The Rich People’s Revival (Good of Affluence #1)

Over the next few weeks, as I research for and write a chapter on the theology of private property, for a forthcoming edited book called Render Unto God: Christianity and Capitalism Reconsidered, I’ve decided I will have to spend some time scoping out the enemy, so to speak.  I determined a couple years ago that I’d heard everything intelligent (and it wasn’t very much) that the conservative Christian apologia for capitalism had to say and there was no point wasting much more time on it.  In particular, I’d opted not to read a couple books that were very popular in my circles–The Good of Affluence by John Schneider, and Money, Greed, and God by Jay Richards–having heard from reliable friends that they weren’t worth my time.  But now, in search of useful quotes that I can use against them in my chapter, I’ve decided to foray back into enemy territory, and actually read these books.  And I’m sure that they will provoke plenty to blog about.  

 So here’s the first post on Schneider’s The Good of Affluence, which I have just started into.  A few years back, I read a truly terrible article of Schneider’s offering, so to speak, a capitalistic soteriology.  So I approach this book with trepidation, but will try not to be more prejudiced than I can help.

The introduction, from its epigraph quoting Michael Novak, “We are going to see a revival in this country, and it’s going to be led by rich people,” to its penultimate paragraph, arguing that rich Christians in the West should feel no moral obligation to help the global poor, was certainly an unpromising start.  That said, in the Acknowledgments, he voices his admiration for “the great Kierkegaard,” which could be a mark in his favor. 

The purpose of the introduction is threefold–to explain why he wanted to write the book, to explain his theological presuppositions, and to summarize what he intends to cover in the book.  The first is quite brief, the second (which essentially boils down to, “I am an orthodox Christian and believe the Bible, even if that is unfashionable”) need not detain us, and the third, since it covers material that we will encounter in full later on, I will not dwell on, though I will flag a couple things to watch out for later.  So this post should be brief, though if you know me, you know it won’t be. 😉

First, then, a few remarks on the section explaining why he wrote the book.  The gist, he says, is that many Christian people today in the West are involved in business, often at very high levels, are making a lot of money, and want to know what they should do about it–what does their faith have to say about it?  (Now, it would be very tempting at this point to simply interject that that’s precisely what the rich young ruler wanted to know, and Jesus had a very straight and simple answer, “Go, sell all that you have, and give it to the poor”–why need we any other answer?  But I will resist the temptation, and grant that, yes, it may be a bit more complicated than that.)  And he is concerned that there is very little guidance for rich Christians on the subject, since, he says, most historic Christian teaching on wealth has been aimed at Christians who were predominantly poor.  Moreover, most Christian theological voices addressing the question today have had, he thinks, very harmful answers to give on the subject, very negative answers, based on antiquated theology and inadequate analyses of capitalism.  He wants to emphasize the positive, based on “the fundamental biblical theme that material prosperity is the condition that God envisions for all human beings” (3).  This is not, he says, the Prosperity Gospel, because it acknowledges that God often has good providential reasons for wanting people to be poor–but it is closer to the Prosperity Gospel, he says, than the radicalism that considers wealth negative.  

 

Now, I want to flag just a few things at this point.  First are some definitions that I hope he will provide as he goes along, though I doubt he will.  First, is he going to define “capitalism” for us?  He tells us “that the majority of [Christian] writers interpret capitalism and the unique culture to which it gives rise in terms that are quite antiquated.  These are largely the terms received from social theorists Karl Marx and Max Weber” (2).  A large part of his re-evaluation of the theological status of capitalism, he goes on to imply, stems from new and improved understandings of what capitalism is.  It appears that he’s planning to handle that in ch. 1, though, so we don’t have long to wait to see if he satisfactorily analyzes the capitalism he plans to recommend to us.  

One thing that I don’t think that he is going to deal with much if at all is the morality of the money-making itself.  He is interested in the ethical status of the end product–affluence–not the details of how it came about.  He tells us that he is writing to “corporate professionals…who spend the better part of their days producing goods and services in the context of making money.”  But of course, if a “good” is supposed to be something that does someone good, and a “service” is something that helps them out, then “goods and services” like, for instance, cigarettes, addictive junk food, collateralized debt obligations, and predatory short-term loans are nothing of the sort.  But many Christians make their money producing such things.  This needs theological and ethical attention–we cannot accept the lie that the money-making process is morally neutral, so long as it is minimally legal.  But I digress.  

He says on page three, “It is very widely presumed in Christian theology today that the economic condition of affluence is not a very good one for Christians to be in.  It is widely presumed that this condition is almost inherently a bad one for hearing and responding with faith and integrity to the Gospel” (3)  This, he will argue is wrong because oversimplistic.  Yes, there is a way of being rich that is bad, but “there is a way to be affluent that is good.”  I merely note briefly that these statements are actually not in contradiction.  Those who believe that the condition of affluence “is almost inherently a bad one” for faith could still very well hold (and many probably do) that “there is a way to be affluent that is good.”  What Schneider really has to do, then, is not to show that “there is a way to be affluent that is good,” but that this goodness so outweighs the risk of being affluent in a bad way that it justifies treating affluence as basically good, instead of choosing to focus on, as Jesus does, the potential pitfalls.  I also want to note a potential equivocation, which I noted repeatedly in Calvin and Commerce.  There are some no doubt who think that wealth ipso facto is bad.  But I don’t think they are as many as they are made out to be–at least, as long as we’re not talking about exorbitant, luxurious wealth (which, come to think of it, Schneider may be).  Most, I think, who are portrayed as such as actually think that wealth itself is good, but that it is bad for someone to be in a relative position of wealth over against others who are decidedly poor.  So to say, “the Bible says riches are a good thing” gets you nowhere that Schneider wants to get to, if the Bible says that riches are a good thing for sharing, rather than holding onto for oneself.  Schneider will have to upfront about arguing not that merely that affluence is a good thing, but that inequality, affluence in the face of poverty, is a good thing.  Thankfully (if that adverb is appropriate), it appears that he is willing to be upfront about this, given his remarks at the end of the introduction about why rich Christians shouldn’t feel any obligation to help the global poor.  

A final thing to note in this section.  Schneider is also upfront about the fact that he is going to be arguing against the general consensus of historic Christian teaching.  I’m glad to hear it.  Many writers of Schneider’s persuasion seem blissfully unaware of what St. Basil or St. Chrysostom or even the ever-reasonable Aquinas had to say about wealth.  Schneider is confident enough in his biblical exegesis to set aside the witness of these, suggesting that historic Christian testimony on wealth is “as much a product of ancient economic times [does that go even for Martin Luther and John Wesley, I wonder?] as it is of the full biblical narrative” (3).  Very well, but this means that his biblical exegesis must meet a very high bar.  Let us go ahead and turn to that.

 

Schneider spends the last few pages of the introduction summarizing the argument of the book.  The first chapter will discuss “the workings of modern capitalism,” but after this, it will be all biblical argument.  Chapter two will cover creation, chapter three exodus, and chapter four exile–all of these narratives of Scripture, he will argue, show us that God wants his people to prosper materially–affluence is a good thing.  I merely flag again the fact that if God wants all his people to prosper, then the affluence of some at the expense of others is not necessarily a good thing.  

Chapters five through seven will cover Jesus and his teaching–here Schneider promises to argue that Jesus was not really poor, as generally asserted, nor did he particularly identify with the poor in his ministry–he identified with all equally but differently.  Nor did he call for his followers to become poor.  This should be interesting stuff, to say the least, and Schneider certainly has his work cut out for him.   

Chapter eight will focus on the book of Acts, in which he will argue that the portrait of the early Christian social life functions as no more than a narrative ideal that is not necessarily normative for us.  He will then look at Paul and James’s teaching on wealth, and again argue that their “moral arguments must be used very cautiously in our day”–or, to be more blunt about it, “they do not provide a normative framework for spiritual and moral teaching in our day” (11).  Well, at least he’s honest about it–you gotta give him that.  I think it would be fair to summarize all this by saying that he’s going to use the Old Testament, with its affirmation of affluence, as an interpretive grid by which to show that the apparent criticisms of wealth in the New Testament cannot be taken seriously as they stand–which seems to me precisely backward as a Christian hermeneutical posture.  But that is, of course, to oversimplify–we’ll wait and see the details of the argument.

Finally, in his epilogue, as I’ve already mentioned, he says he’s going to deny that “the world-shrinking effects of globalism generate strong obligations for any wealthy person in an advanced society to any poor person in an underdeveloped one” (11).  It’s rather bold of him to come right out and say this, though depending on what he means by “strong obligations,” it might be a truism, or it might be reprehensible.  I’ll be curious to see, though I can’t say this kind of statement at the outset wins him much sympathy from me.

 

Well, that’s all for the introduction.  Hopefully being this wordy at the outset will help me be more concise later, but I wouldn’t be too optimistic about that.


4 thoughts on “The Rich People’s Revival (Good of Affluence #1)

  1. If that tract's the same one I read, it's pretty awful. It also is definitely not sufficient to say that the Bible says wealth is a blessing. It does, but it also says it is a curse, and says poverty is a blessing. There's work to be done either way.Also, I haven't seen anything that talks about the corrupting influence of wealth. Perhaps the book does, but most treatments I've found of the issue assume an enlightenment anthropology wherein we are autonomous individuals wholly determined by our choice.

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Ah, so he sent it to you too, Matt? Goodness, I thought I must've been too hard on it in my memory, but looking over your post brings it all back–it really was that awful. I will say, though, that thus far the book has been considerably more circumspect, as I mention in my second post on it. See, AJ, back in the day (fall 2008 to be precise, as you can see from Matt's post), Doug Wilson sent me and many others a copy of this article by Schneider, which, again, was pretty awful. I did correspond with him about it and related issues (a public debate on blogdom would not have been profitable then and still would not be now, I think) over a course of several months, during which time I tried to get a handle on why on earth he liked these books. So far as I could uncover, his economic philosophy is really quite simple–it's essentially a layman's Austrian economics with a smattering of Bible verses thrown on for garnish. And if that's all there was to it, there really wasn't much point in trying to debate the issue further; so I think it will prove more profitable to assess these books on their own terms, rather than in some kind of dialogue with Wilson's assessment.

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  3. Brad Littlejohn

    It occurred to me that the clause "it's essentially a layman's Austrian economics with a smattering of Bible verses thrown on for garnish" might have come across as rather more snarky than intended. So let me clarify–I think that, although Wilson would obviously not want to phrase it quite this way, he would happily admit to the basic logic I am ascribing to him: that we can trust the discipline of economics (as a science) to determine economic and moral reality for us, and then use Scripture to provide some principles of individual morality to inform individual choices within this economic system. That is a very common standpoint, to be sure. But it seems to me that that only allows Scripture to speak once you've already determined in advance a very limited number things it's allowed to pronounce on (e.g., we couldn't possibly learn anything about "just price" from the Bible or Christian ethical reflection, since the law of supply and demand tells us all we need to know). Hope that helps.

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