Saturday, October 18, 2008

OMG! (pun totally intended)

Occasionally I stop to check on Father T for old times sake and to see what's up in the "good" corners of the Episcopal Church. I almost always come away with some thought provoking tidbit. Today it was more like a feast for the brain.

Fr. T linked to this article by Harvey Cox, "The Market as God," originally printed in The Atlantic in 1999. In today's world, that makes it a positively ancient piece of writing. It is nevertheless still as fresh and thought provoking as it must have been in in 1999! I think it is positively prophetic... or at least it has kept the synapses between my brain and my soul crackling and popping all day.

It is significant that I read it almost immediately after reading the following two articles: this one, from Time by Joseph Stiglitz, "How to Get Out of the Financial Crisis" and this one that appeared in the New York Times by Warren Buffett, "Buy American. I am." I admire Mr. Buffett perhaps more than almost any other public person in America today, and I applaud his efforts to prevent panic and make people realize that the "end" is not necessarily at hand. Both of these men are making valiant (and important) efforts to calm the fearful and to encourage people to take a reasoned approach to responding to the crisis. To use a liturgical phrase which strikes me as appropriate under the circumstances: "it is very meet and right so to do."

Cox's article, however, casts the entire credit and banking crisis in a different, and fascinating light. It may not change the nature of the things we need to do in order to move forward, but Cox succinctly describes the invisible and, largely unconscious, quasi-religion that allowed this situation to get so out of hand. In effect, Cox pulls back the curtain and reveals the great and powerful Market-God for the myth it is. Looking at them directly doesn't make our deeply cherished myths any less significant or important. It does, however, allow us to name them and to understand their power over us. It also gives us the possibility of distancing ourselves just enough to put a wedge between us and the power that our mythology holds over us, if we are so inclined.

Cox says that some of the traditional religions have become absorbed by the Market-God religion, much like the Old Gods were demoted and lived on as the saints of the Christian pantheon (which was the only choice they had, other than total annihilation). Anyone who is inclined to disagree with that statement might want to check out the marketing material being pumped out by some of the mega-churches. Their message is this: if you will accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior and (perhaps just as importantly) follow our simple __(fill in the blank with a number)__-Step program, you, too, can wear Gucci shoes, a Rolex watch and live in a McMansion in a gated community. That's what Jesus will do for you, folks! Jesus wants you to be happy, and, of course, we know that in America that happiness is measured by material possessions. Our God is an awesome font of many blessings: material ones.

I can't help but wonder how many of the people who took out those risky loans to buy big houses they couldn't afford were relying on Jesus to help them come up with the money to pay off the loans. How many of them had bought into the theology of prosperity they heard at church on Sundays? Their preachers told them if they believed in Jesus and worked hard, they would be rewarded with material prosperity -- and they deserve nothing less. In support of their statements, the preachers quote Jesus's "own" words about abundant life.

The Jesus I encounter in Scripture exhibits a sort of prickly attitude toward money and rich people who like to flash their money around or use it to buy undue influence (the Jesus I encounter in the Bible is a little prickly on a lot of subjects, but I digress...). The way I heard the story, Christians were to look to the Christ as the source of the humility and love his followers would need in order to live lives of self-sacrifice and service to God's People.

I have never been able to understand by what spiritual contortions the Christ of God who taught about sacrificial love (all the way to Calvary) has been transmogrified into the Great Sugar Daddy bestowing fancy cars and big houses on the faithful. It makes sense, however, if you think of it as the Market-God Religion co-opting the symbols and stories of the pre-existing religion to make its (new) points. That is exactly the same thing Christianity did when it used pre-Christian myths, symbols and rituals to support the (then new) Gospel!

Even the Churches themselves exhibit more faith in the Market-God than the biblical God, who often takes hard positions against accumulation of money or material extravagance. Within a short drive of my house there are two construction projects begun by churches that began to build large new churches without having raised the capital to finish them. They broke ground, "stepping out in faith" that the money would be there when it would be needed to accomplish God's work. Their willingness to do that was supposed to be evidence of their faith in the abundance of Creation and God's promises to take care of God's People. Unfortunately Jesus failed to come through with the cash. The half-finished buildings have become eyesores, rusting and deteriorating hulks, monuments to the hubris of the congregations who attempted to get too big, too fast and with too little money.

Cox tells us that our faith in the Market is essentially a religious act arising out of a theology of which most of us are unaware. It might be safe to say that, at least in some parts of the American Christian Church, Jesus has a new Father-God.

What is more, there are a lot of Americans who would vigorously deny being "religious" in any way but who passionately believe in and practice the religion of the Market without even being aware of it.
I think it is important to be aware of the deeply cherished Myths that guide our behavior.

During this economic crisis and in this election year, we need to look carefully at the people we are considering calling to be the high priests of our civil religion. Who would we rather have as our High Priests: the greedy bastards who brought us to this crisis, or reasonable people who believe in moderate growth and doing what is best for the Common Good.

It might also not hurt to consider, while we are at it, whether the Market-God is worthy of the exalted position to which we have elevated it. I'm guessing there are more worthy gods to whom we could devote ourselves.

The God of Jesus might not be a bad place to start.

Here endeth the ranting.

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