On The New Idol

The book of Revelation is primarily a prophetic critique of empire—a prophetic denunciation of the all-powerful state as a devouring, dehumanizing beast. In John the Revelator’s day the Beast took the form of the Roman Empire. In subsequent history the Beast has flown other flags. The drama of the Apocalypse is found in the contest between the monstrous Beast which devours humanity with its military and economic might and the Lamb of God who redeems humanity with his blood. The hope we find in the final book of the Bible is in the prophetic picture of the ultimate triumph of Jesus and his kingdom over the satanic empires of Babylon. And thus the Bible is a book which gives us the happiest of all possible endings.

But the Beast is subtle. Like the serpent which is its father. And though the shed skin of the Beast is easily recognized once it is relegated to the realm of history, the Beast can be difficult to spot in its contemporary incarnation. It takes a prophetic eye to spot the shape-shifting monster that is the Beast.

Today I read one of these prophetic observations. Allow me to share it with you (in a somewhat edited form).

Somewhere there are still peoples, but not where we live my brothers: here there are states. State? What is that? Well! Now open you eyes to me, for now I shall speak to you about the death of peoples.

State is the name of the coldest of all monsters. Coldly it tell lies too; and this lie crawls from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” It’s a lie! It was creators who created peoples and hung a faith and love over them: thus they served life. [I would prefer to say, It was our Creator…] It is destroyers who lay traps for the many and call them “state”: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them. [I would prefer to say, It is the Destroyer…]

Where there is still a people, there the state is not understood but hated as the evil eye and as the sin against laws and customs. This sign I give to you: every people speaks its tongue of good and evil. But the state lies in all the tongues of good and evil; and whatever it says it lies—and whatever it has it has stolen. Everything about it is false; it bites with stolen teeth, this is bitter. Even its entrails are false. See how it entices people to it! How it swallows and chews and rechews them!

“On earth there is nothing greater than I: It is I who am the ordering finger of God”—thus roars the monster. And not only the shortsighted fall upon their knees! Ah, even in your ears, you great souls, it whispers its dark lies! It would surround you with heroes and honorable ones, the new idol! It basks happily in the sunshine of good consciences—the cold monster!

It will give you everything if you worship it, the new idol: thus it purchases the luster of your virtue. It would use you as bait for the all-too-many! Yes, a hellish fake has been devised with the trappings of divine honors! Yes, a dying for many has been devised, which glorifies itself as life: truly a great service to all the preachers of death!

State, I call it, where all drink poison, the good and the bad: state, where all lose themselves, the good and the bad: state, where the slow suicide of all—is called “life.”

They steal the treasures of the sages for themselves: “education” they call their theft—and everything becomes sickness and trouble to them! They are always sick; they vomit their bile and call it newspaper. They devour one another and cannot even digest themselves. They gather riches and become poorer with them. They want power and first the lever of power, much money—the impotent paupers!

They all want to get to the throne: it is their madness—as if happiness sat on the throne! Often mud sits on the throne—and often also the throne on mud.

Madmen they all seem to me, clambering monkeys and overeager. To me their idol smells foul, the cold monster: to me they all smell foul, these idolaters.

My brothers, do you want to suffocate in the fumes of their snouts and appetites? Rather break the windows and spring to freedom! Escape from the bad smell! Escape the idolatry! Escape from the bad smell! Escape from the steam of these human sacrifices!

The earth is free even now for great souls. There are yet many empty seats for the lonesome and the twosome, wafted by the aroma of still seas. A free life is even now free for great souls. [I would prefer to say redeemed souls.] Truly, whoever possesses little is that much less possessed: praised be a little poverty!

Only where the state ends, there begins the human being. Where the state ends—look there, my brothers! Do you not see it, the rainbow and the bridges of the Ubermensch?—

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

Friedrich Nietzsche said that.

I know, I know, Nietzsche. But although Nietzsche got a lot wrong, he got a lot right too. I think of him as a sort of mad prophet. His critique of what would become the pervasive philosophy of the 20th century (he died in 1900) was nothing short of prophetic. And for that matter his criticism of the smug, musty, bourgeois hypocrisy that passed for 19th century Prussian Christianity was pretty much right on target. I just wish he could have encountered a more vibrant and rigorous Christianity. Maybe things would have been different for Nietzsche.

For all his contempt of Christianity (or the version of it he had seen), Nietzsche’s little essay “On The New Idol” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra sounds like he had just finished reading the book of Revelation. Consider these themes:

The lust for power that corrupts people and turns nations into monsters.
The monstrous state that secures its power by lies and deceptions.
The all-powerful state making divine claims in order to subjugate people.
The all-powerful state as an idol demanding allegiance and worship.
The all-powerful state built upon the bones and blood of the people.
The all-powerful state drunk on power and drunk on blood.
The idolatrous state fouling the people with its poison and stench.
An exhortation to escape the corruption and foul stench of the monster (Babylon).

All are common themes in Revelation.

But here is where I depart from Nietzsche. The rainbow’s end is not found with the Ubermench (Superman) but with the Lamb upon his throne. Salvation for humanity (and humanness) is not found in the triumph of the Ubermench, but in the resurrection of the Son of God. My faith does not lie in the will to power of the Ubermench, but in the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It is not the Ubermench who triumphs over the Beast and makes life livable, but the Lamb of God.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Thus spoke BZ on this snowy Monday.

(The painting is Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich)