Godly Materialism: Rethinking Money & Possessions

September 1 st 1994

InterVarsity Press, 1994, 213 pp., $18.99)

In economic matters it seems Christians fall broadly into two camps. One camp adheres to a robust, unapologetic materialism in which God is the guarantor of the good life. The other camp is largely pessimistic about economic matters. Its followers are fearful of accumulating wealth, careful not to appear too well-off, and inclined to use the condition of the poor as a norm for their own economic lives.

The live-life-to-the-fullest optimism of the first group has many followers, especially because of the work of TV evangelists who have strong reasons of their own to push a "health and wealth gospel." Here we have visceral, unthinking hedonism which is carefully narrow in its selection of Scriptural support.

The economic pessimists tend to be thoughtful and usually left-wing in political matters. But, whereas the first group tries to satisfy envy and to have it all, the appeal for the second group is the expiation of guilt for having too much and for jjot sharing enough. No one should enjoy his wealth, they say, until poverty is eradicated.

John Schneider's Godly Materialism fits nicely between these two parties. He recognizes the responsibility we have to respond to the needs of the poor. But he also has no problem with our living well, cedar deck, pool, and all. In fact, he would encourage us to enjoy our wealth without apology: "There is an enjoyment in the superfluous that is very good" (p. 56).

This thesis will shock some, and may be dismissed out of hand by those who have been raised on Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. And Schneider will disappoint those who may have been looking for an easy justification for the accumulation of worldly stuff. But our author steers us carefully between these deadly shoals and lands us safely on the shores of a much more fertile land. He repudiates the economically fearful who, operating under the burden of unacknowledged guilt, are incapable of recognizing, let alone enjoying, the unimaginable wealth that God has given us and expects us to use, albeit in a stewardly, responsible manner. As is made clear in the parable of the ten minas (Luke Chapter 19: 11-27), God expects us to make fruitful use of his incalculable gifts. Not striving to live up to that expectation will have dire consequences.

On the other hand, there is no room for unstewardly, selfish enjoyment of those gifts. The responsibility we have to look out for and address the needs of those who have less than us puts limits on our enjoyment of the rewards of our labour. The more we have, the greater the responsibility. This is a point well covered in many books.

John Schneider's valuable contribution, however, is that there is a proper, legitimate place for the accumulation and enjoyment of wealth, even when there are poor among us. Man has been given a material world in which to live. In fact, it is a lush world of unbelievable wealth and potential. God has given this superabundance to man for his enjoyment because this is the nature of God, to be overwhelming in his gifts to his creatures. In Genesis there is no suggestion that the created order is anything but "very good." God embraces it and expects his royal agents on earth to do the same.

Unfortunately, sin has brought hardship and poverty together with this incredible wealth. In response to such ambiguity we must not repudiate the generous gifts God has given us, but now wisely, with prudence and care, use them in the service of those forlorn ones. We are not required to become poor ourselves. In commenting on the parable in Luke 19, Schneider says, "The message, I believe, is to enlarge and to dignify whatever realm God has given us. We should go about our work with royal pride and dignity, not with the tackiness that is so prevalent in our culture. The essence of life is not in the quantity and visibility of our dominion [whether it be in the accumulation of wealth or in the guilty repudiation of it], but in its quality" (p. 164). This is not a message often heard these days. It deserves to be.

 

W. J. Douglas Ball is the secretary of the national board of the Christian Labour Association of Canada.

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