We are modern, technologically-advanced people, yet we are still religious beings. We need guidance, a centre around which we can organize our lives, an ultimate focus. If this ultimate focus is not God, then we will find something else, an idol of sorts. A truly transformational education will help students identify idolatry and discern the idols of our time.
How can we identify an idol?
In the Old Testament, idolatry was the worship of gods other than Yahweh mainly through representative images, but in the New Testament, this concept is expanded to include placing any ultimate confidence in something other than God. This makes modern idols more subtle to identify, but God gave the Scriptures to guide us. According to Isaiah 44:9–20, idols have at least three identifiable traits:
1. An idol is always made out of something good and legitimate.
The idol-maker uses cedars, holm trees or oaks to fashion his idol (v. 14). Trees are part of God’s good creation, which we can legitimately appreciate and enjoy, but here they are being misused. Any aspect of God’s good creation can become an idol.
2. An idol usurps God’s place by claiming to have ultimate status.
Idolatry is much more than mere misuse; it confuses a part of creation with the Creator Himself. When that happens, we start demanding from creation what only God can give. Trees provide wood for housing, utensils, and fuel, but they cannot “save us” (v. 17) or guide us; only God can.
3. An idol steals our own place in the world as images of God.
Interestingly, the Bible uses the same Hebrew word—tselem (‘image’)—to describe human beings (Gen 1:26) and to critique idolatry (Exod 20:4). God has made images of Himself; we do not need to. Idolatry will be dehumanizing—first of ourselves and then of others (v. 9).
For instance, think about work. Work is an essential aspect of being an image-bearer. We were created to work (like God does) by ruling over creation and filling the earth, by cultivating and caring for it (Gen 1:26–28; 2:15). But our work can easily become our guiding centre, reorienting our identity and giving us meaning. As a result, we ourselves become stressed and frustrated, and we might start neglecting the needs of our family or seeing our colleagues as threats.
Common Idols in Education
1. Performance: Grades are an important element of academic life, but when they become the main lens through which we see students and they see themselves, grades have become an idol, leading students into frustration and anxiety and making unhealthy comparisons with others. The solution is not to eliminate assessment, but perhaps to diversify it and to offer more encouragement and formative feedback.
2. Knowledge: Every teacher rightly wants to see their students learn the content of the lesson. Knowledge is a stepping stone to wisdom as well as part of God’s design for us: He wants us to know Him, each other, and His creation. But knowledge can easily become an end in itself, giving us the illusion that we can usurp God’s place as all-knowing. When that happens, we become arrogant and condescending.
In the classroom, knowledge is often taken to be neutral, downplaying the moral dimension of education. However, even math is not value-neutral. Our students need the ‘what’ (Math), but they also need the ‘how’ (guidance on how to use knowledge in God-honouring, neighbour-loving, and earth-keeping ways).
3. Technique: We also want to develop our students’ skills, knowing well that there better ways of doing things than others. Knowing the proper techniques to draw, play a musical instrument, or write a letter is a legitimate part of our human development. But our fascination with steps and procedures betrays our excessive confidence in methods. When technique focuses inordinately on our rational capacity, strives for the elimination of risks, and establishes impersonal criteria for decisions, it stifles our creativity, shrinks our moral responsibility, and gives us the illusion that, like God, we are all-powerful.
It’s important for students to improve their performance, grow in knowledge, and acquire technical skills. These are legitimate goals, worthy of pursuit. But they hide in themselves the potential to idolatry. Students need to learn that these things are not ends in themselves but means to honour God, love and serve one’s neighbour, and care for creation. Teaching this is one of the responsibilities of a transformational teacher.
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