Celebrate the Stuff: Avoiding Anti-Capitalism Hum-Bug and Advent Gnosticism

Sufjan Stevens, Christmas, gnosticism, anti-capitalismChristmas is a season that now comes pre-packaged with critiques of capitalism and consumerism. Although carefulness and concern over hyper-consumerism is always appropriate, in our desperate efforts to disassociate ourselves with Black Friday materialism, too often we push too far, yielding to a creeping dualism that’s unproductive for our economic culture and hazardous to Christmas cheer.

Over at Values and Capitalism, Elise Amyx provides a great critique of one such manifestation, Sufjan Stevens’s Christmas album, which seeks to expose Christmas for what he believes it’s become: “an annual exploitation of wealth, a festival of consumerism, and a vast playing field for the voyages of capitalism.”

Again, critiques of a “festival of consumerism” are on target in certain respects, but by taking us through a variety of Stevens’s “carols,” Amyx demonstrates how Stevens falls into the trap of taking these themes too far.

Her conclusion: (1) “he confuses the market economy with consumerism,” and (2) “he elevates the spiritual above the material.”

As she goes on to explain:

Stevens seems to hold that capitalism is evil because it necessitates materialistic consumerism. But he misunderstands the difference between consumerism and the market economy…When the goodness of the material is lost, capitalism is an easy scapegoat for consumerism.

Stevens’s misconception of capitalism also reflects a broader theological underpinning of all material things, reminiscent of ancient Gnosticism and some modern evangelical movements today. He claims Christmas should be about the spiritual aspects—what we feel and known inside—not material traditions…

Stevens wisely critiques the worthlessness of placing one’s hope solely in the material aspect of Christmas, but he misses a great opportunity to distinguish between worship of the material and worship of God through the material. He fails to point out the goodness that physical things can bring at Christmastime. Advent candles, nativity sets, presents, Christmas lights and ornaments need not distract us from Christ, but exist as physical reminders that lead us to worship Christ…

…Stevens’s Christmas message is one of massive spiritual and material discord, yet Advent embodies spiritual and material harmony that God intended for the world—and that’s the redemptive beauty in all the silver and gold adorning your Christmas tree.

In the same vein, though without reference to Stevens or capitalism, Douglas Wilson offers a similar perspective, noting that “a godliness that won’t delight in fudge and Read the rest of this entry »

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Transforming Hearts and Minds Through Entrepreneurship

I’ve already weighed in on Bono’s “humbling” realizations about capitalism and commerce, noting that although I’m still not overly confident in the direction of Bono’s efforts, such a realization is an encouraging sign. Yet despite my original skepticism — which Greg Forster found a bit too heavy-handed — Bono has continued with this theme, arguing more recently that “commerce and entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid.” Consider me pleased.

Last week, Josh Good of AEI’s Values & Capitalism project (where I also blog), used Bono’s comments as a springboard for a broader discussion about the role of aid and entrepreneurship in the developing world. Columnist Michael Gerson leads the discussion, followed by HOPE International’s Chris Horst and Andrea McDaniel of the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative.

You can watch a video of the event here:

Although I routinely have strong and significant disagreements with Gerson’s overall approach, particularly on the topic of aid, his remarks in this particular talk are pretty close to the mark. Even where we disagree, I continue to find his arguments on particular global health initiatives to be compelling challenges to my own less interventionist positions.

The most striking point, however, comes from Horst, who points to an important Nicolas Kristof column that I’ve discussed in the past. Reminding us that the developing world faces more than just a resource problem, Horst emphasizes that our goal of empowering entrepreneurship in these countries needs to stretch beyond Read the rest of this entry »

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Corresponding the Shape of Good Economics to the Shape of the Gospel

Shape of EconomicsOver at the Acton Institute PowerBlog, I piggy-back on a recent Michael Bull post to offer a reminder that we needn’t give all the credit to the market when we reap the benefits of market exchange, free trade and globalization.

For Christians in particular, we should view capitalism as a launching pad for spiritual and social transformation, not a mere means to materialistic ends:

Capitalism is, after all, a mere framework for human engagement. Although the constraints it imposes (“thou shalt not steal”) and the features it elevates (ownership, stewardship, risk, and sacrifice) may fit well within a broader Christian context, it says more about what we can and can’t do than what we might or might not imagine or accomplish…

… For the Christian, then, capitalism provides a simple baseline from which we can launch, holding the potential to lead us toward a broader, deeper network through which we can more freely and fully obey the callings of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we proclaim good news to the poor. In allowing for this free-flow of individual callings, we are given opportunities and choices that many other systems would assume on our behalf.

As Bull writes, we as Christians are called to reach beyond the bare minimum—a truth I’ve emphasized routinely here on the blog:

The final step of Covenant is that you, the risk taker, become a shelter, a house, for the helpless. The final step is generosity. Capitalism only works in a moral society. This is why we can correspond the shape of good economics to the shape of the Gospel. Jesus gave His life to give abundant life to us all. He believed in the promise made to Him by the Father, the promise of resurrection—a new body. Poverty was not something to be embraced eternally. Christian socialists forget that Jesus now owns everything. All the great saints were rich people who risked their wealth for even greater wealth, a wealth that included a legacy of other people—a household. The “glory that was set before Him” was also the glory of the Church, a new body that includes every believer. Jesus Himself is our covering. We are only saved because of His atonement, His “covering.” He, the king of kings, the great Land Lord, is our shelter. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Greatest Collection of Economic Holiday Hits Ever Aggregated

“The only one with the power to create presents out of thin air is Santa himself.”

Or, if you prefer an even more sobering realization, there’s always the Creator himself.

Check out this new video from the brilliant folks at EconStories.tv:

From the EconStories.tv website:

Recovery and growth in the classical and Austrian view is driven by restructuring production so that entrepreneurs discover again the best — i.e. the most valuable and sustainable — ways to serve customers. That process is lead by new entrepreneurs and driven by savers who make capital available to fund new investments and new ventures. Sustainable saving and investment means creating more value for others while using fewer resources. This process lies at the core of healthy economic growth, including better job opportunities and Read the rest of this entry »

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Africa for Norway: The Patronizing Power of Poverty Porn

In a new video crafted to inspire the type self-righteous do-gooderism we Westerners have all grown quite accustomed to, a group of concerned Africans tells us that the “tables have turned,” urging that it’s “time for us to care” (HT).

Prime your Prius for the bumper sticker:

From the Africa for Norway web site:

Imagine if every person in Africa saw the “Africa for Norway” video and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway?

If we say Africa, what do you think about? Hunger, poverty, crime or AIDS? No wonder, because in fundraising campaigns and media that’s mainly what you hear about.

The pictures we usually see in fundraisers are of poor African children. Hunger and poverty is ugly, and it calls for action. But while these images can engage people in the short term, we are concerned that many people simply give up because it seems like nothing is getting better. Africa should not just be something that people either give to, or give up on.

The truth is that there are many positive developments in African countries, and we want these to Read the rest of this entry »

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#MyManThursday: Reading and Tweeting G.K. Chesterton Together

The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. ChestertonMy good friend RJ Moeller has conceived of a fun little project he’s calling his Social Media Book Club. For those following me on Twitter, you may have already noticed that I participated in the first go-around, reading and tweeting through C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. The goal is to share the experience over social media, particularly Twitter, bounce questions, quotes, and observations off of each other, and develop a fun little community.

Today (11/29/12), we’ll begin reading our second title, G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. The themes of the novel are highly relevant to topics commonly discussed here at Remnant Culture —the limits of human knowledge and the allure of rationalism and materialism — and it’s a short book, so don’t be intimidated. We’ll be aiming to tackle a couple of chapters each day, and you can share your thoughts or questions any time of the day you like.

I encourage you to join us and share the experience on Twitter using the hashtag #MyManThursday. Some initial folks to follow are Hunter Baker, Joy Pullmann, Brandon Smith, Daniel Suhr, and, of course, RJ Moeller. You can download a free PDF of the book here, or read it in your Web browser here. For more about how the book club works, visit RJ’s blog.

If you’re still unsure about participating, I encourage you to whet your appetite on the poem that Chesterton uses to kick things off:

A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together.
Science announced nonentity and art admired decay;
The world was old and ended: but you and I were gay.
Round us in antic order their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.
They twisted even decent sin to shapes not to be named:
Men were ashamed of honour; but we were not ashamed.
Weak if we were and foolish, not thus we failed, not thus;
When that black Baal blocked the heavens he had no hymns from us.
Children we were—our forts of sand were even as weak as we,
High as they went we piled them up to break that bitter sea.
Fools as we were in motley, all jangling and absurd,
When all church bells were silent our cap and bells were heard.

Not all unhelped we held the fort, our tiny flags unfurled;
Some giants laboured in that cloud to lift it from the world.
I find again the book we found, I feel the hour that flings
Far out of fish-shaped Paumanok some cry of cleaner things;
And the Green Carnation withered, as in forest fires that pass,
Roared in the wind of all the world ten million leaves of grass;
Or sane and sweet and sudden as a Read the rest of this entry »

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Christian Mattress Merchants Reach Beyond Economic Exchange

Urban Mattress, Christian businessOver at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I discuss a recent article at Christianity Today on a mattress business whose Christian owners seek to transform what many see as “one of the sleaziest industries in the world.”

From the article:

Rietema and Steve Van Diest, both former campus ministers, are bringing rest—and integrity—back to a business largely devoid of it. Four years ago, a Christian entrepreneur invited the Colorado natives to begin deploying their relational abilities in strip malls rather than on college campuses. They now co-own three Urban Mattress stores in Denver and have franchised four more. And, they argue, their current work is just as important as their former ministry….

…”I don’t have to do mental gymnastics with the product I sell,” Van Diest says. “It’s not a frivolous item. It’s not an image-conscious product. People come here after being worn down by horrible sleep, replete with aches and pain. If we can provide them with a small glimpse of grace for a third of their lives, that’s kingdom work. That matters to God.”

There is plenty to admire about Urban Mattress, but one of the most striking features in the article is the intimate nature of many of their customer interactions. Here, I argue that Christians should pay close attention. The social, moral, and spiritual implications of Christian business – nay, all business – stretch beyond philanthropy and sound business practices:

On this, Urban Mattress provides a good lesson not only on the broader implications of our economic transactions, but also on the broader potential of Christian business in general. Far too often we confine our thinking about Christian business to areas like philanthropy or “corporate evangelism.” By going further and offering this type of personal customer service, these owners show us how there can be more exchange in exchange than we allow for or recognize, whether social, psychological, or spiritual.

When we engage in the marketplace, whether as producers or consumers, there is something transcendent Read the rest of this entry »

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Post-Election Reminder: Politics Is Not Where Life Happens

Russ Roberts, economist, Cafe HayekLast week at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I offered some suggestions as to what a newly elected President Obama might do if he wishes to unify the country and restore American confidence —  namely, affirm the value that each person brings to the table, male or female, rich or poor, and “appeal to more than material welfare,” as President Coolidge once did.

This week at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I discuss how we as Christians should respond after the election—but regardless of what the President does or doesn’t do.

For this, I rely heavily on economist Russ Roberts, who recently reminded us that politics isn’t “where life happens,” and thus, we should remember that our best opportunity to sell a political ideology of individual liberty is by building and cultivating the very communities and institutions — the “voluntary emergent orders” — we seek to protect.

As Roberts writes:

My other source of cheer is to remember that politics is not where life happens. Policies affect our lives, but we have much to do outside that world. Yesterday I helped my youngest son learn Python, learned some Talmud, played with my photographs on Lightroom, had dinner with my wife, and went shopping with my oldest son for his first nice blazer. Lots of satisfactions there. Nothing to do with politics.

Toward the end of the campaign, I saw an ad where Obama looked into the camera and said something like “look at my policies and those of my opponent and decide which one is best for you.” Those of us who believe in voluntary emergent order and civil society as a way to make the world a better place, reject Obama’s calculus. We believe that our policies aren’t just good for ourselves but allow everyone to reach their potential and serve others through the marketplace and the communities we choose to join and build. That’s a world I want not just for my children to but for your children, too. Being nice to your neighbor helps your neighbor imagine the possibility that the policies we pursue are not just about ourselves.

My response:

For both the Christian and the Jew, this “voluntary emergent order” begins with loving God and loving neighbor. We certainly need to make clear the state’s persistent attempts to intrude and subvert that order, but throughout such a struggle, particularly after a battle as aggressive and exhausting as this past election, we would do well to re-energize ourselves when it comes to pursuing the very callings and Read the rest of this entry »

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How Conservatives Can Win Every Person of Every Creed from Every Corner of the Planet

No. Not really. But putting our best foot forward shouldn’t be all that complicated. Thus, here are four basic steps conservatives can take to get back on track in the fight over political ideals.

  1. Love people. All people. Love your neighbor violently and sincerely. If you think you can check this box, try harder.
  2. Pursue truth. And not just narrow, political, “conservative” truth. Believe in something beyond politics. Start there, or your political ideology will quickly subvert the very life that government was meant to protect.
  3. Care about how you articulate the truth. “Speaking the truth in love” doesn’t just mean speaking the truth (surprise, surprise). It means putting every effort imaginable into expressing love alongside the truth. Good news should sound like good news. If you continue to have trouble with this, revisit numbers 1 and 2.
  4. Stop reading articles on what conservatives need to do to win Ethnic Group X, Age Group Y, and Economic Class Z. Just stop. Move along now.

The truth already belongs to all people. If we’re truly loving, truly honest, truly sincere, truly conservative, and truly correct, we will win a majority of those willing to listen and can stop blaming ourselves for those who don’t care and never will.

Now, please, can we get back to loving our families and eating hot dogs?

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Have Faith in America: Calvin Coolidge on Restoring Confidence

Calvin CoolidgePresident Obama has been re-elected, and as many commentators point out, he faces a nation even more divided than when he took office.

Over at the Acton Institute, I contemplate how President Obama might go about reuniting the country, using President Calvin Coolidge’s famous speech, “Have Faith in Massachusetts,” as an example:

I’m currently reading President Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography, and in it, he describes a situation quite similar to our own. In the 1910s, Coolidge was a state senator in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, yet even in his local community, he witnessed severe conflict and division among his fellow citizens, including the now-famous “Bread and Roses” strike and the accelerating split in the Republican Party toward Teddy Roosevelt’s emerging progressivism

…It would be January of 1914 that Coolidge was sworn in as President of the Massachusetts Senate. He would now have a louder voice, along with more opportunity to change things: to face the tide of radicalism and class warfare and restore confidence and unity in the Commonwealth.

Coolidge responded by giving an inauguration speech for the ages (now known as “Have Faith in Massachusetts”), one that downplayed the power of government as the primary agent of cultural and economic change, avoided divisive distinctions of class, gender, or race, and instead elevated the redemptive, restorative power and potential of the human spirit. Instead of promoting a zero-sum view of human engagement, Coolidge emphasized and romanticized the type of cooperation and collaboration that the market provides and prosperity demands.

Here’s a sample of the speech:

This Commonwealth is one. We are all members of one body. The welfare of the weakest and the welfare of the most powerful are inseparably bound together. Industry cannot flourish if labor languish. Transportation cannot prosper if manufactures decline. The general welfare cannot be provided for in any one act, but it is well to remember that the benefit of one is the benefit of all, and the neglect of one is the Read the rest of this entry »

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