Has John Turner Been Left Behind?

Left Behind
John Turner

Sometimes I worry that we're (as in the Turner family) being left behind. We have an old cell phone for emergency use, but we don't know where it is. We have an inherited television (not flat screen, certainly not plasma) without a functioning remote. We don't even have Cable TV (which saves me a lot of time by preventing me from watching meaningless sporting events). I've never text messaged or used an Ipod. We just bought a used baby crib.

I've decided that our outdated ways just might be both spiritually enlightened and reflective of a trend within modern American evangelicalism. Evangelicals, although this is not widely noted because of their support for pro-business Republicans, have frequently sounded alarms about rampant materialism in American society for decades. Billy Graham, in addition to denouncing fifth-columnists in Los Angeles, also warned his early audiences about the sin of materialism. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ encouraged his followers to "wear the cloak of materialism loosely." However, such occasional rhetoric never seemed to resonate with their upwardly mobile followers.

Spiritual stands against materialism seem to be picking up steam in recent years, certainly on the evangelical Left. As Ronald Sider -- an expert at identifying moral scandals among evangelicals -- argues, "Materialism continues to be an incredible scandal." [By the way, John Stackhouse's response to Sider in Books & Culture is worth reading].

Today I read two reviews of an amusing new documentary, "What Would Jesus Buy?", powered by the activism of Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. See a brief mention in the New York Times and a more insightful analysis by Frederica Mathewes-Greene. Alas, Mathewes-Greene reports, Reverend Billy apparently makes very few converts in his attempt to take $ out of Christma$. For further thoughts on money and spirituality, see a year-old discussion of the topic on Speaking of Faith. [Thanks to Paul, by the way, for mentioning the Reinhold Niebuhr episode].

As someone who takes pleasure in both giving and receiving at Christmas, I probably won't alter my spending habits very much. And if everyone else pared back too much, I'm sure our economy would collapse and our meager portfolio would become valueless.

Still, I'm curious whether others feel this strain of anti-materialism (if I'm properly labeling it) reflects a significant recent trend in American evangelicalism. Building up fewer treasures on earth seems to be a movement that evangelicals of many political stripes might embrace, as it isn't necessarily partisan or divisive.

Of course, after listening to Niebuhr's emphasis on false pride and humility, I have to admit that our Luddite habits reflect finances and frugality (even that last noun is a nicer way of saying cheapness!), rather than spiritual enlightenment.


Art Remillard said…
Great stuff, John. Many thanks for all of the links.

I could have probably written that first paragraph. If I had any more channels that what the bunny ears give me, I'd never leave the house. On Christmas: We just had our first, and are in negotiations over how to handle Christmas. The family gift giving is out of control already. We shudder to think what may happen. My solution: Be honest, and rename Dec. 25 "Greed Day." Tell him the final goal is to get as many "things" as possible, and to pretend they bring happiness. And key to Greed Day: Always ask for more things, and eat far more than humanly possible. Embrace gluttony , I say. Somehow I get labeled a "Grinch" for suggesting this.
John Fea said…
John: I totally agree. Shouldn't these be issues that all evangelicals should be concerned about, apart from political party and denomination affiliation? I think so, but I am sure people like Joel Osteen and others might beg to differ. year we really need to cut back."

I just got my first cell phone last month and I have no idea what to do with it. Like you, we had an old "non-flipping" phone that we bought when he had our first child, but we just kept in the car and used it only in emergencies. About two years ago someone smashed the window of the car, stole my wife's purse, her wedding ring, and several CDs, but left the cell phone!!
Anonymous said…
One can find a strong attack on religion and materialism in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. In fact, part of his movement to Communism was rooted in his spiritual anger against consumer culture and unbridled capitalism. He thought Jesus would have found it abhorent.
The holier-than-thou of the academic Luddites return. As someone with a TIVO and who still qualifies for Comcast's 3-in-1 package including 100 channels of cable, high-speed internet, and unlimited long-distance telephone for $99 a month, I have had the opportunity to watch with my three-year-old the old Grinch telecast from the 1960s. From it, I see that the complaint about the materialism of the holidays is pretty old. Perhaps the materialism is out of hand yes, but, pretending we are historians for a second, I wonder if it has something to do with how Americans have negotiated religious pluralism. As Edward Shapiro taught us, Jews underscored celebrations of Hanukkah in the 1950s because it was kid- and gift-centered, it didn't condemn anyone, and it came in December--all this despite it being mostly a national holiday rather than a religious one. Since we have to deal with a lot of religious minorities in our society, perhaps making Christmas more material was a way to keep the holiday but make it less threatening to those clamoring for first-class status. It was, after all the perfidious Jews who killed Jesus. Or perhaps we might suggest that all the materialism is yet another marker the long twilight of secularism in America, where, if belief hasn't exactly gone away (and it certainly hasn't) we as a society generally like our religion to be personal and familial, rather than public and showy. The religiosity of Christmas, then, has more to do with the time spent being with and thinking about our family and friends, than with trying to celebrate communally the life and death of Christ. Thus, your embrace of gluttony is what Christmas means today, for better or for worse, although we should think about what we are condemning before we fall back on age-old critiques. The rise of this kind of anti-materialism movement within evangelicalism, then, fits nicely with the evangelical community's attempts to re-Protestantize American society at the cost of victories of religious pluralism. Just a thought.
Anonymous said…
I enjoyed reading Leigh Schmidt's book on the evolution of Christmas and other holidays.

$99 / month does sound pretty good for all of that. Might have to invest soon.

By the way, academic salaries encourage holier-than-thou Ludditism. Love the free computer at work!

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