Commodified Gods: A Reflection on Acts 19:23-41

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Commodified gods—forms of religion dependent on and subject to the dictatorship of the market—are no gods at all. They are mere projections, incurvatus in se writ large. When we create our gods in our own image and then put them up for sale, we lose the gracious reality of being creatures, the beautiful truth that we human beings are closer to the soil than to the heavens. We also lose what I might humbly posit as the spiritual genius of Christianity: that the transcendent and irreducible mystery of the divine nevertheless inhabits fleshy, human existence, joining us here in the soil.

Reading the Book of Acts transports modern Western Christians back into a world before the existence of Christian empires or state churches, before Christendom or Christofascism, before a cross was ever placed on a shield or gun. Acts opens up a world where Christian is still a slur for some heretical Jews who worship an apparently failed messiah and whose unwillingness to participate in civic religion is dangerously unpatriotic. In this world, Christianity as a powerful or even recognizable world religion does not yet exist. Instead, a scrappy group of apostles and other disciples are running around the eastern Mediterranean trying not to get killed by angry mobs or governing authorities, with a word supposedly from God about the resurrection of the dead and the beginning of a new epoch for humanity. In response, people ranging from court officials to beggars and slaves are abandoning the dominant religious system and forming new families with each other, all in the name of that crucified Jew from an unknown village on the imperial periphery. 

For liberation-minded Christians today, weary with the weight of our own history, reading Acts stirs the soul with longing for a Christianity worth claiming, for the kind of spirit-driven countercultural movement that is beloved by the disinherited and disdained by the powerful, as Jesus intended. On this side of Christendom, reading Acts, I again feel the devastating irony of belonging to a religion founded by a lynched prophet from a colonized people that nevertheless achieved global supremacy and now bears responsibility for many of the systems and ideologies afflicting the modern world. 

What do stories of persecuted prophets mean for citizens of the imperial core? Who are Peter and Paul in the shadow of Donald and Joe? How can we follow “the Way of Jesus” when the “powers and principalities” around us pray in the name of the very same guy? An initial step to answering these questions may be to reread Acts with our (post)Christendom context in mind: not automatically identifying ourselves with the disciples but asking what the persecuting mobs may have to tell us about our religious formation, too. 

Acts 19:23-41 is one of several episodes in Acts in which a crowd gets stirred up into a fervor against the disciples of the Way in defense of that epicenter of religious economy, both spiritual and material: the Ephesian temples. Zeal for temples is bad news for Christians in Acts, who annoyingly preach the worship of a God beyond either statues or buildings “made by human hands” (7:48, 19:26). Meanwhile, worship of a God beyond statues and buildings is bad news for those major sectors of the Ephesian economy that depend on the production and consumption of gods. Demetrius, the silversmith-playing-demagogue who gets the riot going, draws on local patriotism, religious pride, and some implied, pre-existing anti-Judaism in his accusations against Paul and the Way. Yet the author of Acts uses his speech as a device to clarify the underlying reality of the situation: the driving force behind the anti-“Way” riot here is economic anxiety. Wealth-protecting, nation-defending, temple-and-priest-dependent gods are good for the economy! The comparably wild and unaffiliated Holy Spirit who Paul claims to follow is, contrastingly, not. The God of these Christians is dramatically uninterested in the religious economy that otherwise manages the mutual dependence of human and divine. Demetrius asks a question that reverberates through the centuries all the way until it reaches us: What good is decommodified religion? What would that even mean?

Importantly, Christians invented neither monotheism nor the anti-idolatry critique of which they are accused here. They inherited both from ancient Israel’s understanding of idol production, a familiar theme from the Hebrew scriptures. Of this theme, Willie Jennings writes: 

The idol is a collective self-deception, a point of facilitation where human fantasy and wish, circulating around material realities, generate distorted hope. The idol facilitates a hope of control of both my life and the life of the gods, that is, to draw the gods into common cause with me for sustaining my life. The production of the idol is the production of the human, because through its creation a self is also created and through its worship and devotion that same fabricated self is sustained. Idol production is the folly of the Gentiles who know not God or themselves. It is complete ignorance of the God of Israel, the creator, and the gracious reality of being creatures.1 

Colonizing Christians of later centuries lazily deployed the Israelite critique of idolatry to denigrate indigenous cultures around the world, a legacy of chauvinism and outright imperialism against which we must now labor. Yet at the heart of this theological critique lies the spiritual genius of Judaism: gods created in imitation of human beings cannot rightly be called “God.” Only that which transcends human imagination, and human control, is truly divine. The God beyond human imagination nevertheless reveals Godself in humanity’s image. This is the incarnational paradox, against which our idols and projections fall flat, plastic and lifeless.

The text’s portrayal of the Ephesian crowd, driven by economic anxiety and paranoid patriotism to persecute dissenters, asks us to look inward. Two hours spent chanting in Artemis’s defense and a near lynching to go along with it, reminding Bible readers of other needy gods like Dagon (1 Samuel 5) and Baal (1 Kings 18) and evoking historical memories of Christian antisemitism, anti-Black racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia. In each case, the frantic and aggressive defensiveness of the worshipers reveals the fragility of the “god.” 

Meanwhile, Jesus stands silent before the false accusations of a corrupt court, offering nothing but “truth” (John 18:37) and urging his followers not to prepare their apologetics in advance (Luke 12:11-12). Jesus demands no zealous defense and recommends no religious competition. When we Christians persecute our critics or anxiously protect our corners of the spiritual (and literal) market; when we trap God in buildings while chasing away the homeless; when we prove ourselves as ready to form a Christian mob in Jesus’s name as any other forgotten sect devoted to any other invented god; whenever we rage against others in defense of our fragile, commodified gods, we reveal our absent faith in that Holy Spirit in whom we live and move, the divine breath that will blow wherever it chooses.

(Post)Christendom Christianity shares little in common with the ragtag crew of Jesus preachers presented to us in the pages of Acts. The temples of our day and time, both religious and civic, have the Christian God’s name on them, all while the targets of our collective anxiety and chauvinism often come in non-Christian attire. To seek out the non-violent, non-defensive way of the crucified Christ in the era of Christian empires is a path of humility bordering on humiliation, a path of self-critique against which our egos bristle. Yet these criminalized apostles, and the mysterious messiah standing behind them, still speak, if we will hear them. They beckon us off the wide highway of the market, the border, and the gods we create in our image, calling us back to the gift, the table, the soil, and the incarnate nearness of God.

[1]  Willie James Jennings, Acts : A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2017), 134.

Luke Melonakos-Harrison

Luke Melonakos-Harrison (he/him) is a master of divinity student at Yale, socialist tenant organizer, Bible nerd, and relatively new Methodist. Now a member at First and Summerfield UMC, he aspires to pastoral ministry and new church planting/organizing. Originally from San Diego, he currently lives with his spouse, Lana, in New Haven, Connecticut.

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