Saturday, January 31, 2015

An incomplete collection of thoughts on idolatry

[Edited in response to some helpful comments—MKH]

I recently joined a Facebook group whose topic is "Jesus Music 1969-1989." Lots of nostalgic posts and pics to reminisce about the Christian music of that period and its impact on our lives.

Some people in this group (like many fans of other genres) are very interested in having their favorite albums from years past. They are willing to pay a little (sometimes a lot) more than the average person in order to get these albums, because they like the music, and because it reminds them of good times and revives their spirits. They post pictures of said albums in gleeful celebration. I get all that—it’s fun.

I did find one post that, even though it was clearly tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, it got me thinking about an issue I've considered over the years. A member declared jokingly that the classic album his wife had recently given to him as a gift would remain sealed "until Christ comes back and says I got a great player in the sky for that."

Ah, sounds like one of those obsessive-compulsive collector types, I thought. There seem to be several in the group, just going by some of their posts. My response was (and is): what's the point of having an album if not to listen to it from time to time, or at least have the ability to do so? Isn't it about the music? Especially if you believe the music conveys a message that everyone needs to hear. Aren't you preventing a potential life-changing experience for someone when when you keep the record (literally) under wraps? How would the artist you hold in such high regard feel about that? It seems to be a little like getting a dog and putting it in a kennel somewhere, just to say you're a dog owner. In other words, just a little crazy. And probably no fun for the dog. Or to use the words of a comic whose identity I can't remember: "That's not a hobby; that's a symptom."

Clearly, as he assured me later in a very patient and measured way, he was kidding. He understands we're not taking anything with us when we go. He said he already has the music in a listenable form and was glad to have the unsealed album for his collection because he was planning to display it because he admires the cover art. His collection is available for listening, not locked away in an underground bunker. I mean, if his wife is OK with it, that's a good sign, right?

But as for the others out there (not just in the group)...I can't help but imagine that on some subconscious level they interpret those passages in Revelation about the seven seals to be depicting Jesus opening His favorite albums from His infinite album vault so He can enjoy them at last in a dust-free environment, in heavenly stereo sound. The noble, never-ending quest for the elusive Holy Grail of vinyl. The neatly-labeled series of issues, all in orderly rows and columns. Perfection. What? Play it? And risk scratching it? Are you nuts?

So the question I have is this: how is this affinity for a physical object (an album) that supersedes the purpose of it (to convey the music) not a form of idolatry? Hard to imagine it isn't. Which (as a wise commenter observed), is to say it would be for me. I don't approach this as Moses fresh off the mountain spotting the golden calf; I'm someone with some experience in obsession and idolatry of my own. (To paraphrase Twain, we're all idolaters, just with different objects). So, not judging, just making some observations and posing the question for consideration.

For some, it's seems especially unlikely that something that carries a religious message would actually come between us and God; others know all too well how these things (church, rituals, etc.) can be the most insidious idols of all, because they make us think our focus is on Him when it's actually on something WE control. And that's what idolatry—and collecting—is all about: control. Filling that void within us with something of our choosing—something we can polish, admire, find security in having the WHOLE set, and post pictures of on Facebook (or Instagram, if that's the preference).

I understand the market assigns value to certain things, and in the record market, the condition of the album is of utmost importance. It's an "investment." Sometimes one that pays real money in the real world. But I would also say that any collector's market is based on, and also feeds, the idolatrous inclinations of collectors. A practical economist might say that value is an illusion until a sale takes if your goal is to HAVE and not use or eventually sell, you never see the proceeds. If your worldly wealth is in things that can't be used, only owned, then until or unless their potential value is traded for things that have actual value (food, clothing, travel, entertainment, etc.), you are destitute (ask the dude with 1,000 Beanie Babies in storage). For some people the only way to free themselves of this burden of false treasure is to give it away, thereby losing their delusion of self-sufficiency. A parable about a rich man and the eye of a needle comes to mind.

Collecting can be a harmless, enjoyable hobby, and even a useful coping mechanism. Sometimes it just gets weird. I once visited the home of a mature couple in Oregon, and as we sat at the kitchen table, we were surrounded by Barbie dolls, mostly in boxes, on shelves that took up a great deal of wall space all over the house. They were not there to be easily accessed by any little girl that might want to take one down and play—that would no doubt be verboten (I don't think many little girls visited, anyway). This is the kind of thing that gets a cute "my, isn't that interesting" feature story in the media. I found it to be creepy and sad.

A few years ago, an acquaintance who clearly has the obsessive-compulsive type of personality (great with numbers, and with a heart of gold, but not a good communicator at all), told me he had several thousand Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars in storage. I was a little taken aback, but it kinda made sense, knowing him. I had a box of cars when I was a kid. I played with them. At some point I gave them to my nephew. He played with them. They're all gone now, and though I'd get a kick out of it if I somehow ran across one, I don't miss them at all...because they fulfilled their purpose as TOYS.

One especially sad tale is that of a veterinarian in Chattanooga. Her collection of dragon figures filled one building (having moved her office next door) and then five temporary trailers she put up next to her practice. She basically had created a dragon museum. That was probably pretty cool. However, she died young due to pulmonary fibrosis, brought on by the effect of living with 40 or 50 birds she kept in her house with poor ventilation. Her penchant for collecting killed her. And her dragon collection had to be split up and sold off to deal with the debts she left behind. Not such a cute story. (Details here).

I'm not saying nothing should be preserved or kept, or displayed in number, even in a Christian home. Some things fulfill their purpose that way, as decoration and reminders of times past (pictures, sculptures, souvenirs, album covers, etc.). (That said, I do wonder if one friend's massive collection of Precious Moments statuettes that fills her apartment isn't just a bit much. No judging here, though!). It's when we place the value on HAVING the thing over ENJOYING the thing itself that I believe we get into trouble.

As a final illustration (a blog with homework!), I would refer the reader to those two great films, "Citizen Kane" (especially the ending) and "Toy Story 2." In both, the message is clear: there is a point where the acquisition of things distorts their purpose AND ours, and it does not lead to happiness. I think that is one reason that, when Jesus called his disciples to follow Him, the understanding was that they leave everything behind.

So, let's enjoy our hobbies, and remember: buyer beware...especially if you already have 100 just like it at home.

Your thoughts and rebuttals welcome.