerant as well. IF you ever read any Tim Keller you would know that everyone is exclusive. To even say someone is being intolerant (which you say) is to be intolerant to those you disagree with.

    That is, those who say Christianity is exclusive are right. However, even a pluralistic view of religions that say all religions are equal is exclusive because it excludes those religions that claim that they are the only ones right. All claims to truth (even they claim that all truth claims are valid) are exclusive. So stop saying some people are exclusive and some are not—everyone is. Now the question is–which exclusive claim is the best one?

    • January 3, 2010 at 11:44 PM

      Either you are willfully ignorant, or you have not apprehended the crux of my reply–after this, the answer may be revealed.

      I could say to you that your own view of this article is an opinionated assumption as well. Saying that doesn’t make one’s claim false by default“.

      I made no claim regarding the falsity of Christian belief–you have committed a red herring to my initial point–typical actually.

      Also, you are not being tolerant as well. IF you ever read any Tim Keller you would know that everyone is exclusive“.

      To make the assertion that everyone is exclusive is a weak, yet classic fallacy of begging the question–and it is not true.

      “That is, those who say Christianity is exclusive are right. However, even a pluralistic view of religions that say all religions are equal is exclusive because it excludes those religions that claim that they are the only ones right”.

      This makes no sense, and is a mere attempt to utilize a subtle position of circular reasoning. Even if this were true, it only discloses the crux of my point: religion, including Christianity, is based on subjectivism–and to endorse it as an objective claim of absolutism, is a blatant philosophical blunder–steeped in religious bigotry.

  3. January 3, 2010 at 10:59 PM

    Looks like a very interesting read! You’ve been very thorough with this review – Great job!


  4. January 4, 2010 at 10:55 AM

    Great review!

  5. Stu
    May 29, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    It is a bit ironic that Arius has selected as his screen name, a historic actual person who would completely disagree and contradict his stated beliefs in his comment above. Arius, do you know what the real person Arius actually believed? You have selected the name of a famous person who is considered a heretic in Christianity, obviously because your worldview contradicts Christianity. Do you know what that person believed and argued about? If you are an atheist or something else, just say so. Your choice of names does not reflect well on your concept of the superiority of absolutism over subjectivism – it’s a very subjective choice you have made.

  1. January 4, 2010 at 1:07 PM

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