Thursday, April 1, 2010

American Culture and Christianity: More Stuff don't Make You More Better

One characteristic prevalent in American culture, and sometimes invisible to us, that affects how we view our faith is...


America has supported, since the early days of its settlement by Europeans, a wealthy culture with a stable government and economic liberties, where hard work and good morals are much more likely to yield financial prosperity than in many nations. The culture places a high value on possessions, wealth, income and the comforts they give as evidences of success and status. The unprecedented economic mobility available in America provides opportunities that would be unthinkable in more static or stratified societies. The prosperity of our country presents an incredible opportunity to use our vast resources in worshipful Christian generosity. Sadly, the statistics show that professing Christians in the U.S. are far more likely to acquire more possessions and comforts than to give a significant percentage of their wealth. We are easily misled by the idea that more money and possessions make life better, so that we miss out on the blessing of choosing contentment and joy.

Our efforts to help the poor frequently are built on the assumption that money, possessions and technology ought to be bundled together in a package with the gospel. This mindset needs critique, however, as it reflects the cultural assumptions that increase in personal wealth is always a sign of progress. Introducing wealth in the wrong manner (e.g., along with consumerism) can be dangerous and destructive to relationships and attitudes emphasized in aChristian worldview that are already present in another culture. (As illustrated in this article) Linking economic prosperity to proper relationship with God can be supported by careful proof-texting, but does not line up with a well-rounded Biblical theology. Yet this link is easily taken for granted by affluent (by global comparison, if not by their own standards) American Christians. We ought to be thoughtful about how to share wealth with those in need and still affirm the relationships and attitudes that are emphasized in a Christian worldview rather than unwittingly conveying consumerist attitudes.

All of the material world was declared good as God created it, which allows us to accept the pleasure, goodness and beauty we find on earth as gifts of God. Because fallen man will abuse pleasures that were intended for good, self-control and discipline are distinctive parts of the Christian lifestyle. A worldview that condemns pleasure or views material things as inherently bad does not line up with the story of creation and its exposition throughout Scripture. Exalting pleasure as an end in itself fails to bring satisfaction, however, and sets a person on an idolatrous course, giving more value to stuff than to God. Where no clear guidelines are given, we must ask questions such as the following: Am I enjoying this as an act of worship to God, or am I allowing it to distract me from God? Am I enjoying this in a way that brings me closer to other believers and maintains an effective witness to the world around me? Each pleasure, each material blessing, each comfort that we receive should be accepted with gratitude as a gift from God, and offered in worship back to God, submitted to use for his glory and the service of others.

When prosperity comes to a Christian, it presents an opportunity to use our resources in worshipful generosity. As American believers, we must fight the cultural pressure to acquire more possessions and comforts rather than to sacrificially give a significant percentage of wealth. The blessing of choosing contentment and joy is important to the Christian way of life, regardless of one’s level of wealth.

1 comment:

Austin said...

Heather and I got to know a great couple here in Israel. Jamie, the husband, has lived in several cultures over the years and his wife Nancy, is Colombian. They have been in Israel long enough to grasp both the language and the complex culture, but something sad happened to them recently.
They were basically kicked out of Israel because they first delayed to renew their visa (which was admittedly their fault) and then were denied a renewal thereafter because one of the government agents accused them of "settling down" in the country because they just had a child here. Weird.
Anyway, Jamie and Nancy are now living on the edge of New York City, and they have related to us their cultural insights. Nancy is the best person to here on this, because she never grew up in America. She said that most all Americans are so BUSY in their pursuit of wealth, even the Christians they know in their churches. She despises it. She says that at least in Israel, you can escape this within certain communities (mainly religious ones, I think). Nancy never wants to become so engrossed in this downward spiral, and I think her exhortations are valuable for all of us.