Evangelicals and the Golden Calf

by Randall S. Frederick

I.

After the holidays, it was back to work. Writer’s meetings. Schedules. Review of lecture materials. Travel. Shaking off the snowy slumber of the last month and stoking the dim engines of industry once more. The television had been tuned away from news and the continued mistakes of the clown in Washington and turning back to see what new laws he had broken and justices he had defied showed yet another mass failure on the part of Evangelicals who supported him. 

“Going into the new year, what would you want to write about? What would you want to spend time writing about?” someone asked me, and all I could think of was Evangelicalism. Not the Evangelicalism that is now, the ironic upside-down of Biblical and historical witness, but the trajectory of their course, the small and, later, considerably larger compromises that have taken place.  Like a mathematician, I want the equation of motion, not the object itself, to trace the course and adjust for size and speed. Not the object itself.

Evangelicals have always been fragile. When confronted with scripture, they shatter, though they praise it. Instead of becoming a familiar form of Christianity for the current epoch, Evangelicalism has slid from a religious manifestation to cult of personality to a sad and ironic kind of profane bibliolatry – worship of the Bible rather than the words contained in it and perpetual anger indiscriminately directed outwards. It’s something we see in other areas of life and rightly mock, like the bad date who “likes all kinds of music” but has never heard Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, or Tracy Chapman. Bringing up these artists is met with confusion or dismissal. Evangelicals are like the family member who keeps pronouncing quesadilla as kaysuh-dillo. We might grimace and keep the conversation moving, sure, but internally we are enduring this person, not enjoying them. We are counting the minutes until polite obligation will allow us to set this person aside and relegate their willful ignorance to an anecdote.

As an instructor of college literature, the masquerade of characters is something I enjoy illuminating. I bring up little idea games for my students, offering them an opportunity to create Dungeons & Dragons characters as a way of showing me their alternative selves. I will ask them what their favorite monsters are, what kind of scary movies they like, and who the best horror icons are. Someone will always say Dracula, and I will point out that vampires were historically depicted as monsters, things to avoid. Pop culture glamorizes them in contemporary media and we often miss the message of monsters, identifying with them and at times desiring them.

As film critic Maitland McDonagh discusses in the documentary World of Darkness (2018), “Vampires have been depicted differently in different eras. In the very earliest stories about vampires, folklore stories about vampires, vampires are not seductive and they are not appealing. Vampires are ghouls.” It is with Bram Stoker’s Dracula that this begins to change. “Dracula really is ground zero for our contemporary conception of the vampire. He is where it starts, the idea of the seductive vampire, the appealing vampire, the vampire whose lust for human blood does not make him unwelcome in human company.” But Dracula was based on another work, a short story from 1819, The Vampyre. Interestingly, The Vampyre was written as part of a contest between John Polidori (the author of the work), Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley. This same contest produced the novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, but Polidori was a young physician at the time and, given the established literary success of Lord Byron, it was Byron to whom credit was originally (and errantly) attributed for the work instead of Polidori. Of The Vampyre, McDonagh continues, “Lord Ruthven is somebody who is handsome, he’s personable, and yet, ultimately, he is revealed to be a top of the food chain predator.” 

In these discussions of monsters and their social parallels, I ask my students, does any part of their psyche register a familiar threat? A metaphor? Would anyone recognize an issue of class here – that the wealthiest and most handsome among us are often the ones draining the poor of their lives? The message is not immediately clear to students who want a blunt and explicit message, but there it is embedded in the text. Polidori insinuates that the great threats to us are not putrid monsters in the forest, but the ruling class. Villains, like Lord Ruthven, will go to great pains to convince people they are no monster, they are not slowly draining us of life, and that anyone who identifies them as a monster is, in fact, mad or demonic. Very often, these accusations are intertwined.

Some students see this as a stretch, even though the message was clear to Polidori’s original audience. These students will defend Dracula, the monster, as a good man who must occasionally do bad things. And so the conversation will shift and I will discuss more explicit messages embedded in literature. These same students often tell me that To Kill A Mockingbird was a formative text for them in high school. The message of author Harper Lee is more clear, more identifiable: racism is bad. Simple. Direct. Easy to understand. I will volley with them and ask if they are unable to recall specific passages or even narrative scenes from Mockingbird. I will ask if they remember the part from chapter 5 when Miss Maudie talks to Scout about the Bible, specifically the part where she says “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”

Scout doesn’t understand, not at first. Her father doesn’t drink, as Miss Maudie is suggesting. Then Miss Maudie goes on to explain that even if Atticus, Scout’s father, were to get very drunk on a bottle of whiskey, he still wouldn’t be as mean as some people are while sober. Some men, Miss Maudie says, are naturally hard and are made harder by religion. They are so worried about who is going to heaven and hell that they don’t learn how to live in this world. When she refers to “looking down the street and seeing the results,” she is talking about the Radley family, whose religious beliefs have caused terrible things to happen. As she puts it:

What I meant was, if Atticus Finch drank until he was drunk he wouldn’t be as hard as some men are at their best. There are just some kind of men who—who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.

My students don’t always get the subtext, but as a former minister, I am revealing a great deal of myself when I bring this scene to their minds. So I will ask one last question because by now, we are already at the end of the lecture. “Since we’re talking about your favorite book, after all, tell me which one are you?” Do they identify with the Bible holder or the bottle holder? 

Inevitably, the ones who say they would hold the Bible resist learning all semester long. 

We can use literature as a cipher to understand life; students who cannot recognize and name the thing explicit on the page are rarely genuinely deficient; rather they are resistant. One cannot help but sympathize with a student’s desire to see the world in easily identifiable ways. They are young and too heavily invested in a way of life, too embedded, to see the obvious. They would maintain that there is no such thing as a monster draining their life from them because “he’s too nice, too wealthy, to do something like that.” 

Real monsters, I would offer, often look just like us. The damage they inflict can be seen by simply “looking down the street and seeing the results.” But, like Dracula, they recoil when you hold up a cross to them.

II.

The story of the Gold Calf (the ḥēṭ’ ha‘ēggel or “sin of the calf”) has increasingly felt prophetic with the rise of Evangelicalism in America. In Exodus 32, we light upon an event in the removal of the Israelite people from Egypt. It’s a well known story, often told in churches as a kind of “new exodus” in the Christian narrative. But before Christians began to recast the stories of the Torah in light of their messiah, it was – and remains in Jewish communities today – a story about the compromise of idolatry.

When we think of idolatry, we tend to think of the most obvious offenses. We think of the individual who builds a literal shrine in their home, the lawyer or doctor who places their career above everything else, perhaps even the overprotective parent who cannot see the glaring abuse their child is committing on the playground. In short, we think of sad people living sad lives. Oh! If only they could recognize what they are doing, holding up these small idols while the rest of the world moves on without them! But here, in Exodus 32, we see a mass event. This is not an individual committing a small and excusable “sin” in the privacy of their own life, but an epidemic. Moses has gone up Mount Sinai to receive the law of God, written with the finger of God, and has come down to find the entire nation of Israel – his people! – worshipping another god. How did this happen?

When the Israelites left Egypt, they took silver and gold. It’s a strange sidenote in Exodus 11:2-3, these impoverished slaves allowed to beg for jewelry and precious metals. These items disappear from the narrative until Moses leaves them to commune with God, but then there they are again in chapter 32. The ḥēṭ’ ha‘ēggel begins with impatience toward their leader, in this case Moses. Those familiar with the wanderings of the Torah will know this is not the first, or last, time that leaders are challenged. Those familiar with the news headlines of today will, perhaps, already be ahead of me by now making comparisons to the political frustrations of today when there are so many competing opinions on where America, or Europe, or the world entire, is “headed” and what works best lend themselves to worship. 

But none of this is sin. Not yet. The error of the people is the calf itself and the way that they are celebrating, calling this other god their God. The rest of the chapter, specifically 32:11-19 sees the anger of God become so unhinged, so terrifying, that God wants to obliterate the entire nation. Moses intercedes for them – but not because they are good people. As the story continues, it seems Moses isn’t sure at first how thorough the sin really is. Sin takes time. And by the time he returns to them and sees how advanced their wickedness has become, he throws the tablets of God’s commands down and breaks them. 

Pause on this for a moment and read the words yourself. See the story for what it is, not the explanations we have placed upon it.

1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods[a] who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods,[b] Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”

18 Moses replied:

“It is not the sound of victory,
it is not the sound of defeat;
it is the sound of singing that I hear.”

19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.

21 He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”

22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

God is ready to kill the people He has just brought out of slavery. That’s quite the tonal shift in the story, and it is meant to emphasize what has happened. But, in case we (the readers) are missing the point, Moses has just “delivered” the people from divine genocide and he too is filled with anger. Moses was angry with the People of God because they made a god of their own, a god that looked a lot like the one they were “saved” from. It is idolatry and a blaspheming of the Name of God. This is forbidden, and it is not an entirely new idea for them. After all, just a few chapters prior, the Commandments were given to them. They knew. This was not an offense committed without knowledge, right? It seems reasonable to expect the People to reject such an idea. But here they are, not just worshipping a false God but calling it THE God, the God who had delivered them. Instead of rejecting the idol (gosh, how stupid do you need to be?) they called it God. Not A god, but THE god. 

Sound familiar?

This is what Evangelicals have done in America.

Jesus says to put away swords and meet violence with self-sacrifice. Evangelicals greet violence as the first response to any confrontation. Evangelicals rush to the altar of war, willing to sacrifice their children by sending them abroad so that they can feel safe at home, so that their need for oil can be satisfied. Evangelicals baptize ungodly legislation in prayers and public declarations. They support the destruction, rather than the care, of environmental resources. They mock anyone who doesn’t think like them. They dismiss science and fact-based studies and loudly put forward the latest opinion that came to them in prayer. Their music is highly sexualized, speaking of God “coming inside” of them even as they denounce any form of sexual engagement that does not lead to conception. The teachings of the church emphasize helping the poor, but Evangelicals celebrate the accumulation of wealth and denounce poverty as the product of laziness and stupidity. The parallels between the teachings of scripture and the behavior of Evangelicals are superfluous, and we see each of these examples distilled in the ḥēṭ’ ha‘ēggel, the sin of the calf.

Evangelicals are not bad people. Like Moses, I understand that the egregious idolatry they commit comes about because they are quick to forget. They rewrite their history when necessary. God commands and they forget. God punishes and they repent. God rewards, and they become arrogant. And each turn of the cycle comes because they keep forgetting their heritage.

Continued in pt. II

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