Book Reviews

Book Review: Idolatry (Stephen Fowl)

Stephen Fowl, the Chair of the Department of Theology at Loyola College and an advocate of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS), has written a helpful book on how believers can identify their own thoughts and habits that may lead them to idolatry. He notes how the OT prophets pointed out the idolatry of their hearers once it had already happened. By that point, the hears were usually too deaf and blind to change. Fowl writes, “Given that the prophets also make it painfully clear that it is very hard to recognize and repent of our idolatry, it is much better to avoid developing the habit of idolatry in the first place” (13). Believers must be cultivating habits and practices that help them resist idolatry and recognizing which thoughts and habits lead them to idolatry, and then doing away with them (13, 27).

But as westerners specifically, we don’t have shrines and idols in every town (or, almost anywhere) where we bow down and pray to idols. What does idolatry have to do with us today? Now, they are things that occupy so much of our time, they might as well be our gods. Fowl writes that “they rule and order our lives in the way that the One true God seeks to rule and order our lives” (28).

Looking first at Deuteronomy 6:4–6 (chapter 2), God seeks our wholehearted love and attention. Anything that seeks to move our attention away from him is threatening to become an idol (29). Starting from that standpoint, for the believer, “idolatry should seem more like a process of slowly turning and directing our love and attention away from the one true God toward things that are not God” (29). We fight against idolatry by both remembering God’s grace and how we are dependence upon him.

In chapter 3, Fowl looks at what Paul has to say about “greed” being “idolatry” in Ephesians and Colossians. Fowl takes us to the doctrine of creation, specifically, creation out of nothing. God gave Adam and Eve everything they had, but most importantly that could have a close relationship for him. Yet, being greedy, they grasped for more—that is, something different—and were thus idolators. The way to keep us from becoming greedy is to be thankful for what God has given us and recognizing that what we have, he has given. We don’t need to sit on social media or Amazon all day coveting everything we don’t have but wish we did.

Chapter 4 takes us through 1 John’s claim that perfect love casts out fear. Fowl looks at how certain kings in the book of Kings were afraid of other nations’ kings and armies, and because of that turned from God to idols and other nations for help. But now as believers move closer to God, they move closer to each other. In loving one another bodily, we are prevented from becoming isolated. A perfecting love “requires abiding in the communion of fellow believers of God” (91).

Chapter 5 looks at “the community of the curious.” In line with Aquinas (and others), Fowl looks at curiosity (curiositas) as a vice. After using the vice of curiosity to explain Israel’s tendency to idolatry in Deuteronomy 12–13, and in Acts 17, “from Luke’s perspective Athenian idolatry appears to be founded on their curious quest for novel ideas and is underwritten by an unwillingness or an inability to ‘studiously’ move from what knowledge they do have to knowledge of the one living God” (112). Fowl then goes to Luke 11:34–35 and Jesus command about developing the “single” eye—”when your eye is single (ἁπλοῦς, haplous) then your whole body is full of light.” We need to have single-minded attention on Jesus.

Fowl then reflects on how to keep a “single eye” in “a distracted age.” Perhaps what most pleased me with this book was how varied Fowl’s applications were and how on point they were too. First, in regards to chapter 2, Deut 6:4–6, and owing full allegiance to God, Fowl writes of a billboard of a man eating a cheeseburger the size of his head with the tag line that stated, “Washington won’t take full for an answer.” How do we delight in God’s goodness when we live in a culture that won’t take full for an answer? Enough is never enough. He then goes on to talk about possessions and about how he once lived in a neighborhood where there was only one snowblower, and it was hard to get started up. Once you got it started, when you were finished with it you made sure someone else could use it instead of turning it off. The neighbors checked that the elderly were taken care of. People help each other. Fowl and his family later moved to another neighborhood where everyone had their own snowblower. When the snow came nobody spoke to each other. They didn’t need any help. In what ways can being reliant on others be a good thing? Could this build relationships? Fowl’s specific applications are often the kind that pastors wish they could make. They were well formulated and articulated, neither contrived nor forced.

The Spoiled Milk

In his conclusion Fowl offers some cautions about idolatry in the present, and then presents what he believes to be a major idol in North America—that of whiteness. While I admit there is a problem of race in North America, my disappointment here lies in that Fowl doesn’t define what he means by whiteness. He does write, “Whiteness summarizes a collection of dispositions, practices, and habits pervasive in the United States. The sum of these disposition, practices, and habits represents a systematic tilting of the playing field in a way that provides a set of advantages for white people while at the same time making the tilting of the field seem normal” (126).

He notes that white people do struggle on many levels, and black people do succeed on many levels. Because of this, these accounts “largely miss the point and help to reinforce our ability to see the systematic nature of this situation” (126). Since it is “deeply ingrained and normalized in the United States,” it is part “of the normal,” and is even performed by Fowl himself (126, 127), what is it?

Fowl even writes, “A Christian in Corinth can turn from idols to worship the one true God. I cannot stop being white. I can, however, learn to repent of participating in whiteness” (127). Since Fowl is white, will there ever be a time on this side of heaven where he doesn’t need to repent? Does he need to repent in all countries or just in the United States? What is he and what is it we should be repenting of? He does have a helpful note on the Confederate monuments and white supremacy, and he goes through the topics of his chapters in this final conclusion, looking at the problem of whiteness from these different angels. And this was a helpful aspect to his conclusion. But again, the trouble here is that a definition of whiteness is assumed, but it is not explicitly stated. If whites are meant to repent, we need to know exactly of what we are to repent. Without a working definition or summary, the conclusion falls flat.


Fowl is a very clear and articulate writer, and most of his points are well made. There is quite a bit of repetition in chapter 2, but besides that the book doesn’t drag. This would be good for a seminary course to have students think through these aspects of idolatry and how we can implement them into our lives and the lives of the people in our churches. 


  • Author: Stephen E. Fowl
  • Hardcover: 172 pages
  • Publisher: Baylor University Press (November 1, 2019)

Buy it from Amazon or Baylor University Press!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baylor University Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

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