Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Bushfish, Part 4: Why I Find the Bushfish So Objectionable (Third Objection)

God was meeting with Moses on Mount Sinai, giving Moses, the representative of God's chosen people His law. Meanwhile, those same people, the Hebrews, were encamped in the flatlands below. Like children at the beginning of a vacation, the people asked things like, "Are we there yet?" and "Why is it taking so long?"

The Biblical account of the Hebrews' restiveness and their ensuing actions begins this way:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron [Moses' brother and right-hand man], and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, 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.’ [Exodus 32:1]
It's important to make note of several things about this passage:
1. When the Hebrews became upset with the seeming slowness of God's timetable, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

2. The first thing they did was go to someone in authority, Aaron, and appeal to him to take on more authority, whether it was faithful, authorized, or sensible or not. Aaron knew that he was to wait for Moses' return and that Moses had been placed in leadership by God. All the Hebrews had witnessed and benefited from their miraculous deliverance from bondage, yet they felt certain that they could push events forward positively if they took control of things themselves.

3. Most reputable Biblical scholars agree that the Hebrews' intent was not to create false alternative gods, but physical representations of the God of the universe. They didn't intend to engage in idolatry, placing their faith in something or someone other than the one true God of all. In spite of their intent however, the golden calf they created was an idol. Instead of praying to and relying on God, they were looking to this hunk of metal to help them.
Martin Luther once pointed out that whatever is most important to us is our god. That includes innocent things like our families, homes, lawns, cars, pensions, savings, investments, jobs, baseball card collections, heirlooms, antiques, computers, i-Pods, Palm Pilots, Blackberries, favorite TV shows, sports, reputations, spouses, children, parents, friends, vacation destinations, and any of a zillion other things we can give priority in our lives. None of them are intrinsically bad. But they become bad when we allow them to supplant God as our ultimate loyalty, ultimate concern, or ultimate ground of purpose, meaning, and significance in our lives.

It's even possible for us to turn God Himself into an idol. That's apparently what the Hebrews did as they caved into impatience in the wilderness. (It's certainly what some so-called Christians do when they treat Jesus like a sort of talisman, insisting that as long as a person believes in Jesus enough, they won't get sick. That's not faith; it's superstition. It's not faith; it's idolatry. The Jesus I know never promised our lives on earth would be trouble-free. But He did promise to be with us always!)

So, what's behind this jaw on idolatry? It's about my third objection to the Bushfish. The Bushfish, you know by now, is a car magnet. Employing the most ancient symbol of the Christian faith--the fish, it attempts to equate the policies and person of the President with Christianity. An attack on (i.e., a disagreement with) Mr. Bush or his policies is seen as an attack on Christian faith, as though the President were an authorized political embodiment of God's political preferences.

The Bushfish marketers make the connection between GOD and GOP explicit by emblazoning the President's last name on the fish. In previous posts, I've mentioned two major objections I have to the Bushfish:

First: It equates being American with being righteous people of God. More specifically, it equates the policies of a particular politician with the righteousness of God.

Second: It sends a signal that Christian faith is an attainment, a work, or a particular set of behaviors, in this case, a proscribed way of voting. It says, "If you vote this way, you're in the righteousness club and if you don't, your out of the club."

My third objection is my most serious one. It's this:

The Bushfish commends an idolatry, not perhaps of President Bush, but of his policies

I doubt that's the intention of the creators of the Bushfish. Nor will it be the intention of those who may purchase it. But I believe that the creators of the Bushfish have unwittingly fashioned an idol, a competitor for people's ultimate allegiance as surely as the Hebrews unwittingly fashioned an altar with that golden calf. It commends what Canadian composer and Christian Bruce Cockburn calls the "idolatry of ideology."

Why do I say this?

1. All we Christians feel that we live in the wilderness, in a manner of speaking. The New Testament tells us that followers of Jesus are strangers and aliens and that our true home is in heaven.

Christians have the promise of Christ's continual presence with them. But the world, with its violent, selfish ways can sometimes seem menacing, intent on forcing us to do things that run contrary to God's desire for human beings. Christians become frightened, anxious to see differences in their own lives and in the world in which we live.

This can lead to the sort of impatience that I discussed in my last installment. Rather than submitting to the often arduous process of transformation that Jesus says we must undertake--gently wooing others to follow Christ, rather than beating people with Bibles, laws, or political power plays--they try other methods. They take matters into their own hands, when what they should be doing is patiently employing the methods God has given to us: prayer, service, love, compassion, witnessing, and such.

The Hebrews made a golden calf. Some enterprising businessperson, reflecting the impatience he sees in some constituencies, has made the Bushfish.

2. The Hebrews appealed to Aaron to "get off the dime" and advance their interests in accordance with their understanding of them. They were tired of waiting for Moses, God, and God's timetable.

The Bushfish represents the sentiments of some evangelical Christians who believe that US politics ought to be steered in a particular direction. During the waning days of Terri Schaivo's life, some members of the pro-life community conveyed threatening messages to President Bush and to his brother, Governor Jeb Bush. The Bush brothers were told that if they didn't usurp power that they were not authorized to wield, there would be political hell for them to pay down the road. What good does it do, Randall Terry, one of these people, asked, if pro-life people are elected to office and they don't abuse their power to do our bidding?

This isn't that different from what the Hebrews said to Aaron. "Moses is gone, Aaron. We don't care about things being done properly. You take over," they told Moses' weak-willed brother. Aaron acquiesced because he had more regard for the people than he did for God.

The not-so-subtle assumption which underlay the Hebrews' request of Aaron was that God wasn't big enough or powerful enough or shrewd enough to take care of the Hebrews. They saw God as a puny being who needed to be defended, prodded, prompted, and helped. They even thought that God was a lousy marketer. That's why they made the cow. That's why some will likely buy the Bushfish magnet.

3. Many contemporary Christians, whether conservative or liberal, are holding God hostage to their own policy preferences. As such, they violate one of the commands that God gave to Moses to present to the Hebrews. In my tradition, we call it the First Commandment:
You shall have no other gods.
In his book, The Small Catechism, Martin Luther explains the meaning of this commandment:
We are to fear, love, and trust God above anything else.
Luther also says, and I think rightly, that violating every other one of God's commands entails violating the first. When we steal, gossip, or kill, we really are telling God, "To hell with Your authority."

In a very real sense, every time we worship an idol, it's really ourselves that we worship. Whether it's a cow or a magnet we think represents God in some way or any of the other things we can give primacy in our lives, our elevation of them is a subtle or overt way of saying, "I'm in control. I know what's best. I am God."

The Bushfish is an alarming act of ungodly hubris and I hope that its manufacturer will think better of it and cut off production.


Anonymous said...


I've read and concur with all your objections to the bushfish. I would summarize them as:

1. Lends credence to bad, syncretistic theology: God=righteousness=USA=one party

2. Its display is essentially works righteousness

3. As an icon, it tempts idolatrous worship

I think my gut objection is mostly related to the first point above. Would be interested in your reaction:

Even if one believes that George Bush is doing God's will and that no one else could (i.e., let's dispose of #1), and one didn't hope to gain salvation in any way (#2), and one doesn't venerate the fish or put any more stock in it than say a bumper sticker(#3), it would still be a lousy witness to one's non-Christian neighbor. We are to be ambassadors for Christ, as 2 Cor puts it. To me, these kinds of trinkets are thoughtless and parochial, the mark of a trash talker or sore loser (winner), not an ambassador. The gospel may offend as it challenges people, but when our heedless expressions of our faith do the offense, it's "Get thee behind me Satan" all over again.

Mark Daniels said...

Excellent point, Andrew! It is contrary to being a positive witness for Christ to "gloat" in this way.