Note: Mind + Heart will also be available on Google Podcast. We’ll add that link as it’s available.
On this episode of Mind and Heart, host Phillip Holmes is joined by guest Karen Ellis. Karen is the Director of the Edmiston Center for the Study of the Bible & Ethnicity (ECSBE) at RTS Atlanta. She also serves as the Robert Cannada Fellow for World Christianity at RTS. Ellis holds a Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) from Yale University. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Virtue Ethics at the Oxford Center for Mission Studies in Oxford, England. She is passionate about theology, human rights, and global religious freedom. Since 2006, she has worked together with the Swiss-based charity, International Christian Response, and has traveled internationally advocating for global religious freedom.
Phillip begins the episode by asking Ellis about her background in the arts and her faith. Karen explains that she always wanted to be an actress and wanted a solid, strong training, so she went to Yale. In her third year, God began working on her heart and she was saved. She worked in the theatre business for a long time after graduation and then felt a call into full-time ministry. She began traveling to interact with Christians globally and see how the faith was practiced across the world.
In 2018, Karen was featured in Reformed Theological Seminary’s Wisdom Wednesday series. She explained that the biggest challenge facing modern Christians is “who is going to be on the throne?” Because of the fall, she says, humans are always jockeying for the dominant position. 1 John 5 resonates with where we are today, it ends by commanding, “little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Ellis says idolatry is anything we prefer or allow authority over our lives other than God. Phillip asks Karen how you can identify when something has become an idol. She says idols are like bad boyfriends, they start out well, but never deliver on their promises, and eventually treat you poorly. Because idols are sneaky, Karen recommends praying to ask God to reveal them to you.
Learn more about Reformed Theological Seminary.
Learn more about Karen Ellis.
Learn more about Phillip Holmes.
Phillip Holmes: Before we dive into this week’s episode of the Mind + Heart, we want to take a moment to highlight RTS Global, the online program at Reformed Theological Seminary. Do you want to earn a graduate degree from a trusted seminary but don’t know if you have the time? Reformed Theological Seminary offers three Masters of Arts programs available 100 percent online. These degrees are perfect for anyone pursuing full-time vocational ministry, interested in Ph.D. work, or any aspiration where theological education might enhance your gifts. These programs allow you to study at your own pace, attend class completely online, and have regular interactions with your professor and teacher’s assistants. Study in a way that suits you. Learn more today at rts.edu/online.
Welcome to the Mind + Heart podcast, which features interviews and more from the faculty and friends of Reformed Theological Seminary. We created this podcast to assist you in your daily quest to love God and love your neighbor. I’m your host, Phillip Holmes, and this week I’m joined by my guest and my friend, Mrs. Karen Ellis. Karen Ellis is the director of the Edmiston Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity in Atlanta. She also serves as the Robert Cannada Fellow for World Christianity at RTS. Karen holds a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University. She is a Ph.D. candidate in virtue ethics at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in Oxford, England.
She is passionate about theology, human rights, and global religious freedom. Since 2006, she has worked together with the Swiss-based charity International Christian Response and has traveled internationally advocating for global religious freedom. Because of her background in the arts, Karen has been seen in classrooms and at conferences, on television, on film, and on stage. She has headlined at the Kennedy Center and the Fabulous Fox Theater in St. Louis. For eight years, she hosted a morning radio program in the Pacific Northwest on PRAISE 106.5 FM. Karen Ellis, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining us. How are you?
Karen Ellis: Phillip, it’s good to see you. Call me Karen.
Holmes: Thank you. I appreciate it. We know each other. The people need to know we know each other.
Ellis: I would love to call you V.P. Holmes through the rest of the interview. Can I do that?
Holmes: You’re Karen Ellis; you do whatever feels right.
Ellis: That’s all right.
Holmes: Because I love Karen, and I also just love to be transparent with our listeners: Karen’s background in radio was actually very beneficial to this podcast because she was giving me some tips, and she has a long bio, so that’s why you hear the laughter when I say “welcome to the show” after a few takes. I’m so glad to have you on the show, Karen. I’m so glad you’re my colleague at RTS. How are you doing?
Ellis: I’m doing well. This is such a bizarre season of life right now, just getting the Edmiston Center up and running. We’re really seeing God’s hand move and seeing him open his hand and bless. But at the same time, he never works through you without working on you and in you. That has its challenges, being refined. I would say overall, it’s a good season.
Holmes: Good. A lot of people might not know a whole lot about you, and here was a lot of stuff in your bio that I just read that probably a lot of people are like, “Wait, huh?” So here’s what I want you to do before we dive in: briefly give us your origin story, specifically I want you to talk about at least your background in the arts, how you became a follower of Jesus.
Ellis: Oh, boy. The only thing I ever wanted to be was an actress. I can remember being three or four or five years old, singing into my hairbrush, into the mirror in my bedroom and acting out stories that I had seen on TV and playing all the roles at the same time. I just really pursued that, much to my parents’ chagrin. Eventually they got on board. But yeah, I wanted to be well-trained, and I wanted to be a classical actress. So I trained at Yale, and my third year at Yale—you know, they say the first year of your graduate program, they scare you to death. The second year they work you to death. This is a three-year program, and the third year they bore you to death. They were still working me to death in the third year, but I had some extra time on my hands, and God really started working on my heart and asking me some hard questions about what I believed. I had grown up in church, but I didn’t really know him personally.
There’s a power to powerlessness that’s expressed through the cross.I was spending time in the stacks of the beautiful libraries at Yale reading about the world’s religions and didn’t realize until I was sitting in an Easter service and they gave the gospel, and I had heard it my whole life, but it just hit different that day. I can still see the fellow’s face who gave the gospel to us. It was at the African-American Cultural Center on campus, and I have no idea what the fellow’s name was, but I heard it, and I said, “Wow. That’s the truth. That’s the truth.” Holy Spirit quickened me, and I went forward, and things were different after that.
I worked in the business, in theater, for a very long time after that. Eventually I just started to feel more of a call towards Christian ministry full-time. I could have stayed where I was, but God had other plans. I guess in a nutshell, because I had taken that trip around the world and looking at world religions, I always had a heart for the way other people were living and the way other people were thinking. I carried that over into my Christian life and my Christian experience. I was always curious about how other Christians were living around the world and what kind of societies and what kind of cultures they were living in. I’ve always had this sort of pull and burden and itchy feet to go and travel and see what God is doing around the world, how he’s moving through his people.
Holmes: I think that’s a helpful segue way to enter this week’s episode, which is entitled “Idols.” In 2018, Karen answered the question for Reformed Theological Seminary: What is the biggest challenge in Christian living? And she answered this via Wisdom Wednesday, our weekly Q&A video series. Before we go any further, let’s take a moment and listen to Karen’s response to the question: What is the biggest challenge in Christian living?
Ellis: The biggest challenge is: who is going to be on the throne? And it plagues us as Christians. Because of the fall and because the whole world was turned upside down from the created order, the created order became the distorted order. We have this propensity to love the dominant position and to pursue the dominant position, and it’s not the power position of the Bible, necessarily. There’s a power—Václav Havel wrote extensively about this—there’s a power to powerlessness that’s expressed through the cross, that’s expressed through the life of Christ and through the life of the early church. So we’re kind of always, even as Christians, jockeying for that dominant position, whether we express it through culture or through politics or through ethnicity. We always want to find that place that says, “I’m approved by God, not just because of what he’s done, but because of this other thing that we’re going to tack on.”
When I read 1 John 5, it resonates so much with where we are today in terms of this listing of how you know who’s the real deal and who’s kind of shady. That’s the KIV version. This is how you know somebody who’s really after the things of God. This is how you know somebody who has really had an experience that has helped them know who God is and who they are in relation to him. Then it goes through all these things, and then out of nowhere comes this: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” And you look at it and you go, “Where did that come from?”
When I can’t stand objective criticism of the object of my affection, I probably have an idol.But that is the thing that keeps us from understanding that all cultures, all ethnicities, all socio-economic classes, all men, all women are equal at the foot of the cross. When we go back to that temptation in the garden, where somebody had to say, “Maybe God isn’t the arbiter of good and evil, maybe it should be me. Maybe I should be the determiner of who’s in and who’s out.” And that’s when things get distorted. I feel like 1 John 5 is a beautiful book that illustrates that. For my money, the biggest challenge is the same as it ever was, as we used to say in the club in the 80s. Same as it ever was. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
Holmes: Karen, would you mind giving our listeners a definition of idolatry?
Ellis: I guess a short definition would be, I would call it anything that I prefer or give control of myself to besides God as a source of wisdom or the object of my affection or that I allow to define my ultimate purpose or that I allow to dominate my thinking so much so that it turn determines my actions in a particular direction. If God holds that spot in my thinking, in my mind, heart, soul, there’s a life-giving bent to that. But if I hold that spot or I allow other things that are not God to hold that spot, then there’s a disruption of shalom. There’s a disruption of peace. There’s a disruption of relationship with God that happens.
Holmes: That’s super helpful. Let’s make that practical for a second. How do we know if something has become an idol in our lives?
Ellis: There are a lot of ways I think you could use to tell if you have an idol. We have to be careful here because some actually very good things in our lives are blessings that God has given us that become burdens when we allow them to control us. It’s not always the monster lurking behind the door or the most evil, odious, malicious thing you can think of. But when I can’t stand objective criticism of the object of my affection, I probably have an idol. When I can’t accept any alternative to it, I probably have an idol. When I do everything within me and go to great lengths to defend it in an unhealthy way. Idols are like bad boyfriends. They start out well, but eventually they treat you mean because now you’ve given yourself over to them so much that you are their slave. Idols never deliver what they promise. If you want to hear how idols treat you, listen to the blues from a female perspective, and it’ll tell you a lot. I’ll just leave it at that because I don’t know how much time we have, and I don’t want to give you too much.
Holmes: No, I want you to keep talking.
Ellis: I use a theoretical framework based on the covenantal story, on the life, death, and resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ, or we would say creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. My work centers around what kinds of people does coherence with that story create, and what are the priorities and the virtues and the habits of communities that live in light of that story? What kind of what I would call an other cultural or other political community does that story create in societies full of other stories? We were just talking earlier about how the world is full of people, and human beings are storied people. Everybody’s following a particular story within God’s greater story. Sometimes those stories are hostile towards the covenantal story living in their midst.
Everybody’s following a particular story within God’s greater story.So if we think about the Lord as the center of the bullseye in terms of living his own perfect life, he was the only one who lived the story perfectly. Of course, he would, because he’s the author of his own story. But thinking of him like the bullseye, there have always been communities of Christians that were closer and further away from living out that story. A big part of that story is the fall of humanity, which is based on idolatry, thinking we can elevate ourselves to that place that only God should occupy in our hearts and our minds and our souls. So just like idolatry tripped up our parents at the outset of humanity and still trips us up today, it trips me up, even those who believe are going to tend towards wanting to be idol factories, as the history books tell us.
Idolatry’s persistent and consistency among human beings is an obstacle to effectively living that story. It shows up throughout Scripture, over and over and over again. Israel’s always getting in trouble and plays this play. Even the first-century church, they were figuring out, “Should I worship with the people that I belong to ethnically? What’s God doing here? What’s he asking of me as I allow him to take his rightful place in my heart?” It plays itself out in history over and over and over again. So when I was asked in this interview, “What’s the biggest obstacle to Christian living?”, I couldn’t name any one cultural problem that was bothering us at the time. And lo, there be many. They are legion. I couldn’t name any one thing. Those are all the results of the root, which is idolatry.
Holmes: That’s extremely helpful. Wow. Thank you. How can we how fight idolatry? What does that look like in our day to day lives? I know one of the things that we were discussing before we started recording was the importance of prayer. So another way I could ask that is, what is the role of prayer in fighting idolatry?
Ellis: That is a fantastic question because idols are sneaky. The best way to know if you’re caring about a thing too much is to ask God to show it to you because I can guarantee he delights in answering that kind of prayer. He’s like, “Oh, you want to see?” Praying is the first step to tearing it down. It’s like you don’t pray and then say, “OK, well now God helped me to take it down.” The act of praying and acknowledging that he is supreme and he has the right to have that place is the first step. That’s like throwing the rope around the statue before you pull it down. The first step in tearing down the idol is acknowledging that he’s the one who deserves that place in our hearts, minds, and souls.
Idols are sneaky.Holmes: That’s so good. That’s so helpful. That’s all the time that we have for today, but Karen, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate you being on the show and sharing your wisdom and sharing what the Lord is teaching you regarding idolatry.
Ellis: Thanks. I love learning alongside you, Phillip. It’s a pleasure.
Holmes: Absolutely. Likewise. Thank you for tuning in, and we hope you enjoyed this week’s episode featuring Karen Ellis. I would also like to thank the RTS family, church partners, students, alumni, and donors for the many ways you make the work of Reformed Theological Seminary possible. The clip we listened to earlier is from our weekly video series Wisdom Wednesday, where relevant matters of the Christian faith are addressed by the RTS faculty and friends with truth, candor, and grace. Access our entire archive or submit a question at rts.edu/wisdom-wednesday. Mind + Heart is powered by Reformed Theological Seminary, where we desire to raise the pastors and other church leaders with a mind for truth and a heart for God.