May 13, 2014

The Idolatry of "Better"

by Anna Ilona Mussmann

Meet Emily. She buys only toys made in the U.S. from non-toxic, natural materials; her car has a Ron Paul bumper sticker, her children are home-schooled (classical education); and her family eats a gluten-free Paleo diet (although they sometimes cheat and consume organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, full fat, fermented dairy products). Emily is perfectly well aware that the majority of Americans content themselves with Chinese toys, the established political parties, public school, and the food pyramid, but she wants to live in a better way. In fact (and this is perhaps quite typical of her socio-economic group) she is suspicious of mainstream everything. Her distrust of the establishments leads her to pursue alternatives. She is inclined to believe that there is always a better way.

If Emily were Lutheran, she would either be trying to establish a vibrant praise band and bring youth into her stodgy congregation, or she would be an ultra-confessional who carries the Book of Concord to church and genuflects pretty frequently. You know the kind. You maybe are the kind. After all, there’s a bit of an alternative flavor to this blog, isn’t there? Doesn’t its existence suggest that we are looking for something "better" than the lifestyle advice like that found in Parenting magazine, or Bill Gothard's ATI, or Evangelical radio talk shows?

We fall into the habit of assuming that “different” is “better,” partly because we know that as faithful Christians we will often be at odds with the values of the world, and partly because we are influenced by our currently rather discontented and distrustful culture. The quest for “better” is often a good thing—sometimes the mainstream is pretty rotten. Yet as I look at my own life and the lives of many people I know, it’s obvious that it can become a form of gluttony.  

Sometimes we spend so much of our time and energy on getting “the best” for ourselves and our families that we are, essentially, over-eating to the point of lifestyle-obesity. Home schooling and classical education are awesome, but not when they become an obsession, or when the focus is doing it better than all those other people. Healthful eating is fantastic, but not when it makes the eater into a nightmare guest who interrogates the hostess about every ingredient and turns up her nose at half the dishes (or who just can’t do food fellowship with ordinary people anymore).* Confessional theology and historic liturgies are life-changing and a blessing, but our pursuit of them can become ridiculous when we won’t attend a church that does/doesn’t chant the Lord’s Prayer, or harmful when we treat less theologically-sound congregation members like inferior citizens (refusing to patiently discourse with them and try to understand their side during a congregational brouhaha over the purchase of a pink chasuble, say). Our pursuit of the truth can actually become a selfish gluttony for being right instead of a love of what is right.  

When we look at all those people who are gluttons for “better,” a common thread is visible. No doubt that thread is spun from organic, free-trade cotton and dyed according to instructions in the Augsburg Confession. That thread is pride. When we chase our preferences with the zeal of a new religious convert, we give off the impression that we think that we need the best, and that we not only need it, but deserve it, because we are better than others. We are in fact in great danger of beginning to believe that. Contempt slips in for Dorito-eating, praise-song singing folks who don’t even know that Latin is not the language of South America.

Once we think that we are better, it is easy to begin to worship our own needs and to serve our own desires. We soon “fear, love, and trust in” ourselves and our chosen means of betterment instead of in God.  Our gluttony feeds the pride that leads to idolatry. Basically, we are Adam and Eve in the garden with the apple, all over again, and we are busy munching.

This kind of idolatry is particularly prevalent in our day and age, and it is wise to examine our own consciences and lives. Do we care more about having the best and seeking better, or about giving to others to the best of our ability? If we are, it is time for some repentance, and maybe even for a Dorito at the neighborhood potluck.

*Of course, some people must be extremely careful what they eat because of medical reasons (which can be a tough cross to bear), yet even they often have a choice between doing this in a way that makes more or less work for others and with more or less gracious manners.

EDIT: I would like to add the clarification that I am not attempting to criticize or refer to any individual. I chose examples of things that I myself love and support (classical education, healthy eating, liturgical traditions and colors) in an attempt to address the temptations we all face instead of seeming to attack other people's preferences.


Anna writes as often as she can, although sometimes it is with only one hand because her baby son requires the other. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados.

Title Image: "The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg" by Milo Winter (1919)


  1. Hello Anna,

    Fantastic piece. I've written a response over on my site:

    “The Tyranny of the Middle” vs. “The Idolatry of Better”: a reader’s response to Mrs. Mussmann

    I hope you, Sam, and baby are well!

  2. :) Hello Anna, Thanks for the article. I surely appreciate a voice of reason within the body of Christ, having run in to far too many voices of extreme (defining "extreme" as pursuit of personal desires and "reason" as permitting God's word and the principles therein to reshape personal desires or at least overrule them)--my own, at times, among them.
    God's blessings,Susan

  3. Fantastic post, Anna!

  4. Thanks for the reminder. A big one for me is remembering not to put the wonderful gifts God gives me before Him - family (especially kids) is tough for me. Sometimes the "good things" are the ones we don't realize we are making into idols. We think as long as we don't bow to the golden calf we are fine :-)

  5. Great analysis, a very perceptive insight into why we behave in certain ways and how our supposedly good obsessions are not always so benign. I enjoyed reading this!


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