Monday, February 05, 2007 

Wealth and Poverty, Part 2

My sermon is coming together nicely, but I'm still feeling a bit intimidated by the task. My work on this topic, both biblically and historically, has been very personally rewarding even though a lot of what I've uncovered won't actually make it into the sermon. But that's part of why I thought it would be fun to put some of those things here on the blog. Today's thoughts come from a great early theologian from around the turn of the 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria.

As the gospel spread during the early centuries of the church’s existence, there were some Christians who interpreted the words of Jesus regarding the difficulty of a rich person entering the kingdom to mean that all who were rich were excluded from the salvation available in Christ. In response to the turmoil such an interpretation caused, Clement of Alexandria composed his treatise Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved? Clement insisted that the attainment of salvation does not depend upon external matters, such as wealth or poverty, but on the internal condition of the soul. The soul, therefore, must be purified of all disorders which distract it from God. Passionate attachments, such as the attraction of possessions, are among the foremost to be removed. According to Clement, it was not wealth but one’s attitude towards wealth that was destructive. He writes, “He [the rich man] is to banish those attitudes towards wealth that permeate his whole life, his desires, interests, and anxiety. These things become the thorns choking the seed of a true life.”

For Clement, the wealth of the rich was in fact of great benefit if they could overcome this passionate attachment to their possessions. The value of possessions lay in their employment as “alms,” gifts given to provide for the poor. Early Christians had a heightened sensitivity of the need to care for the poor through the giving of alms. Clement writes, “Therefore, we must not throw away the riches that benefit not only ourselves but our neighbors as well. They are possessions because they are possessed, and they are goods because they are good and provided by God to help all people. They are under our control, and we are to use them just as others use materials and instruments in their trade. An instrument, used with skill, produces a work of art…. Wealth is such an instrument. It can be used rightly to produce justice.” He goes on then to address those who have wealth, saying, “Do not regret your possessions, but destroy the passions of your soul that hinder you from using your wealth wisely. Then you may become virtuous and good and use your possessions in the most beneficial ways. The rejection of wealth and selling of one’s possessions is to be understood as the rejection and elimination of the soul’s passions…. It is difficult to keep ourselves from becoming enticed by and dependent upon the life style that affluence offers, but it is not impossible. Even when surrounded by affluence we may distance ourselves from its effects and accept salvation. We center our minds on those things taught by God and strive for eternal life by using our possessions properly and with a sense of indifference toward them.”

Thursday, February 01, 2007 

Wealth and Poverty in the Early Church

I'm in the midst of the incredibly complicated task of trying to make sense of Jesus' words concerning wealth and poverty in Luke 6:17-26 for a 21st century affluent suburban mega-church. What was I thinking when I accepted this invitation?

In pulling things together for this sermon I've revisited some research I did a few years ago on wealth and poverty in the early church. I thought I'd do a series of posts to put some of that stuff here in order to see what sort of reactions I might get or at least to stimulate folks who read this to think about these things.

Many writers in the early church discussed issues of wealth and poverty. In its earliest days the church was made up of predominantly poor members, but over time more affluent people began to seek membership in the community of faith. Care for the poor remained a priority of the early church. One of the earliest Christian apologists, Aristides of Athens, appealed to Christian charity in his defense of the faith presented to the emperor:

"They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them, and they love one another. They despise not the widow, and grieve not the orphan. He that has distributes liberally to him that does not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him, as it were their own brother; for they call themselves brethren, not after the flesh, but after the spirit and in God; but when one of their poor passes away from the world, and any of them see him, the he provides for his burial according to his ability; and if they hear of any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs, and if it is possible that he may be delivered, they deliver him. And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they do not have an abundance of necessities, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food."

Not exactly the way we “defend the faith” these days is it?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007 

The Manchurian Consumer

When I can find a few minutes to do some reading that is not directly related to the academic projects I'm working on, I'm reading Kalle Lasn's brilliantly subversive book Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Consumer Binge - And Why We Must (Lasn is also the founder of ADBUSTERS Magazine). I came to the conclusion of his chapter "The Manchurian Consumer" and found the following selection that sounded both chilling and all too familiar:

Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate – which was turned into a movie Pauline Kael called ‘the most sophisticated political satire ever to come out of Hollywood’ – tells the story of an American soldier who is captured during the Korean War, shipped to Manchuria and groomed, via brainwashing, to become a robotic assassin programmed to kill the U.S. president upon a predetermined verbal command.

The subtext of the movie is that Americans are being depatterned by propaganda systems they may not understand or even be aware of. The modern consumer is indeed a Manchurian Candidate living in a trance. He has a vague notion that at some point early in his life, experiments were carried out on him, but he can’t remember much about them. While he was drugged, or too young to remember, ideas were implanted into his subconscious with a view to changing his behavior. The Manchurian Consumer has been programmed not to kill the president, but to go out and purchase things on one of a number of predetermined commands.

Slogans now come easily to his lips. He has warm feelings toward many products. Even his most intimate drives and emotions trigger immediate connections with consumer goods. Hunger equals Big Mac. Drowsiness equals Starbucks. Depression equals Prozac.

And what about that burning anxiety, that deep, almost forgotten feeling of alarm at his lost independence and sense of self? To the Manchurian Consumer, that’s the signal to turn on the TV.

Friday, January 05, 2007 

words: "the paradox of modernity"

The latest Mars Hill Audio Addenda came to my email inbox last week. The following quote by the late British theologian Colin Gunton was the header for the email:

"Why is it that a world dedicated to the pursuit of leisure and of machines that save labour is chiefly marked by its levels of rush, frenetic busyness and stress? . . . The paradox of modernity... is that however successful the understanding of time and space, the modern is less at home in the actual time and space of daily living than peoples less touched by [modern] changes. . . . Whatever the integration of space and time in science, in modern life there is at once cultural stagnation and febrile change, a restless movement from place to place, experience to experience, revealing little evidence of a serene dwelling in the body and on the good earth."

Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity

Tuesday, December 05, 2006 

On Learning from Nietzsche

One of my favorite philosophers, Merold Westphal, suggests that Christians should read the great modern atheists Marx, Freud and Nietzsche as a lenten exercise. We need their dissonant voices just as wayward Israel needed the prophets.

I recently came across a quote that I had noted several years ago from Nietzsche's The Antichrist. While there is a certain sense of inadequacy to Nietzsche's statement, there is, nevertheless, something profoundly true about it as well. Nietzsche writes:

only thing that is Christian is the Christian mode of existence, a life such as he led who died on the Cross. To this day a life of this kind is possible; for certain men, it is even necessary: genuine, primitive Christianity will be possible in all ages. To reduce the fact of being a Christian, or of Christianity, to a holding of something for true, to a mere phenomenon of consciousness, is tantamount to denying Christianity."

Friedrich Nietzsche- The Antichrist

Friday, December 01, 2006 

"elloquent bread"

I recently came accross the following great quote from Gerhard Ebeling's treatment of the petition for daily bread in his book on the Lord's Prayer. Ebeling was a student of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the illegal seminary at Finkenwalde during WWII. This quote makes evident Ebeling's very Lutheran commitment to the real presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper. That God's grace could be present in such an ordinary thing as bread should make us realize that much of what we call ordinary can, in fact, serve us as pointers to the divine and that the modern contrast between physical and spiritual cannot be sustained from a robustly Christian perspective. Ebeling writes:

“Really, though, is anything still matter-of-fact when we are expected to think of God and man as so closely united that even bread, that epitome of the corporeal and commonplace character of human life, is to be thought of at the same time as God, and God at the same time bread? Such thinking in fact puts an end to that deceptive matter-of-factness which prevents us from noticing, hearing, and understanding what everyday things are saying to us. That the things with which we deal have turned dumb and have nothing to say to us, that they have consequently lost their living coherence and become dead objects is a symptom – and certainly not an insignificant one – of our foolishness, our thoughtlessness, our hardheartedness. The result is that we ourselves become increasingly dumb without having anything to say – or it may be, loquacious, also without really having anything to say. The more awake, attentive, and open our hearts become, the more meaningful and eloquent everything around us becomes and the more everything joins together in a single, living coherence. Bread is no longer merely a thing to be regarded in physical or chemical terms, no longer merely a means of nourishment or of enjoyment, but it is eloquent bread, bearing, so to speak, words that concern us. And this is not because it has a voice of its own, as is found in fairy tales, but because God’s word is present in all that is.” – Gerhard Ebeling, The Lord’s Prayer, 60-61.

Thursday, November 30, 2006 

James K. A. Smith on the Vietnam of the Church

I recently listened to a great lecture from philosopher James K. A. Smith (homepage, blog) titled "What Does a Public Theology Look Like in 1984." In the lecture, delivered at Regent College, Smith proposes a thought project: what would a Christian theology of public engagement look like in Orwell's dystopia, Oceania? Such a thought project represents a particular challenge to Smith's Reformed tradition, which has historically emphasized the church's participation in and transformation of established social structures. Is such a stance toward culture always a viable alternative?

The subtext of Smith's lecture is that we, in North America, increasingly find ourselves in something akin to an Orwellian society. We find ourselves shaped by our daily immersion in what Smith perceptively calls "secular liturgies" that shape our affections in ways that run counter to Kingdom of God. Our lives begin to mirror the tragedy of Winston learning to love Big Brother.

Ultimately Smith's lecture points toward what he refers to as a "Reformed Monasticism," which he insists isn't a "monasticism of withdrawal" but a "monasticism of engaged resistance."

The lecture, with questions and answers at the end, runs about an hour and a half and can be downloaded from for just five Canadian bucks. Very compelling stuff.

One of the most provocative statements in the lecture came during the Q&A. There Smith suggested that "the 'culture wars' is the Vietnam of the church." I think the analogy fits pretty well, sadly enough.