At the end of the 6th century AD, Pope Gregory the Great launched one of the most significant missions in Christian history. “Do not let the toil of the journey or the tongues of men, discourage you,” he told the apprehensive monks tasked with converting the Anglo-Saxon people of England, “but with all earnestness and by God’s guidance fulfill what you have started, knowing that great labor is followed by the greater glory of an eternal reward.” In 597 the missionaries arrived in the kingdom of Kent. While his queen was a Frankish Christian, King Ethelbert told the newcomers that their words are “new to us, and strange. I cannot accept them if it means abandoning the ancient religion of the whole English nation.”
He allowed them to stay in the capital city of Canterbury and soon converted to Christianity himself, but the leader of the missionaries, a Benedictine monk named Augustine, reported back to Gregory that the people of Kent were dedicated to their own religion. In his reply, the pope advised a famous evangelistic strategy:
…by no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples… For if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.
The story of Gregory and Augustine came to mind as I read this morning’s familiar Old Testament reading: the Ten Commandments, which start with a foundational text of monotheism.
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:1-4)
A fierce opposition to idolatry runs through the story of the mission to England, where Gregory exhorted King Ethelbert to “suppress the worship of idols.” In his Ecclesiastical History, the monk-scholar Bede eulogized Gregory for having “made our nation, till then enslaved to idols, the Church of Christ.” Likewise, he records that Augustine of Canterbury “led King Ethelbert and his nation from the worship of idols to the faith of Christ….”
But such stories can make it hard for American Christians — distant heirs of Augustine’s mission — to read the First Commandment in the Year of Our Lord 2020. We hear idol and think of Germanic peoples sacrificing to deities like Odin. My mind flashes back to illustrations from childhood Bibles: impatient Israelites bowing down to a golden calf, or victorious Philistines finding a decapitated statue of Dagon next to the Ark of the Covenant.
While this fall a small group dedicated to Germanic paganism took over a defunct Lutheran church just a couple hours from Minneapolis, that’s not the false worship that should bother us most right now.
Americans don’t bow down to statues fashioned from gold and silver, but we do idolize wealth. We don’t venerate images of ivory or marble, but we do lift up whiteness. We don’t worship fierce warrior gods like Thor or Mars, but we do make an idol of militant masculinity. Even America itself can become a false god for godly Americans.
So I wonder if there’s a new Augustine already among us, asking a 21st century Gregory for advice: How shall I turn these American Christians from idolatry? Perhaps one of the growing number of missionaries from the Global South dispatched to the increasingly post-Christian North, or a Christian speaking from the margins of American society to its wayward center. Or the young, who can sometimes see problems more clearly than those of us at and after middle age.
Whoever it is, I pray that we will welcome them into our temples, our “places familiar and dear to” us, that they may tear down our idols and turn us back to “worship of the true God.”