What Money Can't Buy

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Advertising encourages people to want things and to satisfy their desires. Education encourages people to reflect critically on their desires, to restrain or to elevate them. The purpose of advertising is to recruit consumers; the purpose of public schools is to cultivate citizens. It isn’t easy to teach students to be citizens, capable of thinking critically about the world around them, when so much of childhood consists of basic training for a consumer society. At a time when many children come to school as walking billboards of logos and labels and licensed apparel, it is all the more difficult—and all the more important—for schools to create some distance from a popular culture steeped in the ethos of consumerism.

Sandel, Michael J. (2012-04-24). What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Kindle Locations 3017-3020). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. 

Reading Sandel’s book on the moral limits of markets is an adventure in thinking differently about what we think we can buy, commodify, and how many of us believe that to have more money means that we deserve greater privilege. There is much to love and quote in the book. Much that makes you go “hmm…” The words in the above quote made me pause and think not only about the place of education in encouraging us to reflect critically on our desires, even to restrain or elevate those desires, but also about the place of the church in this work. Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 6:17, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” 

“Teach the rich to do good, be generous, ready to share...so that they may take hold of a life that is truly life.” The church is a place where we are on a journey of becoming a people less ordinary in a world of ordinary people who believe that money can buy whatever our souls lack. A place where we hold out that living this life less ordinary is actually living a life that is truly life, while the ordinary life is a pale shadow of what God intends for a flourishing person, community, and nation.

Here is the rub: while many pastors speak out against a life of consuming stuff, saying loudly and boldly that a life of consumption is not a true life, we rarely find that place to help people “to reflect critically on their desires, to restrain or elevate them.” We hear the message but we don’t find a community of people who will take a journey with us to elevate our desires into something that is truly life, who will help us live a life less ordinary. Not only so but in the U.S. (less so in Canada, I believe), the liberal/conservative divide (red state vs. blue state) makes even having such conversations suspect. To speak of restraining desires, of living a life less ordinary raises not a Biblical debate but a political one. Rather than diving into something that will lead to a political argument we choose not to travel the road of critical reflection. Add to this that in both the Canada and the U.S. this kind of conversation sounds very much like an intellectual pursuit where one thinks deeply and reflects carefully and you have another strike against the conversation for we do not trust such intellectual conversations nor are we ready to engage them, we would rather just go with our gut.

But what if we refuse to let go of this critical conversation on what is truly life? What if we refuse to be an ordinary people? What if we take the words of Sandel and put the church into them? 

“Advertising encourages people to want things and to satisfy their desires. [The community of faith] encourages people to reflect critically on their desires, to restrain or to elevate them. The purpose of advertising is to recruit consumers; the purpose of [the community of faith] is to cultivate [kingdom] citizens. It isn’t easy to teach students to be [kingdom] citizens, capable of thinking critically about the world around them, when so much of childhood consists of basic training for a consumer society. At a time when many children come to [church] as walking billboards of logos and labels and licensed apparel, it is all the more difficult—and all the more important—for [the community of faith] to create some distance from a popular culture steeped in the ethos of consumerism.”

What would a community of faith look like that reflected critically on what it means to abandon an ordinary life? What would it look like for a community of faith to be filled with people who live a life less ordinary, who live a life that is truly life? What would it take to have the conversations that would make this kind of community of faith a reality?

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"...we don’t find a community of people who will take a journey with us to elevate our desires into something that is truly life, who will help us live a life less ordinary."  This line really resonates with me.  The community, the Body, needs to be a safe place to have the talk, AND a safe place to take the risks.   Of course individuals can think and act on their own,  and sometimes they must; but it seems to me that the Body of Christ is exactly the arena designed to foster this kind of disciplined, discipled thinking and obedience.  Thanks, Larry, for this pointed call to radical discipleship - and to think through together what it looks like in our society.